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Knowledge and Our Structures of Learning

George Siemens
November 29, 2006

MS Word Version is available here.


Core changes rarely come easy to existing systems. Change builds incrementally. First it builds on what exists – using existing models, approaches, language, and habits. But, as Kuhn suggested, periodically, we encounter such an array of anomalies in existing world views, that we must essentially reframe the space.

Video was initially used as a tool to record stage productions. The left over remnants of the world view still exist in the term “motion pictures” - a term used for convenience, not for meaning, as we no longer see video only as moving pictures. We have now come to understand video as a unique medium with unique affordances. In our views of learning and technology, we are at a similar point. Instead of duplicating existing classroom activities, we can create new, richer, more contextual learning experiences.

Like video assumed to do the work of stage productions, or the web to do the work of books, or elearning to duplicate the activities of classrooms, we stand at a point of transformation. The baton of each generation is passed on to the next – the agricultural era to the industrial, the industrial to the technological, and the technological to the knowledge. We are at the jumping off point now, where learning becomes a keystone in any organization’s strategy.

And so, we build for a world that no longer exists. We are entering an age of complex, challenging (wicked) problems. Linear, cause-effect reasoning no longer suffice. Static, context-less, content-centric approaches will not work. As Einstein has stated, significant problems facing our generation will not be solved at the same level of thinking which created the problems. Global warming. Population growth. Epidemics. Our education system is simply not equipping individuals to deal with the issues. Nor are most corporate training approaches preparing individuals for globally complex markets where immediate knowledge of trends or impacting factors is required.

We are building for a world that no longer exists. Our learning models of today are not where they need to be to help us succeed in the future. Educationally, we are trying to enter the automobile era by developing the equestrian skills of our learners.

Knowledge Trends

There are simple and trite things that we can say about knowledge: it’s growing rapidly, it’s becoming more complex, it’s global, and that it’s connected.

…and learning: it’s social, it’s informal, it’s continuous, it’s embedded in the daily activities of life.

I assume these to be evident, and won’t tire you with extensive proclamations of these changes.

A few key changes are worth highlight, however. The subtlety with which these changes moved into our lives leaves us partly blind to the depth of their impact.

Co-creation and participation.

Consider OhMyNews or BBC’s new initiative Your News – entirely consisting of user-created content. Bloggers comprise an additional avenue to established news outlets. Open source software has a long history of partnering with its users – each user is a potential contributor to the application. ZeFrank has utilized various participatory tools in engaging his online viewers – included wiki-based chess, Fabuloso Fridays (where users write the show), and creating an “earth sandwich”.


Social software…connecting with others…social networks – the term “social” is a fashionable adjective to describe new software, organizational design and learning. While the use is gaining hype-status, the concept is critical. Knowledge and learning as social. Distributed knowledge is required to manage the complexity of knowledge today. We need to move beyond ourselves and into a socially-mediated, technology-enabled environment. The ability to collectively create and collectively understand (or understand based on the collective) is critical.


David Weinberger suggests that social technologies are enabling “the great complexification” – a trend at odds with the objective of distilled simplicity sought by marketers. Complexifying issues enables comprehension of diverse factors potentially impacting successful decision making. But to act, we do need to simplify. We need simplicity in achieving complex tasks. The distillation toward simplicity should be in our hands, not it the hands of others. In particular, we require simple technologies - for example, the tools we use for learning should not be more difficult than the act or objective of learning we are pursuing.

Recombination & new tools

Text is being extended by multimedia – audio, videos, games. The capacity to control, to build, to recreate, or to build on the work of others is now often in the hands of individuals themselves. Content creator and consumer are being blurred.

Mobile technology is an additional consideration for learning professionals and business leaders. Few technologies have experienced the rapid growth of mobiles. With over 2 billion devices in use, mobiles eclipse the estimated 750 million PCs. The thumb generation sees the internet as something that comes to them…not something they go to. Consideration to mobiles, games and simulations (like Second Life where virtual blends with real) are important considerations for future learning environments. Our learning content must be available to the device and in the environment they desire.

