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What goes wrong when we formalise and institutionalise learning?

I think three factors are often at play. Firstly, we as learning professionals try too hard to control the learning process and the learner. Very few of us like to feel controlled, and when we are, our motivation and desire to achieve something is often severely diminished. Secondly, we often fail to fully connect the organisational need for learning with the individual’s specific field of work and thus the learning loses relevance to the individual learner. And thirdly, we force our learners to take on more than they can cope with and create a sense of learning overload. The second and third of these factors are often caused by our focus on the first factor i.e. our desire for control is perhaps at the heart of the problem.

So learning professionals, what can we do to improve workplace learning in our own organisations?

I think first and foremost we need to find time to place ourselves in our learners’ shoes and experience the world as our learners do. Don’t forget that we and they are the same human beings. Take time to think of yourself as a learner.

Last year I challenged myself with a question ‘when did I last learn something new and important?’

Of course, taken literally, the answer for most of us will be sometime in the last few minutes or hours of our wake time as we are continually receiving new information, be it conversations, meetings, broadcast media or online content.

But that’s not the point of this question. I posed the question to challenge our thinking about when we learn the really important stuff in our lives and to reflect on the learning processes that are driving our personal development and growth. As learning professionals there is good merit in investing an hour of our time to think both deeply and truthfully about this question.

Challenging myself with this question I came up with the following four most memorable and important learnings in my recent personal learning journey:

  • The chance finding and then watching of a 15 minute TED Talk by Simon Sinek on How Great Leaders Inspire Action has had a profound effect on my thinking as a business professional and my consulting and coaching focus with clients.
  • Online research led me to a recorded series of undergraduate degree lectures from a world-renowned professor (Professor Shiller) at the prestigious Yale University in the US on financial markets which has been highly influential in building my understanding of financial investing for my future.
  • Meeting with an expert on eating disorders for one hour was a significant help to me in dealing with mental health issues within my close family.
  • Studying a short 20 minute eLearning module based on Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Effective People has radically changed the way I organise and manage my time and my life.

Now in the same period, I attended a number of workshops, events and conferences, read books and articles, and participated in many, many business meetings with colleagues, peers and clients, all of whom possess expert knowledge of interest and value to me.

So why did these four learning experiences and outcomes stick out in my mind?

  • In all cases there was a deep and real personal resonance at the time with the learning subject matter. Active learning requires that we invest ourselves in the process both mentally and physically and we need strong motivation to adapt and change based on our learning.
  • Simplicity of message is also a common factor in certainly three of the cases. We respond best to learning messages that sit easily within our contextual understanding of the subject domain. Keep it simple is an important philosophy.
  • Inspirational and credible delivery was a key factor with Simon Sinek’s TED Talk and Professor Shiller’s lectures. Similarly, engaging instructional design was important to the impact of the eLearning module.
  • Depth of experience of the challenge at hand and the ability to offer practical guidance was crucial for my learning from an expert about eating disorders. Professor Shiller’s obvious expertise and extensive knowledge added significant weight and power to his teachings.

In three of the four cases the amount of time I invested in the learning was very short in comparison to the long-term value I gained and yet I had no way of knowing at the time that these small investments of time would have such positive impacts that then transpired.

The conclusions I reached from this self-reflection are several and important:

  • The length of time spent learning often does not correlate with its value and long-term impact. In fact, the opposite is often the case. You need to be open to learn from anything and at any time.
  • Explore every avenue of learning and not just those that are the most obvious, easiest or planned activities.
  • It is important to build serendipity into our learning mindset. By this I mean that the more you are open to learning opportunities then the more likely it is that learning will come your way. Make every moment a potential learning moment.

I would strongly recommend that you take some time to do this yourself and think about your own learning experiences. Remember, that learning is a very personal experience, and you need to have the courage to think personally as well as professionally and then to consider how your personal experiences can and should influence your professional philosophy to learning. Remember, what works for you is more than likely going to work for your colleagues and peers, as deep down we are all driven by the same human traits.

My own personal learning is that we, as professionals, need to be more willing to sacrifice control to achieve true empowerment for our learners. Of course, I am not suggesting we let anarchy prevail, but I am suggesting that we may want to take one or two brave steps that shift the centre of gravity more to the learner, in some respects.