Scalable learning founded on small group collaboration and extended networks will drive organizational success


In my recent conversation with John Hagel on The Virtual Excellence Show, one of the topics John shared insights on was scalable learning, which he has substantially focused on in recent years. For an excellent framing of the subject see his article in Harvard Business Review Great Businesses Scale Their Learning, Not Just Their Operations.

In our conversation John spoke about scalable learning – which by its very nature has to be significantly virtual – as a fundamental driver of institutional success.

He describes how the most powerful form of learning is creating new knowledge by learning from action, the accelerated learning of small groups that challenge and help each other, and the opportunity to connect to broad and diverse expertise beyond the organization.

See the video for John’s full insights, or see below for a full transcript of the video.


It seems to me that your central theme for a few years has been scalable learning. And so we want to hear about that, but particularly in a virtual context. To me, this idea of scalable learning of course has to be virtual.

You can’t just cram people in a bunch of classrooms or proximity to learn. So, how do we build scalable learning? And what’s the role of the virtualization of organizations in that?

A very multi-dimensional topic there. I would just say as a generalization, that again, in the context of this view of the big shift, one way we have of representing the big shift is we’re moving from an institutional model which has been driven by scalable efficiency. For success as an institution hinges on becoming more and more efficient at scale, to an institutional model of scalable learning, where the key to success and to thriving is learning faster. But in that context, I would hasten to add, when I talk to executives about learning, I quickly get the answer, “Oh, we do learning. We have training programs.” No, in a world that’s rapidly changing, the most powerful and necessary form of learning is not transferring existing knowledge through training programs. It’s creating entirely new knowledge as you confront new situations and act in those situations and learn through the action.

And that’s where learning in the form of creating new knowledge occurs. It’s in the workplace, not in a training program, not even with virtual training. It’s by first of all, seeing problems and opportunities that nobody’s seen before and developing approaches to addressing those and learning as you go through those approaches. And another key point in all this is, we’ve come to believe, and we’ve done quite a bit of research on this, that no matter how smart you are as an individual, you’re going to learn a lot faster in terms of creating new knowledge, if you’re working as part of a small group of people. Typically it’s five to 15 people where you can challenge each other, reach out and ask for help from each other and come up with really new approaches to creating much more value in whatever context you’re in.

And that’s where we think the real opportunity is in scalable learning. And then the other piece just to add to it is scalability … one of my favorite quotes is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur by the name of Bill Joy, who once said, “Look, no matter how many smart people you have within your organization, just remember one thing. There are a lot more smart people outside your organization than inside.” So if you’re serious about scalable learning, you need to find ways to connect to a broader and more diverse range of expertise and capability, wherever it resides, geographically or institutionally, it’s about connecting and learning together.