Why disruption is key to helping businesses learn

6 Dec, 2016

Research by Deloitte portrays ‘the modern learner’ as impatient, easily distracted, overworked and often overwhelmed – but with a thirst for learning that’s fuelled by easier access to information and learning resources. Attention spans continue to decline – most learners will not watch videos longer than 4 minutes – and learning cycles are becoming shorter.

As a result, day-long training sessions in workplaces – reminiscent of the school classroom – are no longer fit for purpose. They’re too short for digital natives, too old-fashioned for digital immigrants, and generate too little ROI in terms of time spent, knowledge retention and engagement.

Today, we need to find alternatives to antiquated learning methods. Step forward disruptive learning: new technologies and practices creating new opportunities and new ways to learn.

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Disruptive learning works by adding variety to the learning context. It engages people and groups left behind by current approaches to teaching and training, and it provides those who are engaged with new tools and ideas.

To prove how workplace training can be positively affected by disruptive learning , we’ll consider each of the four key levels at which businesses learn – individual, group, organisational, and interorganisational. We’ll then demonstrate how disruption can positively impact each level of learning.


The smallest scale at which a business can learn is on an employee-by-employee basis. Each individual learns new skills or ideas, and their productivity, efficiency or job satisfaction increases as they gain expertise.

Individual learning doesn’t have to occur in a formal environment – there’s no need to send every employee off to a course on their own. Disrupting the everyday behaviour of individual employees creates an opportunity for informal, self-guided learning.

For example, businesses can introduce their employees to productivity apps such as Waste No Time. Rather than forcing employees to clock in and out as a monitoring exercise, they can invite employees to use these apps and learn about their habits and workflow.

The desired learning outcome here is the moment of revelation – “I never realised, but I lose twenty minutes every time I go on Facebook”. Once these habits are recognised, they can be owned and managed, and employees start to ration their time more wisely.


Learning at this level is made effective by innovation in technique and structure. Workplace training sessions often involve a small group of employees undergoing an introduction or re-introduction to basic concepts in health and safety, best practice and legal requirements: in other words, telling people things they think they already know. The model of learning is passive, and it’s easy to switch off.

At this level, blended learning can prove highly effective – proving that technology on its own isn’t a disruptive innovation. Introducing people to new apps, software or equipment doesn’t have to mean sitting down with a team and showing them, face-to-face, how the tech works – nor does it mean never holding a classroom session again.

Group learning: When used in the right way, classroom-based learning can be effective.

You can disrupt small training groups by flipping the class. Ask people to review the materials before they enter the learning group, and focus the face-to-face learning experience on applications and case studies.

Algonquin College in Ontario, Canada, uses flipped classes in its media courses. Learners build awareness and confidence with complex editing software using video tutorials and short exercises and come to classes able to begin creative work with their peers.

This approach works because it ensures the most value from ‘face time’. Rather than having individuals encounter material for the first time, struggling through at their own pace – creating a group which advances at the speed of its slowest learner – the flipped class ensures that the individual struggle is over and done with before the classroom encounter begins. This means class time can be spent on actually doing, creating a learning experience of value.

A shift towards team-based learning also disrupts and improves the learning experience. For one learner to successfully complete the training, all learners must successfully complete the training. This alters the group dynamics, forcing the enthusiastic to step down and inviting the indifferent to become involved. People learn new approaches and behaviours as well as learning what can feel like old content.


Organisational learning occurs in two ways; social and technical.

From the technical view, organisations process information all the time. You can’t do something without learning about it. Day-to-day business activity involves processing and responding to information from within and outside the business; every time that happens, the business itself learns.

Meanwhile, the social view is that learning emerges from the way people make sense of their experiences at work and the way people relate to their colleagues.

This kind of social learning benefits greatly from disruptive innovation. All the ‘worst kind of employees’ have one thing in common – they’ve become isolated inside their own tasks and horizons, losing sight of the business as a whole and their role within it.

Disrupt the sense of isolation with a dashboard – a visualised report, to which everyone in the business has access and can contribute. As teams learn how their work affects the rest of the business, they become more invested in each other and more supportive of each other’s efforts.


When organisations collaborate, they inevitably share knowledge with each other. On this grand scale, learning occurs at a communal, rather than individual, level. Organisations develop new standards, rules and procedures for their collaborative work, as their standard operating procedures are bound to differ. Individuals are inspired to make changes in their workplaces, and thus the organisation ‘learns’ a new way of working.

Disruption at this level means engaging with unfamiliar ways of working and thinking about work. Encounters between different workplace cultures – The United States and Japan, for example – can either reinforce the way organisations work (if the encounter is dismissed offhand) or disrupt it (if the encounter is reflected upon and an effort made to understand it).

When individuals make an effort to reflect on the ways in which their counterparts do things, they can bring the rationale back to their organisation and provide a positive disruption. Western manufacturing management may not have adopted the Japanese ‘Just In Time’ philosophy wholesale, but it is considered an influential philosophy at the highest level of management training.

This is exactly the sort of thing that VR tech enables. VR can bring together groups of learners from all over the world and let them work together in a virtual space. If you want to show the world what you do, you won’t need to physically drag (or fly) people to your premises.

Having access to varied approaches and strategies makes managers more agile in their role, and more agile managers mean more agile businesses, which can respond quickly to crisis and opportunity alike.


Disruption is key to the survival and success of a business. Without disruptive innovation, they stagnate. Equally, for a business to thrive and grow, it has to embrace opportunities for disruptive learning at every level, from the individual to the interorganisational.

Collaboration with other businesses can change everything. See how we’ve helped businesses disrupt themselves and grow by checking out our case studies.


Picture credit

(CC) Brian Solls, via Flickr