How your firm can embrace the millennial generation’s ways of learning

First Published July 2015 – Reproduced by kind permission of Managing Partner 

Lawyers who embrace technology are the most likely to figure out profitable ways of working in future. Early exposure to all things digital puts the millennial generation at a natural advantage. Lifting the barriers between learning, knowledge management, and networking, they have the right attitude and the skills to succeed.

Many lawyers have assimilated technology into their daily practice without fundamentally changing their behaviors. They tend to be late adopters who use apps, Google, Skype, and other digital media as useful tools, add-ons, and shortcuts. Digitally savvy millennials do not simply use technology; they live by it. For all early adopters, social media is not a selection of useful tools; it is a way of communicating which is as natural to them as speaking. The “’97ers”, those born into a digital age, do not need to consider how to integrate new digital learning tools into their day-to-day activities; they have used technology to connect, share, and receive feedback all their lives.

Julian Stodd, a consultant, author, and speaker on learning and technology, describes the emerging use of informal, social learning communities as a mechanism for people to come together, “to make sense of problems through collective co-creation of meaning, through discussion and debate, challenge and support” (i) (see Figure 1).J Stodd picture

Figure 1: How we arrived at social learning, copyright by Julian Stodd, 2013.

Embracing this way of being is a huge challenge for organisations steeped in traditional approaches to learning. Some people struggle to engage with the cultural transformation wrought by technology; its impact is an historical phenomenon of which we have no previous collective experience. Access to the printed word was revolutionary, but the effect of William Caxton’s printing press, introduced to Western Europe in 1476, played out over hundreds of years, through the Reformation, the rise of liberal democracy, and public education. Facebook came along in 2004 and has over a billion users. Access to information, to learning and development, is taking shape in a radically new way. As yet, we have only a limited grasp on how the internet will affect the way we live, work and learn, but we know the change has started and that the pace of change will only quicken.

Law firms that do not engage with this change are likely to be left behind. Some firms seek to inhibit the impact of technology by blocking the use of social media at work as a distraction, or making its use a violation of firm policy. In closing down this kind of activity, they are also closing down the creative thinking that goes with it. The danger is that the thinkers will stop thinking, or go elsewhere.

Learning in harmony

Learning and development is ideal territory in which peace and harmony can break out over the use of technology; people can find common identity in coming together using readily accessible media to learn from and with each otherFor those used to being in charge, this requires a shift in mindset, a dose of humility, and a willingness to take risks, but digital learning will be a defining characteristic of successful legal practices in future.

The immediate imperative to embrace the use of digital learning is driven by three key factors:

  1. Expectation

Student satisfaction statics are driving universities to focus on the student experience, including using the digital resources to personalise learning. Using virtual learning environments, universities are able to “wrap the institution round the learner”[ii]. Libraries have been replaced by “learning centers” in which the use of technology is not distinguished from any other part of the learning experience.

 

As universities raise the bar on learning experience, so the onus passes on to the employer to continue to deliver on graduates’ expectations. Graduate employees, trained to use technology to collaborate and solve “academic” problems, are likely to be disconcerted and feel disempowered if they are not able to access similarly sophisticated resources when they are dealing with real, workplace challenges.

 

  1. Compliance

SRA regulations on continuing professional development now permit all kinds of learning activity to be recognised in order to evidence “competence”, including digital learning. To-date this has tended to mean the use of webinars and online courses by traditional CPD providers. Increasingly, firms will come to realise that they can tap into their own in-house expertise through technology. In the future, these initiatives will become better in quality, more user-focused, and more purposeful.

 

  1. Opportunity

The legal market is ripe for disruption, not just through the provision of existing services online. Completely new ways of framing legal services are on the horizon. Whatever form it takes, disruption is likely to come galloping into the market on the back of technology. Whilst only a few are expert enough to create new technologies, it is open to everyone to use digital formats to connect, collaborate, and generate radical ideas which others can make real.

Putting digital learning to work

Whatever our experience of education, the key idea which unifies generations and types of learner is a belief in the value of learning. Commitment to learning brings people together in ways which can serve individual and organisational goals. The challenge for learning and development professionals is to structure learning to improve performance at work in ways that reflect business priorities and values.

At present, digital learning formats include:

  • Digital resources – E-books, videos, and online materials;
  • Interactive resources – Courses, computer games, and apps;
  • Digital communications – Social media and videoconferencing tools; and
  • Collaborative resources – Digital tools to capture, evaluate, and analyse knowledge and experience (such as Your Big Picture, SenseMaker, and Cynefin Framework).

