“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but rather a fire to be kindled” (1)

 

In a society where early education is readily available, it is easy for learning to become something that we take for granted. A chore, something else to add to the ever-growing To Do list.

As children, learning comes so easily to us that we don’t even realise that it’s happening. We are naturally curious. We constantly ask “why?” “what?” “how?” (or my nephew’s favourite – “have you seen that?!”) with a tone of genuine wonder and delight.

Like many Learning and Development professionals, for me, learning is a pleasure – a strong intrinsic driver and motivator. That drive to grow and learn as a child reignited by the endless opportunities of increased knowledge and new capabilities. We also know that, like exercise, learning can be an integral tool in supporting general wellbeing and psychosocial qualities such as increased self-esteem, self-efficacy and a sense of identity, as well as building broader capabilities such as the ability to deal with change and adversity (2). In short, it is good for us.

learning can be an integral tool in supporting general well being and psychosocial qualities such as increased self-esteem, self-efficacy and a sense of identity, as well as building broader capabilities such as the ability to deal with change and adversity

With the strong desire to learn being such an integral part of my own identity, it can be a frustration to hear “I don’t have time”, “I already know everything I need to know” or “It isn’t a priority” as a response to being offered or suggesting others seeking out developmental opportunities in the workplace. This frustration isn’t a lack of empathy with the growing pressure on individuals in the workplace, but rather from the need to ensure that organisations are using a holistic approach to their learning activities that enables learning through a change of mindset.

OE Cam builds its learning around the model below. Our approach considers the wider context to ensure that learning is available in different ways and the blockers to learning are removed.

I spoke with some of OE Cam’s L&D network to seek their views and experiences of the current learning climate and help shed some light on how we can remove blockers and reinforce a learning mindset for individuals and organisations as a whole.

 

Time is the most valuable thing that a man person can spend Theophrastus. (3)

The OE Cam approach to development considers the internal (mindset of individuals) and external environment (the business, structures, processes and culture) in order to ensure embedded changes in behaviour and capabilities. (4)

 

Reflecting on learning that has already happened

Unsurprisingly, the perception of a lack of time was a major contribution to a reluctance to learn.

Who doesn’t feel like they need more time? It is a constant variable that we often feel powerless to control. The obvious response to this is to consider prioritisation; make learning a priority and ensure that people understand the value of it. Of course, this is important. However, it isn’t the only answer, depending on what we consider ‘learning’ to be.

An interesting conversation with one L&D professional reminded me that we are all learning all the time, but sometimes we don’t recognise it as such.

They described feedback that there weren’t enough learning opportunities from colleagues in their organisation, despite the continuous opportunity to stretch oneself in interesting projects that need new solutions and approaches. Such projects can feel uncomfortable and challenging (a sure sign that learning is taking place!) which means the project is seen in a negative way rather than accepting it as a positive learning experience. The discomfort is simply a natural response to the brain having to work hard and seek new connections gain further insights.

Reflection is a critical component of learning and facilitating these reflective discussions is an important step in reinforcing learning and development. This can be encouraged in 1:1s with managers, team discussions and, more importantly, within the general narrative of day-to-day conversations. For example, asking “What you did you learn?”, “What would you do differently next time?”.

 

It’s not necessarily the amount of time you spend at practice that counts: it’s what you put into the practice (5)

 

Ensuring learning is embedded in the day-to-day

Learning opportunities at work fall under the classic ‘motivation-hygiene’ factor theory (6) – if opportunities to learn are not there, employees get frustrated, but when they are, employees can be indifferent. This ‘indifference’ was a blocker that became increasingly apparent during a discussion with one L&D professional “we are in a constant battle with passive learners, those who expect learning to be handed to them and refuse to seek it out for themselves”.

The trend for online learning continues to rise, with its flexible 24×7 benefits and instant access to a wealth of materials. However as a result, the tendency to seek out learning through peer-to-peer discussions, often goes unutilised. Another L&D professional commented that “what is important is that people work together, that social learning takes place”.

In classic theories of ‘levels of learning’ (7), ‘passive’ learning is only one aspect of development – for real learning to take place, it needs to be actively practised, experienced and tested. A library of learning materials is beneficial, but it is the application which is more helpful. A senior manager in one organisation commented that “there is a general lack of capability in the ability to understand the key constructs around an idea, that allow it them to be applied in many differing situations”. In other words, learning activities that allow us to embed the theory through testing and trialling.

 

The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. (8)

 

Seeking out learning opportunities going forward

It’s far easier to be motivated by a target. This was a statement that came to mind while in discussion with another L&D professional. They described that learners tend to seek out the more obvious learning needs first – those that must be completed for compliance purposes.

What is more difficult is ensuring “people see the value in self-development”; often referred to (much to my continued annoyance) as ‘soft skills’. For example, Emotional Intelligence is reportedly one of the most critical skills in the modern workplace and yet it isn’t always taken seriously or sought out by individuals (9). This is perhaps because self-development often doesn’t link directly with KPI targets and/or in many cases isn’t reinforced or explicitly rewarded by organisations.

For such indirect learning, ‘curiosity’ appears to be the differentiator between those individuals who seek it and those who don’t. Organisational practices that reward exploring the unknown and asking questions can support the growth of curiosity and drive greater innovation. For example, beginning any team sessions with “what questions do we have?” rather than just leaving questions to the end of a discussion can begin to build the natural tendency to ask questions continuously. Such narratives reinforce learning to be exploratory as well as an opportunity to fulfil known missing knowledge. Helping to decrease the “we don’t know what we don’t know” void.

 

Conclusion

Beyond the individual benefits of learning to the employee, those organisations with a strong learning culture benefit from a greater ability to change, adapt and grow. A mindset of learning builds resilience in times of uncertainty and adversity; it reduces employee turnover, sickness absence and improves employee engagement. In short, learning isn’t just good for people, it’s good for business too.

Throughout the ongoing discussions three key themes appeared to be important for building a healthy learning culture:

1. Redefining what we consider to be learning – adding to the definition – theoretical learning (whether that be physical or digital) + day-to-day challenges

2. Being mindful of what kind of learning organisational narratives and practices are reinforcing – are they suffocating the drive to learn and explore?

3. It’s not just about having the ‘right’ mix of learning activities, but also a proactive mindset in learners.

 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the OE Cam L&D network for sharing their views and perspectives.

Beyond the individual benefits of learning to the employee, those organisations wit a strong learning culture benefit from a greater ability to change, adapt and grow. A mindset of learning builds resilience in times of uncertainty and adversity; it reduces employee turnover, sickness absence and improves employee engagement. In short, learning isn’t just good for people, it’s good for business too.

by Toni Marshall

toni.marshall@oecam.com

References

  1. Attributed to Plutarch, a Greek-Roman biographer; quote from “On Listening to Lectures”, (AD 46 – 120)
  2. The Benefits of Learning: the impact of education of health, family life and social capital” Chapter 3 by Cathie Hammond et al (2004)
  3. Attributed to Theophrastus, c. 371 – c. 287 BC
  4. Based on Gibbs’ reflective cycle. “Learning by Doing: a guide to teaching and learning methods” by Gibbs G. (1988)
  5. Eric Lindros
  6. Frederick Hertzberg
  7. Cone of Experience” (1946) by Edgar Dale
  8. Albert Einstein
  9. Harvard Business Review “The EI Advantage – driving innovation and business success through the power of emotional intelligence” (August 2019).