by Chris Curran, Principal, PwC

Rethinking How We Learn at Work

Jul 21, 20115 mins
CIOEnterprise ApplicationsIT Leadership

It's time for CIOs to rethink just how workers should be equipping themselves to learn in the years ahead. The first place to look for learning innovation is the Web.

I was recently at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research for a few of their summer briefings.

One of the regular guests at the briefings is Andy McAfee, MIT professor and best-selling author. Andy told some stories that highlighted just how hard it can be for those of us who work at large organizations to find the information we’re looking for internally versus how simple it is to find some of that same information on the public Web.

His stories reminded me of a discussion I once had with an insurance CIO about the way we learn within our companies. It seems that many of us get “trained” by our employers in one way — whether about new process, technologies, or ways of working — but that we learn new things in our personal lives in a very different way. One approach makes use of traditional methods for adult learning, the other involves our social circles, the Internet, and many other recent tools, devices, and services.

Given how much the actual mechanics of learning have changed in recent years, it may be time for us all to rethink just how we in organizations should be equipping ourselves — and our colleagues — to learn in the years ahead.

Learning Is Getting Simpler, Faster, More Fun, Easier to Measure

My education in doing training differently started a few years ago after reading about Pecha Kucha.

Pecha Kucha (or “chatter” in Japanese) is an unusual presentation format that originated in Tokyo almost 10 years ago when, just for fun, a few architects and other creative types started giving PowerPoint presentations to one another after work in a local bar. (Who knows? Maybe they got tired of karaoke).

With Pecha Kucha, each presenter shares an idea with those in attendance by talking through just 20 slides, each slide advancing automatically after only 20 seconds. If you do the math, this yields a mere six minutes and 40 seconds for each presenter to speak his or her mind before taking their seat. Let’s just say that this format has a natural way of focusing messages, making good use of visuals and avoiding endless bullet points.

Another example of how learning is being rethought is TED. The Technology, Entertainment, Design conference began in 1984 as a small conference in California that has exploded in recent years into a global brand focused on bringing innovative ideas from the world’s best thinkers to the masses through both paid conferences and a free Web video library.

Like Pecha Kucha on steroids, TED presentations are short (about 18 minutes), mind-blowing, extremely visual, and bring the most interesting and engaging people and ideas together in one place. I had the opportunity to attend TED this year for the first time and I’m still processing ideas from it and looking for ways to apply them. One idea came from new learning models pioneered by the Khan Academy.

As with so many great ideas, Sal Khan’s idea started small. After helping his nephews with their homework, he decided to post videos of a few of his tutoring sessions on YouTube. That seed of an idea grew into what is now a library of thousands of videos from hundreds of contributors explaining topics from photons to photosynthesis, and most everything in between.

Like TED, these lessons are in video form and online. But there’s more. With Khan Academy the videos are wrapped in a learning architecture which includes ways for the learner to track their progress in a fun, game-like way.

One of my PwC partners showed Khan Academy to his son who was prepping for a placement test. Here’s what he told me later:

“When my wife came about mid-way down the stairs and saw how [our son] was interacting with the computer, she just assumed he was playing videogames. The level and type of engagement was exactly that of a kid getting toasted by Russian commandos on Modern Warfare or winning extra lives in Zelda.”

Not only does it engage the learner, it provides tools for the coach as well. Khan is in talks with many school districts in an effort to help re-invent the way our kids learn, and how our teachers teach them.

So What’s Stopping You from Reinventing Learning at your Company?

Pecha Kucha, TED and Khan Academy are just three of the hundreds of learning innovations in the marketplace today that could further spur experimentation and growth. If our organizations were to draw just a few lessons from these innovators and apply them to organizational learning in new ways, we would be miles ahead of our competition.

How to get started? Try experimenting with one or more of these ideas.

  • Pick a relevant weekly video from TED, Khan Academy, YouTube, etc. and send it to your teams. Set up a thread on your internal discussion boards or email to see what people learned from it.
  • Get a small group of leaders and explore the way they prepare and deliver presentations. Familiarize yourself with some of the great thinking on building better business presentations and visual storytelling from industry leaders like Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds, and others.
  • Structure a Pecha Kucha-like event and invite colleagues to present short topics on anything of interest. Make it during lunch or after work and have some fun.
  • Start videotaping training sessions, edit them down to their important and interesting parts and post them for anyone to view. Promote them and track their usage.

By planting the right seeds, you’re taking the first step in creating the future.

I’m very interested in learning about what you’re doing in your organization to reinvent learning.

Chris Curran is a PwC principal focused on technology strategy and innovation. Find more from Chris on his blog: or on Twitter @PwC_LLP.