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When Employees Hack Learning - And Why That's a Good Thing

In some instances, strategically cutting corners is how to learn in today’s work environment.

August 8, 2012
Related Topics: Learning Delivery, Learning Delivery

In their book, Hacking Work, Josh Klein and Bill Jensen argue that more respect ought to be paid to the practice of “hacking,” or applying a computer programmer mentality to otherwise traditional work tasks. The authors describe the many ways in which today’s take-charge workers hack, or break traditional rules and alter processes, thus attaining smarter outcomes. Facebook’s “hackathon” culture is a primary example of this practice. Companies, including learning leaders, must understand, accept and leverage this mentality.

Every day billions of emails and millions of blog posts zoom through cyberspace. Facebook’s user population is roughly 900 million and growing, and Apple boasts of more than 500,000 apps. Technology is has forced revolutionary change at work and in how workers accomplish their jobs.

Catering to the evolving group of workers — namely, Gen Y — requires revolutionary change. To engage them, fill every tech channel with learning. Gen Y relish speed and embrace technology, so enable them to leverage such weapons for efficient knowledge access and absorption. In other words, let them hack.

Consider the case of college students Jonathan Shriftman and Jake Medwell as they sought to launch their bike start-up, Sole. When they asked their friends, family and professional and academic connections for feedback on their business plan, they also used this base of support for votes in an online entrepreneurial contest, which they won.

Their company’s concept and ultimate success became an iterative process with the input of their advisors. Instead of getting the whole bike business perfect from the start — by following the formal course of a business plan and beginning with what some might call outdated marketing tactics — Shriftman and Medwell launched their business quickly and improved it steadily along the way. The company is still growing.

In essence, they hacked — albeit in a positive way. Such phenomena can also happen in a corporation. Successful people know when to leverage resources and learn beyond traditional boundaries. To some degree, most people hack their work ethically and earnestly, sometimes without even thinking of it as a “hack.”

In large part, learning technology has enabled employees to adopt more of a hacker mentality. With the right hacks, technology can open the door to new learning solutions for people who are moving at a hurried pace.

Hacking is also synonymous with combining, condensing, compressing, coordinating, coalescing and working around. All are aimed toward creating the fastest processes possible. Most people don’t have time to read the whole newspaper daily or consume 10 business books annually to gain all the information they need. Successful workers absorb short bursts of relevant knowledge as needed from all the resources they can reach. They multitask, multisource and micro-consume throughout the day.

For many, ongoing development remains fluid, an accumulating sum of short learning moments drawn from traditional and non-traditional information sources, social networks included. Learning often means consuming chunks of data on-demand as a utility to fulfill the constant need to get the job done.

And if learning leaders embrace new technologies and emulate the company’s more tech savvy employees, they can combine traditional best practices with such a “hack” mentality.

Michel Koopman is CEO of business book summary provider getAbstract Inc. He can be reached at

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