A recent BusinessWeek article stated, we are now in an era of “internet of things” where everyday items can be added to the network (through RFID). It may be a t-shirt traveling a production line, or it may be your mobile phone. More and more, everything is becoming network aware. Anything can be exposed to a network. A world completely and constantly networked. This has huge implications to how we design our learning.

A large scale restructuring is creating a revolution in our methods of communicating. Blogs, wikis, video logs, podcasts, social book marking, image sharing sites, aggregators, and RSS feeds are part of a continually developing toolset providing individuals great levels of control (and a rich sequence of buzzwords for mockery and ridicule).

Knowledge is fluid

When information changes slowly, it acquires a form, i.e. it becomes a product. So we can consume content as products – books, journals, etc. In segments of rapid change, we require a different approach. Instead of consuming product-based knowledge, we must become skilled at interacting with knowledge as a process. Instead of pre-defined containers into which we place new knowledge, we permit knowledge itself to emerge. Organization assigned by each individual (required for making decisions and action) is more contextual than categorization defined in advance.

Information Asymmetry

Knowledge is a constant quest of humanity. Information asymmetries (with information defined as the building block of knowledge) held the many at the feet of the few…doctors, lawyers, marketers, real estate agents. Yet the digital Gutenberg has reached the public. The internet laid bare information previously reserved for the few, the initiated. We are now able to receive instant information on events around the world – we can browse the world with online satellite images – mobile tools enable continued connectivity to information, friends, family, and work. We can walk into a doctor’s office knowing our symptoms, and having researched potential illnesses. We can research existing market trends, instead of relying on financial advisors.

Our access to knowledge is no longer our key concern. It is our ability to cope, or our ability to translate abundance into some type of action that is most important today. It is no longer more knowledge we need. It is our ability to act on what we already hold. How does a corporation manage the wealth of customer feedback found in blogs? How does an organization foster passionate commitment by engaging clients? How does a salesperson make sense of trends, local market fluctuations, media perceptions? How does a researcher extract meaning from growing mounds of data – often cross-discipline? How do we function when knowledge exceeds our ability to grasp it?

Pattern Recogntion

Abundance changes habits. Money is perhaps the simplest example, but abundance in that regard applies to a select few. Information abundance, however, confronts everyone. Much like extremely wealthy individuals have a choice to not perform menial tasks, our relationship to information must also change. We no longer process information at a basic level. We seek to process knowledge from information patterns revealed by technology.

Social bookmarking and tagging are first generation tools providing insight into how technology assists in learning and knowledge growth. Consider the flickr tag cloud. Or University of Manitoba’s virtual learning commons (content is a conduit for conversation), or social bookmarking sites like Digg or del.icio.us. The pattern represents information filtered by a network.  We then move to meaning-making, not information processing.

As we move to increased emphasis on pattern recognition, we have to revisit how we design our learning itself. The shift from static to dynamic is only now beginning to filter through our organizations. As knowledge morphs, so too must our organizational learning design. Command and control needs to shift to foster and promote.


Innovation is a function of chaos. The more prepared and more capable we are to function in the space of not knowing, the more likely will be our ability to innovate.

In our training needs, innovation is a significant challenge.

We have done well in the past to wait for change to occur, and then to react. Instead, today we must anticipate. Consider two different scenarios: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape in contrast with Google and Microsoft. In a period of a few years, Microsoft decimated Netscape’s market share. Once Microsoft identified Netscape as a risk, it was able to refocus its corporate activities rapidly to confront the challenge.

Google, on the other hand, has been identified as a Microsoft threat for several years, but is continuing to grow its market share in search. Microsoft has not yet created an effective strategy to compete with Google. If current indications of search growth and market share, coupled with ongoing additions to their social software and web operating systems, Microsoft must awaken to a changed game of competition.

No one took a course on how to compete with Microsoft. And no one at Microsoft will take a course to learn how to compete with Google. The learning involved in this space will happen as a function of doing – continual, experimental, and ongoing. Seed, select, amplify (Meyer and Davis).

