Conceptual Learning is Beautiful, Unique and Meaningful

Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, recognized the role of conceptual output as early as 1997 in a speech at the University of Connecticut when he said “The growth of the conceptual component of output has brought with it accelerating demands for workers who are equipped not simply with technical know-how, but with the ability to create, analyze, and transform information and to interact effectively with others.” By 2004, he had developed his views on the topic, referring to reductions in manufacturing in the United States, outsourcing to India and China, excess of supply and the global marketplace, all leading to the increasing conceptualization of economic output.

Taking a page straight from Dan Pink and Gary Hamel, knowledge and even expertise are common, expected, cheap (sometimes free) to source, and no longer represent lasting competitive advantage. We have moved from the knowledge age to the conceptual age where creative, symphonic thinking – the ability to harness sometimes seemingly disparate pieces of information and ideas and mash them into wholly new iterations that can be applied effectively to solutions and results – are in fact the individual and organization’s competitive advantage.

Whatever field you work in, your expertise is expected, but your initiative and creativity to bring unique and signature solutions to solve unexpected problems is your brand, and increasingly also your company’s brand and identity. If this is true (and you better believe it), the future of learning is to provide more conceptual and powerful learning opportunities in which the expected learning outcomes are by nature, unexpected. Sometimes called chaotic or unstable by design, this construct suggests building learning opportunities which offer insight, ideas and parables intended for inference and application by the learner.

This calls for balancing the spoon-fed, outcome-anticipated, specific-competence results-oriented learning environments with more conceptual learning environments which treat learners as ready and able to distill ideas presented into their own signature integrated solutions applicable for their line of work and customers, whether they be internal or external.

Tom Kelley, CEO of IDEO, a premier product and services innovation company, has been a long advocate of this approach. In his book, The Ten Faces of Innovation, he describes a particular persona called the “Cross-Pollinator.” Cross-Pollinators are those types who are inquisitive beyond their particular domain expertise and explore ideas from industries outside their immediate purview, come to understand the technology, device or methods employed elsewhere and figure out how to incorporate these ideas into their own work.

How might this look like in learning environments?  To compete with the wild web, these learning environments will provide media and socially rich environments which aid learners to deduct applications from disparate sources.  The conceptual age learning environment will offer a deep portfolio of ideas and solutions garnered from varieties of domains. For example, a sales learning environment will not only offer presentation tips and niche industry knowledge but perhaps also ways in which organizations well outside their own have leveraged technology to gain their customer attention. For example, Sugarloaf Ski resort has been admired for their ability to use social media to update the faithful.

Foremost, emerging learning environments will understand that people have their own intrinsic motivators, often contrary to what their company or manager thinks is their primary motivator (drop the carrots and sticks paradigm).  When really what motivates the learner is passion, purpose and curiosity.  Learning opportunities will only resonate when they intersect with someone’s current passion, fulfills their sense of purpose and giving, and piques their curiosity.

Learning opportunities are plentiful and the expectations are rising, and to be compelling whatever you are offering must be beautiful, unique and meaningful.