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The smallest common learning unit: How employees become internal influencers

Tim Hendrik Walter is sitting at a desk wearing a miniskirt and a two-tone wig. He is playing the role of a female intern who is being asked by her boss, also played by Tim Hendrik Walter, but with gelled hair, wearing a shirt, and holding a ‘stylish’ soccer club branded coffee cup, to make coffee. This is one of many short videos he regularly shares on his TikTok channel. Tim Hendrik Walter is not a comedian or a teenager in a self-discovery phase. Tim Hendrik Walter is a lawyer at the law firm Besler & Walter & Keuneke. Under his TikTok name @herranwalt, he posts legal tips for a young target group. Over four million people follow him; his videos get hundreds of thousands of clicks. They contain urgent self-help tips for when the boss demotes the intern to a personal servant or the mother forbids the boyfriend. Is that allowed? – Just a minute later, you will know.

These small learning units, that anyone can pull up with just a few clicks, either intentionally or because they are played into the timeline based on a person’s interests, are called “Micro-Learning”. This way, they become part of daily life – and the learning process right along with them. Experts like tech guru Josh Bersin agree that this is exactly where the future of learning lies for organizations. Bersin calls it “learning in the flow of work,” and by that, he means the development and utilization of formats that fit naturally into the employees’ daily workflow and either provide ad hoc solutions to concrete problems or promote continuous development of new know-how.

Four minutes and what companies do with them

The basic idea behind it: The speed at which our world is changing leads to us having to learn new things at continuously shorter intervals. New technologies are constantly creating new opportunities and challenges for organizations, which in turn give rise to entirely new areas of responsibility, roles, and job profiles. The World Economic Forum writes in its “Future of Jobs Report 2020” that 50 percent of all employees will have to retrain by 2025. At the same time, employees complain about a lack of time for training. On average, employees in Germany spent 18.3 hours in training during 2019. Assuming a five-day week and excluding vacation time and public holidays, that’s just over four minutes a day. Far too little, you might think. And yet there is another interesting perspective. Of course, you can’t find a suitable seminar in four minutes, have it approved by all managerial levels, travel to it, participate in it, travel back again, and then sort through your notes and settle your travel expenses. But you can watch @herranwalt on TikTok, for example, and in four minutes you can even watch it several times. The video on intern rights lasts exactly 45 seconds. And TikTok? In 2020 they already announced that they will invest 13 million in high-quality learning content in Europe alone.

A digital learning culture

Rethinking the way we work also means rethinking the way we learn. Continuous learning has to become an integral part of the new world of work. Learning “on top”, i.e. in addition to an unchanged, consistent workload, can not work without being detrimental to people’s mental and physical health (and therefore sooner or later also to the organization as a whole). Instead, we need a new vision of what learning can be and how we do it. The greatest possible freedom and self-determination are also required in learning, as is a corporate culture that focuses on dialog, collaboration, the exchange of knowledge and experience, and a shared vision. In that kind of environment, employees can grow with their tasks and become content creators for their topics. New tools are constantly expanding the cosmos of informal teaching and learning opportunities and laying the foundation for a digital learning culture that, apart from the technology, is really not so new.

When employees become influencers

As long as we can remember, technical skills and techniques required for certain crafts and trades have been learned and passed on through “learning by doing”. It was not until industrialization and the assembly line that came with it, that learning became standardized, depersonalized, and administered in fixed doses. In a digital and highly complex world, this principle is becoming less and less effective. The World Economic Forum ranks active and self-directed learning among the top three skills in the job market, along with the ability to solve complex problems and think analytically. We are therefore experiencing a time in which informal learning or “learning by doing” is rapidly gaining in importance once again. For employees to become both active teachers and active learners, influencers for their topics in the company, so to speak, the one thing we don’t need is an external incentive. Findings from research on motivation have shown that company-promoted extrinsic incentives can even harm the willingness to work and learn. Instead, managers are called upon to create good general conditions, above all, a culture in which learning from and with one another is encouraged and employees have the time and energy to prepare their topics for colleagues, whether as a one-day workshop, a BarCamp or a 45-second video that pops up on the computer screen when the mail program is launched. Wanting to learn more about something that you aren’t familiar with must be seen as a personal strength, not a shortcoming. Learning should be omnipresent, whether as a spontaneous learning intervention to which all colleagues are invited or as a classic workshop series or digital talent marketplace where employees can network on their own initiative for a whole variety of learning and work formats.

Stay curious and use smart data!

“Change by design” instead of “change by disaster” is what neuroscientist and media psychologist Maren Urner calls it, and with that, she relies on the will of people and organizations to learn and change spurred on by their natural curiosity. Trying new ways, not because we have to, but because we pursue a common vision, derive meaningful activities from it, and engage and develop according to our potentials and talents – therein lies the key to change in organizations and the (working) world. Managers can initiate this change by proclaiming a new learning culture and implementing it with the support of smart technology. Because “change by design” also means making good use of data about the employees’ learning behavior. In the spirit of “People Analytics FOR the People,” companies are prompted to ask the right questions and to be continuously aware of what skills and talents their employees have and what they want to learn. Companies should be curious – and remain so! Because the demand for lifelong learning applies not only to individuals but also to organizations as a whole.

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