Emergent Learning & Development: Guide to How and Why

To succeed, foster trust, invest in flexible learning infrastructure, and measure adoption. Three weeklong "change sprints" can kickstart this approach: Collaboration Design, Accessibility Innovation, and Adoption.

Emergent Learning & Development: Guide to How and Why

Organizations are learning machines.

The learning (and forgetting) curve

We’ve known this forever, but we haven’t always acted on it. The chart to the right is a measurement of the productivity of an assembly line making Lockheed L-1011 airplanes.

As the team made more planes, they got better at making planes: the first plane took more than 1.1 million hours to make, and the 100th took fewer than 300,000 hours.

But eventually, after they made around 150 planes, the organization started forgetting what it learned.

Despite robust guides for “how to make the plane,” the teams associated with the manufacturing still had lots to learn, and lots to remember.

Bruce Henderson called this “the Experience Curve,” but it’s easier to remember as a Learning Curve.

But there are other ways that organizations learn. Well before the L-1011 was even an idea, manufacturing leaders were coming up with ways to make their teams more effective. On one hand, you could give folks instruction on how to do something. On the other hand, there was an idea that you could ask the team what they should do, and let them make a decision about it.

You’ll never guess which worked better.

Letting a team decide how they work: huge, sustained increases in productivity

So with all of that in mind, what is your organization learning? Is it learning good lessons or bad ones? How is it learning those lessons?

We believe there is an alternative approach to L&D that is more efficient and effective than traditional methods. We refer to this approach as “Emergent Learning & Development,” contrasting with traditional, centrally led approaches.

Both modes of change are important, but we’re shifting to value Emergent L&D over Traditional approaches. Here’s why:

Emergent L&D Brings Teams Closer

This approach requires individuals and teams to share their ideas, knowledge and experiences. The natural side-effect of more sharing is more collaboration and inclusiveness, more learning from one another, all of which create a deeper connection to the overall mission of the organization. I’m more connected to these people; I’m invested in our collective success.

Emergent L&D is Real-World Learning

Prioritizing flexibility and adaptability to changing needs of organizations and individuals eliminates the “one-size-fits-none” problem inherent to traditional change management. Further, Emergent L&D focuses on the real problems felt by teams in the organization, rather than those that are assumed by central leadership. This reduces wasted time and expense, and with good “gardening,” can also eliminate duplicative projects (i.e. each region comes up with their own approach to Problem X).

Emergent L&D Improves Daily

Because the idea is to focus on doing the right things right, rather than just following a process, the constant cycle of try, measure, iterate results in an organization that gets better constantly, not just once. On the other hand, because Traditional L&D focuses more on enforcement of a new “thing,” at least a portion of the organization is likely to think the new “thing” is bad, unwarranted, or ill-advised.


Not every organization is ready for Emergent L&D. We can think of at least three core requirements for orgs (and leaders) that want to try working in this new way.

  1. A Culture of Trust and Collaboration: Leaders must foster a culture of trust and collaboration – not just on the surface or through malicious/passive compliance. Psychological safety is a must; otherwise new and novel approaches to important problems won’t get raised, so the emergent flow of ideas will feel more like a trickle. As a result, teams won’t have anything new and interesting to adopt, and the new approach will be a failure.
  2. A Flexible and Adaptive Learning Infrastructure: Emergent L&D was possible before good digital knowledge management tools existed – both of the examples we cite are pre-internet! But good learning infrastructure – including tools and processes that allow for collaboration, knowledge sharing and real-time feedback – are a requirement for scaling this approach to tens of thousands of people. These tools need to be configurable and usable by everyone in the organization, not just by a central team.
  3. The Ability to Measure Adoption (and Change!): Leaders leaning into emergence need the right metrics in place to track the spread of good ideas, and to document performance improvements that come from these ideas. This can be as simple as a shared whiteboard to track pre- and post-adoption measures, and as complex as an ERP system fully integrated into the LMS we just described.

Change Sprints

If you’re thinking of trying this out… good. Here are three weeklong sprints that you can think of as “mini change modules” to try to bring this to life.

Collaboration Design Sprint

  • Goal: A documented approach to collaboration that can inspire others to work in a new way.
  • Activities: Bring a small number of teams from different departments to work together on a specific project or challenge. But don’t just solve the problem at hand – plan to document how they shared their knowledge, skills, and experiences, and the benefits that came from this approach.

Accessibility Innovation Sprint

  • Goal: Produce an emergent, open library of resources and programs to support employee development.
  • Activities: Bring 2-3 teams together to focus on making all their existing knowledge, including training materials and online courses, searchable and accessible to everyone in the organization.

Adoption Sprint

  • Goal: Align on a few ways that change-makers can track adoption in your organization.
  • Activities: Bring a handful of crafty digital innovators together (ask around, and don’t worry about hierarchy or location) for a sprint to sort out how to measure uptake of the new changes. Is it views of a Loom video or Canva document? Is it signups for a coaching course or attendees of a virtual workshop? Is it active users of a new tool?

We hope you give Emergent L&D a shot – let us know in the comments what you’re going to try!