Free-Range Education: The Urgency to Integrate FREd into Corporate Training

Have you ever thought of something radical and then mustered up the courage to share it in a forum of your peers? Three things can happen, or should I say have happened when I have managed to find myself in this position: (1) They get excited and want to know more; (2) They say nothing and put on a trout-like stare with gaping mouth; or (3) They laugh out loud, saying nothing, and just shake their heads like you are indeed the village idiot who they expected as much from your ramblings. I managed to garner a hands-down vote of idiocy [a solid #3 on the scale above] from my corporate training colleagues when I dreamed up the concept of Free-Range Education and the accompanying acronym FREd. I am not convinced the acronym will ever catch on, but the learning context is one we cannot ignore.

I have been in this thing called “training” for over thirty years in gigs ranging from road warrior sales trainer to senior leadership leading strategy development related to the prudent use of learning technology. My contributions have ranged from being a competent follower to that of a threat to the continued employment of others in my profession. Seriously! My newly found perception as a threat – the last role I EVER wanted to fill – came in the form of innovative thinking. It is kind of funny though, that my “threat status” only began to surface when I started to deviate beyond the acceptable boundaries of formal training conventions [a.k.a. thinking in an innovative way].

Working among highly-degreed, instructional design-certified traditionalists, I began to advocate on topics like performance enhancing potential for on-demand informal learning, and collaborative knowledge sharing among learners, and heaven-forbid, acceptance and integration of user-generated content. The pillared towers of the training organization shook with the thoughts of losing control and promoting such radical things as unstructured learning invoked by the learners in – and this was the kicker –THEIR moments of learning need versus the prescribed curricula resident on the learning management system (LMS).

Being oblivious to my “threat status”, I was shocked when another senior leader stopped me in the hall and confided that a couple of instructional designers and a platform facilitator asked during a staff meeting, “With all this informal learning momentum talk going on and the potential for new technologies coming, should we start updating our resumes?” It was my turn to laugh out loud. I could not believe it, but after seeing how entrenched in tradition and encumbered with formal learning paradigms they were, I made the connection. My concept of Free-Range Education (FREd) threatened the comfort and security found only in storyboarded, formal, linear learning programs (a.k.a. Training). No wonder the design group had been giving me a wide berth in departmental gatherings.

To the credit of some of those among the “threatened”, there were a few that “got it”. To them, storyboards were not clung to like flotation devices in a water landing. They recognized this FREd theory was not a threat as much as it was a warning that re-invention of traditional training was part of a not-so-distant future. We felt the velocity of business steadily increasing. Odds are good you all are feeling similar pressures. Change initiatives shifted from being sporadic events to something much more continuous. New technologies appeared more frequently in the business that changed workflows and protocols at an increasing rate. New employees were coming out of the onboarding pipeline “un-boarded” in the very things they needed to handle proficiently in their first 90 days. Why? The simple truth – traditional learning methods were not able to keep pace with the velocity of business and the demand for sustainable business outcomes were blowing the doors off traditional training.

So…what is the solution? Laugh if you are so inclined, but sooner or later, the realization will strike in your world as well; and it will be in the form of recognizing that our respective work contexts have become the new classroom. Work context, as shown in the diagram below is that segment of our work-year NOT spent in formal learning [Training]. Granted, there are uncalculated hours wasted on Facebook and other non-work activities, but for the most part, we are “at work” when we are not training.

Learning Opportunity Imbalance

I developed this diagram to capture results of research shared by Josh Bersin during the Webinar on “The Future of the Business of Learning” in July 2009. Not only are we [the training organization] rendering our solution in the 5% slice of the pie, the lion’s share of training organization resources [up to 80%] are locked onto the same slice.

The domain of FREd is the entire pie, not the 95% slice as many of my colleagues thought. The institution of formal learning will never die completely, but it will diminish in the context of how much time and resources we allocate to it – especially, if we are serious about contributing to the creation of sustained capability. Ensuring transfer of knowledge and skills is no longer enough. In particular, effective transfer of knowledge and skills does not provide an accurate predictor of performance downstream in the work context. Our job in corporate education now [or soon will] extends downstream into that same work context and with an extended need to support free-range learning opportunities.

Break out the Learning 2.0 methods and the Web 2.0 technologies. Focus on what the workforce needs to produce [DO] in order to generate tangible value that supports the business mission. Do not be afraid of equipping your workforce with the ability to learn on their own. We need to stop being so critical of user-generated content, and get over ourselves as being the only ones capable of creating content that is instructionally sound. It is no longer about being instructionally soundit is all about being  effectively supportive of flawless execution in the work context.

The training organization needs to add skills and competencies that enable them to dig down into the dirt of the free-range environment and discover the root reasons that performance gaps exist. Certainly, training may be part of a solution, but consumption of those learning assets may well serve a greater purpose in the context of work. That implies a new “design-think” that highlights “performance effectiveness” as the driver of good instructional design more so than assets authored to meet long-held definitions of what we consider as instructionally sound solutions.

The rules of our engagement have changed. The yardstick by which we are measured has nothing to do with how busy we have been via the number of butts-in-seats, or hours of on-line learning consumed, or average Level 1 evaluation scores, or of Level 2 graduation thresholds. Leadership measures cost centers by that kind of activity…and, more threateningly, how much are we costing the business if they continue to fund us.  The measures we need to produce should be tangible and contributory to increased sales revenues, improved cost control through increased productivity or production of value, or costs avoided due to actions that prevent loss or avoid creation of waste. We need to be out on the Free-Range where we expect our workforce to be most effective.

Is it time to re-invent your approach to training?

Do you need assistance breaking out-dated traditions and re-inventing new learning paradigms?

I suggest starting with a Learning Readiness Assessment. Adopting FREd may be transformational to some, while imply only fine-tuning to others. Better to find out where you are now before designing a roadmap to new destinations that include new paradigms where design methodology uses a Learning Continuum map. Learn why attributes of Space, Media and Systems define work context and shape not only design, but development and delivery solutions that enable continuous learning. Start this journey with a Free-Range Learning Architect. Re-invent your training organization, not the roadmap proven to support the re-invention process.

Contact Gary Wise at (317) 437-2555 or at and discuss the benefits of a learning readiness assessment. Consider that the real threat may mean circling the wagons and doing nothing to disrupt the comfort of tradition, raising visibility and risk of being targeted as a cost center worthy of down-sizing.