Rethink our spaces and structures of learning

We are dealing with a new type of knowledge, requiring us to rethink courses and programs. We are dealing with knowledge that develops too quickly to be held in the mind of any one individual. Complexity is compounded by our reliance on approaches at odds with our evolving relationship with knowledge, and thereby our need for learning. This requires the use of filtering agents (in the form of networks) to stay current.

Current approaches to training do not work with the emerging traits of knowledge. As Bill Gates states - schools, even when working as designed, fail our learners. We need to rethink our spaces and structures of learning. Our views of learning have not really changed substantially in the last several hundred years: the expert in front, the seekers of knowledge in rows. This model is effective for certain types of knowledge – particularly foundational or static knowledge, even though our growing understanding of learning is translating into increased reliance on socially mediated approaches. I personally enjoy a well-crafted lecture. I also enjoy listening to a speaker who has thought deeply on issues and treats audience members with the fruits of hard mental labor in a clearly presented call to action (audience members may find this lacking in my presentation!).

The concern facing us now is that less and less of our knowledge is of the type well-suited to lectures. More and more of our knowledge requires a specific type of learning – according the concerns I’ve listed previously. How well does our classroom model work for this emerging knowledge landscape - a landscape proliferated with mobile devices, social networks, real-time access to information, competing global economies, and a myriad of other complexity-inducing factors?

Consideration of context, networks, ecologies, and systems provides insight on directions required as we move forward. How we design our learning. How we release new products. How we develop organizational leaders. How we enter new markets. How we develop our students. How we physically design our offices. The changes that have for many years slowly seeped into our organizations are now at a point of washing over and transforming our spaces and structures of knowledge.

We need to consider two approaches as we move forward: networks and ecologies.


Networks are pervasive – they form the backbone of our society, our biology, and our world. Networks exist in every aspect of life – including – literally -  our DNA. We see networks in our travel system – how our airlines works, our family and work relationships. We identify our selves with particular organizations – churches or religious body. Networks are the girder around which society, and life itself, are formed.

The network serves as an offloading tool – holding knowledge. In a sense, the networks we create become our learning – that is, our capacity to stay current, informed, and knowledgeable.

Unfortunately, in the softer sciences – such as our understanding of learning – we have largely ignored the power of networks. That’s beginning to change with increased understanding of neural networks and secrets being pried from the former black box of the human mind. But overall, little network-thinking makes its way explicitly into our learning design. Our training systems should foster deeper levels of networking – forming connections with knowledge sources that will serve us well even as existing knowledge is eroded and rendered obsolete by the acidic nature of change. Network formation is the act of sharing and distributing knowledge. A course provides for short-term knowledge needs. A well-crafted network, provides for continual, life-long learning.

We need to stop asking our learners to come to our content. Our content should come to them – in their space. An LMS – or any other so-called elearning tool becomes one that distributes content to learners in their native tool.

Betting against networks is, in the eyes of CEO of Google Eric Schmidt “foolish you’re betting against human ingenuity and creativity”.


Networks need to occur in something. Networks are structures. We need to create diverse ecologies in which networks can grow and flourish. An ecology is a chaotic messy space that enables individuals to learn and form connections.

Google requires engineers to commit 20% of their work time to exploring personal ideas and interests. Innovation and functioning in chaotic markets is not something that happens in the absence of different modes of operation. Status quo operations produce status quo results. The real question is whether status quo working.


All of this needs to happen in a systems model – where we see holistically, rather than isolated elements. Increasingly in our emerging educational technology field – a moderate is viewed as radical. Seeing complex, holistic view of the multiple facets of learning and the complex landscape of knowledge gives way to pithy, one-dimensional hype or vendor-speak. Much like the politician with the best ideas fails to capture the ear of the voting public…losing ground instead to a “sound bite” opponent. As learning moves deeper and deeper into mission-critical status in our organizations, we must begin to perceive it in its entirety – making distinctions of approach and form based on our intended outcome or objectives. We need to pursue a balanced and holistic view.


