Jay Cross
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Improv Learning
Tuesday, October 05, 2004

CLO magazine, October 2004 - Jay Cross

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.
—William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”

The first wave of e-learning brochures five years ago invariably touted the benefits of focusing on the learner. Schools and classes had always been organized for the convenience of the faculty—one size fits all. In the e-era, learners received personalized instruction—just what they needed, just when they needed it. It was “learner-centric.”

But there’s a problem with this approach. Walk into the sales department, the warehouse, the call center or the executive suite, talk with the people there, and you know what you’ll discover? The members of the organization are known as “workers.” They are blue-collar workers, knowledge workers, hourly workers, commission-only workers and contractors doing work-for-hire. Nobody calls them “learners.”

The rhetoric about learners lulled us into thinking that the job was to prepare individual learners. In the real world, superior performance more often results from the efforts of coordinated teams of workers who work well with customers. As Abraham Maslow famously said, “Give a kid a hammer, and every problem looks like a nail.” In our case, it’s, “Call them learners instead of workers, and every solution looks like blended learning.”

Executives don’t see it this way at all. Have you ever read a proposal for a major project that didn’t list executive support as a prerequisite to success? Want to know what will grab the attention of any executive? Execution. Getting the job done. Performance.

Now, to the confusion of executives and CLOs alike, the very nature of performance is changing. In the old days, corporations hired people to play roles. Job descriptions contained stage directions. Training taught workers their lines. The costume was a blue blazer, or perhaps a gray flannel suit. The cast was composed of repertory actors, performing the same show with the same colleagues, one performance after another. An actor often stayed with the same show for an entire career, receiving a gold watch and a pension following the final curtain call. Those days are long gone.

Today’s workers perform without a script. Everything’s impromptu. Stage cues come from the audience in real time. Costumes? The dress code may be pajamas if you work from home. Rewards go to innovators who deviate from the expected. Success is measured by the take at the box office instead of seniority or past performances.

Training was appropriate when actors memorized their lines. Today, it’s OK to read from cue cards—you can’t know everything. Good props help make a show great. As Gloria Gery pointed out long ago, it’s time to “give up the idea that competence must exist within the person and expand our view that whenever possible it should be built into the situation.”

Instructional design purists say, “Information is not instruction.” So what? If information helps me become a better performer, just tell me. Don’t insist that I take an entire course. If I can add more value with a better connection to the ’Net, a subscription to a reference service or a direct line to the local expert, then give it to me. Give me a way to do my job better—I don’t care whether or not you call it instruction.

The Improv home page reports that the most popular form of improv today “is ‘spot’ improv, in which performers get suggestions from their audience and use them to create short, entertaining scenes. No matter where or how it’s performed, the essential ingredient in any improvisational performance is that the audience and the actors are working together to create theatre.”

When workers are actors, and customers the audience, CLOs must be more than drama coaches. They must prepare cast members to be agile, spontaneous and innovative. They must coax the audience into playing its part. CLOs must focus on optimizing the process of workers and customers performing together. The play’s the thing. The show must go on. After all, life is not a dress rehearsal.

Jay Cross is CEO of eLearningForum, founder of Internet Time Group and a fellow of meta-learninglab.com. For more information, e-mail Jay at jcross@clomedia.com.


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