Content Addiction

Tom GibbonsLearning, Organization Development1 Comment

This post is about what seems to be a very common addiction in organizational learning.  That addiction is to content.  The scenario can be described like this:  There is a set period of time put aside where some kind of developmental learning is supposed to happen.  It might be about leadership, maybe change, perhaps communication; something deemed important.  Then whoever is designing this set period of time, in conjunction with who has asked for it, jam that time with as much content as is possible.  Who cares if not much of it can be absorbed, or talked about, or reflected upon.  Who even cares if the content itself can only be treated at a surface level.  Just give us more content!  This scenario can be pictured like this:

We seem to think that learning will occur if we throw as much content at people as possible.  Plus, a lot of money is typically being spent on this time for learning so there is a real pressure to have something tangible to put into this time.  Content fits that bill very well.

Yet, when you ask people what the most important thing for them has been when people gather together to learn, they will say something like, ‘talking to my colleagues’, ‘networking’, ‘exchanging ideas with someone new’, ‘hearing how other people do their work’.  The most important thing typically describes the experience of being in open-ended interaction with other people, often informally.  Content does not fit that bill very well at all.

I think you could take most designed learning initiatives, cut the content by 50% and have much more valuable time and much more valuable learning.  This scenario might look like this:

In this case we look at learning as coming forth from the interactions between people and spreading out in diverse and often messy ways.  This design would have time for interaction, space for reflection, experimentation and exploring.  The accountability to learn would be much more firmly centered on the learner rather than the deliverer of content and the learning would be much more challenging to measure.

A short story that comes from a very good book on qualitatively measuring learning by Michael Quinn Patton describes this very well:

The story is told that at the conclusion of a rigorous course in philosophy, one of the students lamented: “Professor, you have knocked a hole in everything I’ve ever believed in, but have given me nothing to take its place.”  To which the philosopher replied: “You will recall that among the labors of Hercules he was required to clean out the Augean stables.  He was not, let me point out, required to fill them.”

When you reduce content in a learning design you are left with space.  This space is very uncomfortable for those who assume they have accountability for making the learning of others happen in designed learning initiatives.  Indeed some participants will enable this discomfort by assuming someone other than themselves has accountability for their learning!  What happens in this space cannot be measured by traditional means, especially quantitatively; it is hard to observe if anything of value is happening; it puts into question the assumptions about who is creating learning and it probably means everyone will have a unique experience and learn things that are not in the learning objectives.

As in the story above, this space cleans out the stables of traditional learning designs.  Participants don’t seem to mind much though.  They will fill the space with their own wonderful learning.  From a design perspective we are like Hercules, ‘not required to fill them.’

That is of course if we can overcome our addiction to content! 

In the spirit of this post, there is lots of space below for comments and your stories of how you have kicked the content addiction, how you did it and what happened.

Author – Tom

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