Context is the key. Failure to account for context in learning planning and design may add more confusion, rather than clarity, to a learning challenge. Holistic views of learning and knowledge development translate to corporate bottoms lines; to better learning in a classroom; to more fully equipped members of society. Numerous elements are involved in the interplay – the hard elements of rules and structures, with the soft elements of human behaviour, motivation, incentives, or ideals.

The complexification of knowledge requires that we adopt an approach that is more reflective of the situations we encounter. Too often we embark of a training program or a leadership approach that is ill-suited with the task we are trying to solve. Consider using a formal training process to foster innovation. Or informal learning for foundational knowledge.

The clarification of a particular context largely provides the step forward. For example – innovation requires a different approach than compliancy-based training. Context determines type of learning we need to approach.

Global growth in higher education is not developing along the lines supported by advocates suggesting its obsolescence. World wide enrolment in higher education will almost double in the next 25 years (90 million: 2001, 160 million: 2025) (As cited by Diana Oblinger). We need to see the more complete whole, and not over-react to developing trends. So it becomes apparent that we need to contextualize our discussion so as to appropriately highlight the nature of the change we are advocating.

The world the way it is…

A battle rages between our desires – the world as we would have it – and the way things unfold as concerns of others are factored in. No singular model will deliver the full depth of learning and training required. We must begin to see a rich toolset of different approaches to learning – formal, informal, mentorship, self-learning, communities, games and simulations, and performance support.

What then does the model look like? While we cannot fully define an emergent system, we can describe elements and components.

1. Our ability to be successful at this level requires increased acceptance of human and technology integrated approaches. Technology is in the rudimentary stages of providing patterning in complex environments. Much like graphs of social connections, crime areas, or the spread of diseases, deep insight can be gained from the patterns produced by behaviours of individuals online. Tag clouds and social bookmarking reveals insight into the activities of millions of individuals.

2. The criticality of connections – connect more of the organization to itself. However, at a certain point of connectedness, networks may breakdown. Density of connection, as Beinhocker pointed out in Origin of Wealth (p. 154), can actually paralyze, not liberate an organization. In order for connectedness to be of value, it needs to be of a type that is relevant to individuals. Random connections and access to information not inline with our daily work often does not serve us well (though in some situations, serendipity does result from random encounters).

3. Balanced & contextual thinking and planning. No one model meets the needs of the entire space. Success in learning design and implementation requires balancing impacting factors. Context definition and holistic thinking are critical.

4. Redesign spaces and structures of learning and knowledge creation. Instead of relying on highly structured knowledge delivery, networks and ecologies provide a balance that permits individuals to achieve learning required by the organization and desired by the learner.

5. “Staying current” experimentation – not as a buzzword, but as a focused strategy to explore ideas and approaches. Experimentation is important in competence development – especially when we are unclear about directions to take. Instead of acting according to a pre-designed model, we need to rely on “sensing” the problem or knowledge space.

6. New literacy for individuals. Our quest to repurpose learning in networks and ecologies will not happen in the absence of developing new “meta-skills” - the most critical being digital or knowledge literacy. Individuals need skills to cope in the knowledge avalanche. Better tools. Better skills. Better methods. The combination of these three provides the ability to cope and function.


Learning, in how today’s organizations are defined, is silo-based. We have “learning centers” and “training departments” – treating learning as if it were a compartment or corporate activity in which we sometimes engage, rather than a constant, ongoing process – a thread through the fabric of daily activities. Learning is a thread that runs through all of life. We do not belong only in corporate training rooms. The act of learning is ongoing and constant.

An organizations ability to adapt is important to ongoing survival (even innovation, if you will). But the adaptation must be of a particular type. It must be progressive, ongoing, punctuated with periodic bursts (the transformation), but many about progressive, but not overly reactionary trends to what is going on in the larger learning landscape. Few organizations will be positioned to adopt wholesales the ideas I’ve presented. To do so would damage many elements of the system continuing to work well. But to survive, all organizations need to embrace experimentation – an ongoing “blood in the corporate veins” type of experimentation. Policy-induced change can be effective, but most often, if we follow the lessons of evolving organisms, developing corporate competence progressively is the best approach for long-term sustained change.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License