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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Online Coaching

Catherine Lombardozzi recent post Coaching informal learning sparked something for me around online coaching opportunities.  In prior posts she identifies the following elements as being needed for informal learning strategy to be effective in the workplace:

  • Motivation for learning.
  • A culture that provides access to other people who support learning in a wide variety of ways
  • Easy access to materials that support learning
  • Skills in utilizing electronic tools to manage learning.

In this post, she adds to the list that a "learning coach" is also needed:

Many learners will benefit from having someone to coach them through identifying their learning needs, sorting out the options for learning and development, and processing what they learn when they follow any of the available paths for learning.

I completely agree with Catherine that we need to be thinking about how learners can get support for dealing with the complexities of informal learning.  There's a new level of responsibility on learners.  Before I get into coaching, let me step back and look at the larger picture.

Learning Ignition Points

I believe that Catherine is describing the needs around informal learning when it's being used by workplace learning organizations to support learning – but learning somewhat distinct from work.  In other words, possibly supporting ongoing learning to build management skills for a group of new managers.  It's somewhat event oriented.  And likely defined initially in terms of a set of learning objectives.

I most often think about informal learning in the context of work objectives.  As I've said many times, for concept workers work and learning are inseparable. For a knowledge worker, generally its something like the start of a new project or a new kind of situation that sparks the need for learning.  We might call these:

Learning Ignition Points

But these ignition points are generally not coming from the learning organization.  They originate based on the work itself. 

Role of Learning Organizations

The learning organization's role is to provide support to these workers/learners as they hit learning ignition points.  In some cases, learning organizations may be aware of upcoming learning needs and be able to be out in front.  For example, an organization may make a strategic decision to go after a new market.  The learning organization can get out in front by looking to provide access to information about this market and talk with key stakeholders about possible changes that they may need to support to help accomplish this transition.

The vast majority of learning ignition points occur for individuals or teams based on their specific work.  For example, prior to going after a new market, possibly a single individual or a work team is looking at various new markets and trying to figure out what might make sense for the organization.  This is why most learning is long tail learning.

The role of learning organizations around long tail learning is to provide tools, support, skill building so that learners can self-serve their learning.

Really that's what Catherine is talking about as well.  But the difference in the perspective of work needs vs. learning needs is important.  Learning organizations cannot think about this in terms of "creating informal learning events" … they need to think about …

How do I support concept workers when they hit learning ignition points?


There's actually quite a bit that learning organizations can and should do to support concept workers at learning ignition points, but I want to focus back on the idea that Catherine raises: coaching.

When a knowledge worker hits a learning ignition point, they may or may not think of this as "I need to learn."  Rather they may think about "getting up to speed" or "finding out about" or …

In a prior post, I talked about Dave Pollard's experience with knowledge management (and it's a conversation I've had directly with Dave):

So my conclusion this time around was that the centralized stuff we spent so much time and money maintaining was simply not very useful to most practitioners. The practitioners I talked to about PPI [Personal Productivity Improvement] said they would love to participate in PPI coaching, provided it was focused on the content on their own desktops and hard drives, and not the stuff in the central repositories.

In fact, much of what Dave talks about is his transition for KM as centralized solutions, to going out to help support and coach.  This assumes that the learning organization or someone has spent time to get to workers ahead of their learning ignition point to provide them with support and to be in position to coach.

The reality is probably more of what Catherine talks about when she asks the important question: Who are these coaches? 

For workplace learning, this is a critical role of the line manager.   A good manager develops people, and there is no more powerful way to do that than to be an encouraging and demanding learning coach.  If managers take on this role, the question about how to monitor and evaluate informal learning dissolves; managers will be intimately involved in knowing what, how, when and to what degree their direct reports are learning.

Likely for many workers when they hit a learning ignition point, they do go to their line manager to ask for thoughts, help, etc.   And I wonder about the skills that most line managers possess around learning coaching.

Online Coaching

While the line manager and possibly the learning organization may be providing some of the coaching, my guess is that a lot of the coaching comes from quite varied sources that I would roughly say are peers inside and outside the organization.

