Earlier this month (March 17, to be exact), there was an interesting article by John Boudreau in the Harvard Business Review: “Work in the Future Will Fall into These 4 Categories.” Boudreau argues that five forces are shaping the future nature of “work” today.  In this article, I am going to very briefly summarize the impact of these, introduce some concepts of the types of learning, and suggest how this combination presents a significant challenge to us in the learning field.

Four types of work

Depending on the degree to which three of these five forces (changing social and organizational arrangements, demographics within your organization, and the effects of always-connected technology) have “democratized” your workplace, and the degree to which the other two (technology and automation) are impacting the work ecosystem, Boudreau sees work as resolving into four different types. These range from what we might think of as traditional full-time employment, with familiar variations including part-time, contract and flexible arrangements, to project- and contract-based structures. Within each type, there will be additional differentiation driven by the level of technological empowerment present.

I recommend taking the time to read the article (it’s short, and there’s an excellent summary graphic). It does seem to me that work right now, today, falls into those categories. As novelist William Gibson has said, the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed. In fact, all four types of work could conceivably exist within different divisions or business units across an enterprise.

This is important to those of us in the learning business because these forces and these variations in the structure of work and the workplace have everything to do with how we do our work in Learning and Development (L&D)—indeed, with the nature of that work. In the stable, traditional organization, it is easy to simply go ahead with more traditional formal “training” activity and to anticipate that everyday “workplace” learning will take care of what the formal does not cover. But as workplace democratization and technological empowerment increase, they will disrupt old ways of dealing with learning and development needs more and more.

Types of learning

Why is this important? There are several reasons to be concerned about disruption in addition to the obvious ones. For example, it’s already challenging for employees today to keep up with the learning that they absolutely must do in order to do their jobs (“We Are Losing the Race Between Learning and Technology: What to Do About It,” Learning Solutions Magazine, January 18, 2016). How much worse will this get in those cases that Boudreau, in that HBR article, describes as “uber empowered,” when “an accelerated cycle of technology advancement and more democratic work arrangements fuel one another”?

One element that we in L&D will have to incorporate into our thinking is the types of learning. Not learning styles—learning types. These involve skills that employees, from maintenance and production to professionals to executives, will need to develop in order to function in environments that are turbocharged, reimagined, and uber-empowered. Dealing with these environments, and with change, takes three types of learning at both the individual and organizational levels.

The first two types were characterized by the psychologist Chris Argyris and the philosopher Donald Schön as single-loop and double-loop learning. In their work together, they identified two conditions under which learning takes place. One of these happens when an organization achieves what it intended—the outcome matches the plan. The other condition occurs when a mismatch between intention and outcome is identified and corrected.

Single-loop learning takes place when a person or an organization creates a match between intent and outcome, or when a person changes an action in order to correct a mismatch. In other words, someone asks, “Are we doing this right?” Double-loop learning happens when the assumptions that led to the intention and the action are challenged and the action changed so that the outcome is correct. In this case, the question is, “Are we doing the right thing?”

The third type of learning is sometimes called “triple-loop learning” or “deutero-learning,” first articulated by anthropologist Gregory Bateson. In triple-loop learning, which is transformative, the question is, “How do we know the right thing to do?” This involves questioning and changing of values, norms, and social structures underlying or governing problem-framing, goals, assumptions, and action. Triple-loop learning is “learning about learning.”

The challenge for L&D

As workplaces become more democratized and work more empowered by technology, a major challenge faced by L&D becomes finding ways to ensure that we are effectively supporting single-, double-, and triple-loop learning at the individual and organizational levels. We are accustomed to dealing mainly with the single-loop type. How long will it take for us to work out ways to deliver the other two?