Reinventing ourselves

I realized this morning that "cutting out the middle man" is so nineties. Ten years ago, front line supervisors were made obsolete by Demming's principles, weekly quality circles and self-managed workteams. Layers of middle management were cut out after Champy's "outside expert" re-engineering was proven to be an abysmal failure in the early nineties. Employees in manufacturing, hospitality and other service firms no longer needed a control freak to micromanage their efforts or top down reorganizations to improve their output. Teams discussed the problems, found solutions, changed the methods and improved their processes. The metrics all showed dramatic improvements: productivity, quality, cost reduction, attendance, accident reduction.

Some front line supervisors reinvented themselves. They became servant leaders. Instead of telling and controlling, they asked and responded. They became the go-to person for their team's issues that involved another shift, department or approval from higher ups. They went to bat for the team that needed more respect, resources or clout. They lent a hand and offered their perspective in ways that did not interfere with the team's self reliance and resourcefulness. They thought of the team members as learners to be nurtured instead of low lifes in need of instruction, direction and controls.

Hard core control freaks went through mid-life crises. Their lives lost meaning. Their identities as authorities, bosses and superiors were shattered. They lost their sense of how to contribute, what to do or which problems to solve. The more enlightened corporations offered a kind of rehab program for these superivisors. A support system was set up for control freaks to reinvent themselves as servant leaders. Very little of the change could be realized by formal instruction and expert content. The process was informal like communities of practice and blogging. The questions became more important and the conversations more valuable. The transformation occurred for some supervisors, not for all.

Brent Schlenker sees this crisis looming for instructional designers now. Game designers engage the learners better by questioning the value designers provide. Learners get the job of upskilling done on their own. The value provided by instructional designers and content developers is becoming obsolete. Brain science says to do it differently than it's getting done. Deployment of the Web 2.0 tools give us new ways to engage the learners in their self directed explorations. Digital natives expect to get immersed in unfamiliar situations, not boring disguises for delivered content.

This transition will go more smoothly if we take a page from the nineties. We can set up a support system for content developers to reinvent themselves as "digital experience designers" (Thanks Barton!) who see through the eyes of the learners. We can establish communities of practice and provisions for the informal learning to unfold. We can see it coming before it hits us and prepare to welcome the challenge it presents.

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