As people progress through university and the beginning of a new job, they often learn to become specialists in a certain area. Their CVs reflect training programs and job experiences in a specific field.
But many find that when they enter the workforce they are asked to know much more than they learned in school. Integrated learning is essential to companies and employees as they learn to widen their knowledge base and compete in the business environment.
This type of learning can help bring employees together and make a company stronger. Here’s how:
Many current programs that we’ve seen in companies are excellent in their content and delivery methods. The traditional model that many of these training programs follow is that learners from an industry learn skills in that industry. People in finance participate in finance training, people in marketing learn more about marketing, and so on.
When employees do have training in another field, it is usually an isolated event. This type of training setup leads many employees to specialization.
This seems like an ideal setup, employees become better in their fields to the point where they can call themselves specialists. But many leaders in employee training are now calling for more differentiation and integrated learning, rather than specialized learning.
Also read: Learning Skills Essential to Every Job
The Limits of Specialization
The problem with specialization, according to many training experts, is that it is a model that is no longer relevant to the business world today. Leaders and employees might see that the current workplace environment requires them to have more than one skill set, but little in the education system is changing.
For example, people in finance need more IT skills as systems rely more and more on technology. People in marketing may need more knowledge of finance in order to understand how their ideas and strategies relate to the organization's profits and losses.
But in order for many employees to get cross-discipline training, they would have to take courses specific to people in those fields. There are few opportunities to take ‘IT in Finance’ or ‘Finance for Marketers’.
This focus on specialization can actually hurt a business. Employers who do not provide opportunities for integration limit their employee’s teamwork skills and management skills. They also limit the necessary skills of cross-disciplinary analysis.
Integrated learning brings many different disciplines together. Learners have the opportunity to analyze material from different perspectives and see how one industry relates to another in the scope of their job and the company as a whole. There are many advantages to this type of learning.
- Increased understanding and retention of material
- Greater application opportunities
- Cooperative learning
- Increased employee motivation
- Improved self-confidence and confidence in the role within the community
- Better decision making and critical thinking skills
- Innovation and creative cross-discipline analysis
- Improved learning transfer
- The ability to take on multiple perspectives
Others relate integrated learning to Hirscheim’s thoughts on emancipatory learning. People who have knowledge of multiple disciplines have emancipatory knowledge, meaning they can view problems through different lenses.
As the name suggests, emancipatory learning frees the learner from the limits of specialist thinking. It requires not only reflection on and analysis of the outside world, but of the learner’s internal, subjective experience.
The Rate of Change in Integrated Learning
Despite the limits of specialization and the advantages of integrated learning, changes in training styles and systems have been slow. In the US, for example, about 65% of training programs offer integrated learning in accounting and IT. Of those programs, only 57% require that type of learning.
While many business and employees value the ability to work effectively across industries, training programs are limited in how they incorporate that need. There are some theories about why this is the case.
- Limited financial resources for integrated training
- Perception that cross-discipline and integrated learning is not necessary
- Difficulty in creating connections between different disciplines
- Multiple changes to the curriculum
- Few trainers or experts that provide integrated training
Uses of Integrated Learning
There are some companies and leaders in business who are adapting to the changes in learning and using integrated learning effectively. Companies like IBM, Toyota, General Electric, Microsoft, and Ford are a few of the major corporations that are beginning to alter their learning programs to incorporate integrated learning.
Elon Musk is world famous for his innovative companies and products. Many believe that he reached this state in his career by incorporating integrated learning into his life early on. He is well known for reading 2 books a day, across various disciplines. He learns about topics beyond one industry and has mastered the art of learning transfer, being able to take concepts from one area and apply them to another or to real world applications.
How to Create Integrated Learning
Creating a system of integrated learning within a training program is more than a few readings or a project about another discipline. These types of learning opportunities can prime learners for analyzing different disciplines.
For this type of training to be effective, employees really need scaffolding. This implies that leaders and trainers are there to help employees form their own thought processes about various disciplines and the relationships between them. This type of knowledge is gained through collaboration, self-awareness, and critical thinking.
UCLA professor, Holyoak, states that critical thinking process can start with two basic questions: “What does this remind me of?” and “Why does it remind me of it?” These questions help people free themselves from specialization and form a more integrated approach to work and learning.
As Buckminster Fuller takes integration and emancipation to a new level, he states that it is not just necessary for learning and work, but also life,
“We are in an age that assumes that the narrowing trends of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable… In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others.”