When I look at my own behavior, I take any new learning need and consider whether it's something I can likely just find through search, or if it's more complex, then I quickly move for learning need to the key question:

Who do I know who can help me figure out how to learn about this?

In many cases, the answer is that I'm not sure who I should talk to about it.  In which case, the first bit of effort is what I refer to as Conversation Seeking in the post: Networks and Learning Communities.  What I said at that time still holds that most often I find myself using:

  • LinkedIn
  • Various learning communities
  • My Blog
  • Twitter

And the question I'm asking is always of the form:

Here's what I know, but I'm trying to find out X, how should I go after that?

Recent examples for me are …

  • Business side of professional speaking
  • Aggregation technology
  • Research on categorization / types of eLearning
  • New Way of Learning

In fact, if you run down my blog posts you could consider about half of these to be part of this.  Likely about 10% of my twitter posts are seeking information.  Most of my online coaching seeking activity you don't see because it's one-to-one via LinkedIn.

Again, you can go back to Networks and Learning Communities to see quite a bit about all of this.

What's interesting to me is how much of what I personally do when I hit a learning ignition point is really seeking and getting online coaching.  But it shouldn't just be me.  It should be all knowledge workers: 

Knowledge workers should have the tools and skills to
utilize online coaching as they hit learning ignition points.

Upfront vs. Time-of-Need Coaching

One thing I've realized as I'm writing this is that there is likely two times when a learning organization might be involved in coaching.  One point is prior to a specific learning need in order to help the knowledge worker be ready when they do hit the specific need.  This is really what Dave Pollard is talking about.  Go through the organization and provide tools, support and skill building.  It's worth looking at some of his additional specific suggestions in Knowledge Management: Finding Quick Wins and Long Term ValueHis 6 Quick Wins are:

  1. Make it easy for your people to identify and connect with subject matter experts.
  2. Help people manage the content and organization of their desktop.
  3. Help people identify and use the most appropriate communication tool.
  4. Make it easy for people to publish their knowledge and subscribe to the information they want.
  5. Create a facility for just-in-time canvassing for information.
  6. Teach people how to do research, not just search.

The other point where learning organizations might be involved is at time-of-need.  A learning ignition point has occurred.  Are you in position to try to help them.  This is a bit more like the role of a librarian.  It's specific help on how the knowledge worker can effective learn about this new area.

Actually this raises an interesting question around the intersection of corporate librarians 2.0 and learning organizations 2.0.  Any specific pointers on that?

What's Next

In looking at this, it's hard to believe that time-of-need coaching is going to happen if we've not done the upfront coaching.  So, the reality is that we need to be looking at Workplace Learning Professionals Next Job - Management Consultant.  Really that's what we are talking about here.

I would appreciate any thoughts on this?


Joe Deegan said...

Great post Tony! I'm struggling around the idea of online coaching in some projects I am currently working on. I recently got some great "Informal Learning" resources up and running and then quickly came to the harsh realization that the hard part is encouraging participation. I'm finding that people don't generally know how to learn informally and they need coaching as you describe. I'm working on a blog post describing some "directed" learning activities and contests as a form of coaching for using these new informal learning tools. Thanks for the sound advice.

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MarcManieri said...

Online coaching is an interesting subject. I co-run a company called Frame of Mind Coaching and we offer online coaching. Initially, results varied. IN some cases clients achieved comparable results to our traditional coaching (telephone or face to face); other times, not so much. Looking deeper into it, the difference maker was the relationship built (or not built). Once trust is formed and clients are truly transparent, we can help them move forward. It's the coach's job to build trust. We solved this by building an online journaling software where coach and client can communicate, privately, as well as be apart of our broader community. As the client interacts with other coaching clients and learns that he/she is not alone in their challenges, they begin to open up. The journaling process itself in addition to community collaboration is instrumental in an effective on line coaching program because it drives the client to be in action around their challenges more often than an hour a week on a coaching call. So, regular journaling, community engagement, and trust are the 3 pillars that have helped us build our successful on line coaching platform. Hope this helps.