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ELC interviews Ralph Mercer on social learning

ELC: Could you tell our readers a little bit about your background?

Ralph: I am Chief Warrant Officer in the Canadian Forces; my background is technical, both fixing and flying on aircraft. During the course of my 32 years, I've spent about 14 of them instructing aircrew, in the class, simulator, and air. I've always loved tech (geek alert) and interested in how it shapes a learning environment and the culture of the organization it impacts. I'm presently developing a professional development architecture for Non-Commissioned members of the Canadian Forces using modern learning technology and methodologies... It's important to note that these are my views and thoughts on these topics.

ELC: What got you interested in social learning?

Ralph: It's the purest form of learning, it's learning unencumbered by the official learning structures and policies..

ELC: That gives bureaucrats shivers.

Ralph: Yes! And in vertical organization like ours we fear social learning. How do we control it, ensure the replication of standardized learning.. it forces us to move from a rules and procedures-based learning to a responsibility-based learning.

ELC: Doesn't that mirror the concept from management theory of managing for outcomes and results rather than for work?

Ralph: Yes, but in organizations where standardization of knowledge and training in core to team behavior (air crew and technical tradepersons, etc.) we have instituted many layers of checks and balances with our learning organizations... we have separated the learner from the teacher with layers of complexity and standards.. social learning (some people call it water cooler learning) comes with risks that we haven't learnt how to accept (yet).

ELC: That is a fascinating problem. How to ensure that necessary knowledge is transferred in a social learning environment, especially when failure is not acceptable (air crews). Ralph: What I've been advocating is that we need to empower our learners by teaching them to question and self-learn rather than just accept what is delivered to them in a social learning environment.. cognitive agility vice information memorization. That is core to my "responsible learner" concept. Also we may need to construct safe social learning environments, to enable this type of interaction (inward facing SL networks)

ELC: That's a strong concept - the responsible learner. We expect our employees to be responsible in other areas of their work life, but when it comes to learning we feel we have to micro-manage and spoon feed.

Ralph: We trust aircrews with multi-million dollar aircraft, we trust soldiers to act on behalf of our country on the battle field, but we don't trust them to learn responsibly.. I think that is just wrong..

ELC: @JaneBozarth often talks about "application not acquisition". Do you believe that social learning helps mastery and application of information that is acquired - by more traditional learning methods?

Ralph: That is not to say rule based learning is dead, it has a place and an important one in my organization,, but we don't need to make all learning happen that way.

ELC: That was my follow up question, how do you blend traditional learning methods with social learning?

Ralph: At the coal face, learning is essential to translating the acquired learning into practical use. I think we need to move to a hybrid model of learning that identifies the no fail learning and we control the delivery of that part of the learning environment, but for much of the supportive knowledge that will be best delivered in a social learning environment at the point of need...

Ralph: The other part of social learning that interests me, and at some level concerns me, is its impact on organizational culture and ethos... social learning happens at the foundation of your organization where culture and ethos are reinforced and transferred.

ELC: Ralph, this is a fascinating topic and I could keep this conversation going all day. I look forward to continuing this conversation at ELS 2011 Houston.


To hear more from Ralph Mercer and Sanjay Nasta, along with fellow social learning expert, Jane Hart, register today to attend E-Learning Symposium on Tuesday, October 25th! 

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