Learning: From Content to Capabilities

There are two major trends that I think will shape the future of educational theory.  One is the shift to peer networks as the organizing structure of tomorrow’s learning platforms (and away from the sage / university).  The reason for the shift to networks (discussed in greater detail here) is the need for learning is distributed across a person’s lifespan and the source for learning is distribute throughout the peer population.  The second shift is from knowledge content to capability.   In this post I would like to address in detail the second shift, from knowledge to capability and ultimately linking it to performance.
The links between the knowledge gained at school and later performance have always been tenuous at best.  This is not surprising in light of what we know about performance.  Think of it this way.  If you talk with an expert, the first thing you notice is that they have a wealth of content knowledge.  That knowledge, accumulated through participation in activity, is necessary for practice.  The problem is, you can’t create an expert by teaching knowledge as simple content the way that most schooling is conducted.  Knowledge and performance are related in complex ways in expert practice.  As Sawyer puts it:
Studies of knowledge workers show that they almost always apply their expertise in complex social settings, . . . where knowledge is not just a static mental structure inside the learner’s head; instead, knowing is a process that involves the person, the tools and other people in the environment, and the activities in which that knowledge is being applied. . . .  in addition to acquiring content, what happens during learning is that patterns of participation in collaborative activity change over time (Sawyer, 2007, p. ).
My analysis is simple.  If we want to improve performance, don’t measure knowledge, measure and focus on the construct of capability.  (I am not yet making a distinction between terms like capability, capacity or skill.  All terms are used in the literature, often in interchangeable ways.)  Capabilities can be analyzed at an individual, group organizational, regional or even at the national level.  Capabilities are social to the extent that most work is completed in collaboration with others and it is often necessary to build teams around people that have diverse, but complimentary capabilities.  From an educational standpoint I will raise two concerns.
  1. Capabilities are flexible and always need to be in developed in anticipation of future opportunities.
  2. No team enters a problem space with all the capabilities they will need.  All work involves the need to learn and the need to add to the team’s and to each individual member’s capabilities portfolios.
We want to do 4 things at the organizational level as a prelude to bring capability development into the organization.
  1. Define the core capabilities that are needed.
  2. Develop appropriate measures of these capabilities
  3. Understand the educational methods to develop more or stronger capabilities
  4. Understand how capabilities are distributed across the organization
There is a possible endless list of capabilities, but we need to find the aspects of this construct that correlate with performance and performance measures.  Some competencies are harder to measure (like crafting relationships, trust and legitimacy) than others (like technical or logistical skills), but I begin with the idea of performance and work back from there.  Baser et al lists the following five as their core capabilities and I will use these as a place to begin.
  1. The capability to commit and engage  – This includes drive, confidence, ambition, self-perception and the attitude to persist in the face of opposition.  This can include hiring the right people and having the right strategy and expectations, but it must also involve development and empowerment.
  2. The capability to adapt and renew – To respond appropriately and strategically to rapid or even destabilizing change by fostering dialogue and by calling on the agility to reposition or reconfigure the organization.  Most research concerns the construct of resilience, both for individuals and for organizations.
  3. The capability to balance diversity and coherence, to have a variety of perspectives while resisting fragmentation, to encourage both stability and innovation.  Includes strong communication and relationship abilities as well as the ability to manage paradox and tension.
  4. The capability to relate and to attract – the ability to craft, manage and sustain key relationships and the ability to build trust and sustain credibility within those relationships.
  5. The capability to carry out ethnical, service delivery and logistical tasks – The emphasis is on functional, instrumental ways of meeting a set of objectives and fulfilling a mandate (i.e. business analytics, financial management, project management etc. . . .).
This is just a beginning.  I’ll need to explore methods for capability development as well as addressing measurement concerns, but that is for a later date.
Bases, H., Morgan, P., Bolger, J., Brinkerhoff, D., Land, A., Taschereau, S., Watson, D. and Zinke, J. Capacity, Change and Performance: Study Report, European Center for Development Ploicy Management. File Accessed June 2010 at http://www.ecdpm.org/Web_ECDPM/Web/Content/Download.nsf/0/5E619EA3431DE022C12575990029E824/$FILE/PMB22_e_CDapproaches-capacitystudy.pdf
R.K. Sawyer (2007). Optimising Learning: Implication of Learning Science Research, in Center for Educational Research and Innovation, Models of Learning and Innovation: Draft Report accessed 6/17/2010 at http://www.olis.oecd.org/olis/2007doc.nsf/3dce6d82b533cf6ec125685d005300b4/47769468f4f5abf5c125738d004123d8/$FILE/JT03235431.PDF