Some of these are cheap and easy to set up; others require significant investment. Whatever type of technology is used, the real issue is: “What is learning?” The emphasis of learning theory has shifted away from what must be learned. The question now posed is: “How can we integrate and expand the individual’s knowledge and skills in order to transform the practice?” The infinite array of information and experience available via web-based technology takes on a different perspective when seen in that light.

Jon Harman, who pioneered the use of digital media in learning at the University of Law, believes that in future effective digital learning will involve “truly personalised and adaptive learning technology”, which recognises that learning happens each and every day at work. “You start with the learning design”, he says, “and then pick the technology to facilitate accordingly”. Putting learners in control is the way forward. It will allow your firm to tap into the knowledge-sharing and problem-solving functions of digital media. The learning and cultural exchange can be transformative and produce well-developed business cases for new ways of working.

One example of how digital platforms can be used to facilitate the exchange of ideas between generations and grow ideas is the global learning community programmed LawWithoutWalls (lawwithoutwalls.org). Devised by Michele DeStefano at Miami Law School it tackles, “cutting edge issues at the intersection of law, business, technology and innovation” by bringing together law students, academics, and mentors drawn from legal practice and from business to create business plans for innovative legal “projects of worth”. These are then pitched to a panel of judges, including members of the judiciary, academics, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists.

The “original” program, sponsored by Eversheds, uses in-person events and virtual collaboration. There is also a wholly virtual program, LWOWx, as well as provision for established practitioners to contribute to discussion with thought leaders on key legal issues via digital media.

The way ahead

Notably, mentors involved in LWOW report learning as much as students. Technology can add value for all by allowing people to step outside of traditional frameworks and learn from each other. Younger generations and early adopters of technology are perceived to “own” the digital arena, but they would be baffled by the idea that anyone could feel excluded from it. So, how do you get everyone on board with the concept of digital learning?

In the short term, assess how technology is currently being used in L&D in your firm. Ninety-one percent of L&D leaders say they want to react faster to change, but only 31 percent say they are delivering the benefits they seek. Currently 14 percent encourage learners to share experiences and solve problems using online social media tools[iii].

“Digital capability” is a phrase we will hear increasingly. Historically, digital capability has referred only to IT services, but it is becoming more widely used and includes those responsible for learning and development design and delivery. According to a recent report by Towards Maturity and the CIPD[iv], 3 percent of current L&D teams are in roles that look at social learning and collaborative learning, but 53 percent plan to increase the number of L&D staff involved in this area. The expertise which will make the difference is not the ability to design learning for all; it will be the ability to empower and enable individual learners and communities to create their own learning.

Andy Jones of Honeyboot & Lemon, a consultancy specialising in bespoke learning content, trains people to create their own learning content, a process he calls “democratising learning knowledge”. He sees people of different ages bring different strengths to the learning agenda, “Enabling recent graduates, who are not held back by tradition or hierarchy, to create learning content can be really powerful”. He observes, “Equally, someone who has life experience can see the potential much more widely and is more likely to have the decision-making clout to make a difference.” Both can be effective champions of learning once they are enabled to generate learning content rapidly to share and develop ideas.

Realising possibilities

We are all now familiar with the ability to answer to our questions by “Googling it”. People who have grown up using technology might explore their questions in a different way by tapping into an online community and/or drawing on an online connection – for example, by using a hash tag on Twitter. Alternatively, they could use their question as the basis for a collaborative learning project with key clients. There are a lot of possibilities. Most of us are using digital learning in some ways already; all of us can use it creatively. Can law firms adapt at an organisational level to harness new approaches to learning? Bringing colleagues on board with digital learning requires vision and skill. It will involve:

  1. Getting comfortable with the idea that learners will be in the driving seat in future;
  2. Ensuring L&D staff are trained in the use of digital learning; and
  3. Recognising and rewarding digital learning.

Digital learning is a virtual playground of creativity, collaboration, and innovation. The firms which can attract and keep the leaders and thinkers of the 21st century will be the ones which demonstrate a deep, strategic commitment to learning as a driver for change in practice.

References

[i] “How we arrived at social learning”, available at Julianstodd.wordpress.com.

[ii] Prof. Mark Stubbs, Manchester Metropolitan University, writing on jisc.ac.uk.

[iii] Towards Maturity, “Modernising Learning: Delivering Results”, 2014.

[iv] “L&D: Evolving roles, enhancing skills”, 2015, towardsmaturity.org.