One of the key challenges for all organisations is to promote and sustain effective learning and development (L&D) across its workforce. L&D can be a contentious area that attracts varying levels of support and priority, depending on the leadership of the organisation, and the value managers place on learning within the work place. Unfortunately, cost is often the key criterion that decides how much of a company’s resources are allocated to its L&D budget.
Most would agree, L&D can be expensive, but it can be even more costly to correct issues and problems caused by lack of skill or knowledge. Two managers were overheard talking in the boardroom of a large corporation. One was bemoaning the high cost of training and said ‘What if we train them, and then they leave?’ The other manager looked at him and replied ‘What if we don’t, and they stay?’ It’s a fine balance, but L&D should never be underestimated as a vital part of the success of any company.
Arguably, the most important asset any organisation can own is its intellectual capital – its people. As the Learning and Performance Institute’s CEO Ed Monk recently argued, “lifelong learning is an economic imperative for all organisations wishing to improve performance.” He is correct. The organisations that will succeed in this period of disruption and uncertainty are those that employ agile, critical, reflective and knowledgeable people. The following is a personal story showing why it’s important to support learning in the work place.
A Sticky Tale
While I was studying at college, I took a holiday job in a fruit canning factory during the summer months, to earn a little extra cash. I was living in Herefordshire at the time, which is a centre for England’s fruit growers. A few days into my first week at the factory, I was tasked with making marmalade. It wasn’t a difficult task. All I had to do, said the foreman, was to take large cans of orange pulp, hoist them onto a platform, use an opening machine to cut the top off the tin, and then pour the contents into a large vat. When each vat was full, it was wheeled away to be made into marmalade, and I started all over again. He demonstrated how to do it. ‘Mind your fingers!’ he warned me, and walked away.
My ‘training’ complete, I commenced my new career as a marmalade maker. All went well for an hour or so, until I encountered a can that seemed to be considerably lighter than the others I had already processed. Strangely, it seemed to vibrate as I picked it up, and a faint noise came from it. Shrugging, I proceeded to open it using the cutter. As the lid came off, a huge black cloud of flies came swarming out, and spread quickly across the entire factory. Men and women ran screaming for the exits as the buzzing flies descended to contaminate everything in sight. It was like something from a disaster movie.
The entire factory was quickly evacuated, and closed for a day while machinery was decontaminated and the raw materials disposed of. It was an expensive error, caused by lack of training, and lack of knowledge. Had the foreman warned me of potential problems beforehand, the error would not have occurred. But it did, and the factory lost a considerable amount of money through ruined fruit and loss of productivity because of the day of factory closure.
In the grand scheme of things, most CEOs know the power of learning, and value its presence in their organisation. More difficult is convincing managers that time might be set aside for this learning to happen. ‘Training time’ is seen as downtime, where productivity is lost because staff are not at their desks, or absent from the production line. It’s a difficult balance to maintain – how much time is required for learning, and how valuable will it be in the long term? In a busy world, where every minute counts, where do people find the time to actually engage in lifelong learning?
Some have proposed the idea of micro-learning, where participants engage in learning in small units, and it is particularly characteristic of e-learning and other mediated forms of learning. It takes less time than a full ‘macro’ course, and can be motivational. One of the advantages of this approach is that people can work in short bursts when they have the time to do so, and then apply what they have learnt more or less directly to their work. This is known as learning transfer and can be a powerful method of applying learning directly to professional practice. Micro-learning is thus becoming a popular means of maintaining the balance between the time and resources spent developing a workforce, and the return on that investment.
However, micro-learning has also been criticised because units often only contain content, and mere exposure to content does not necessarily result in good learning. As e-learning expert Christian Glahn has argued, micro-learning needs to include appropriate learning elements to strengthen learning outcomes. No matter how small in size they may be, each unit should include critical instructional elements such as practice, feedback, and reflection he says. Furthermore, while small units of content could be construed as ‘chunking’ (a proven method of effective learning within the cognitive sciences) it is only effective if the content is organised in appropriate sequences with thematic integrity, and micro-learning is not always presented in this manner, often appearing disjointed and disassociated.
Another trend that is now gaining considerable traction in L&D is personal learning. Not to be confused with personalised learning, which is a structured form of support for individual learning that is provided by specialist instructors, personal learning is a self-driven and self-determined approach to learning that has few boundaries or limits. Personal learning is entirely dependent on the motivation of the individual, and this can be a constraint as much as an advantage. As with micro-learning, personal learning has similar potential to be ineffective, particularly if it is conducted in a haphazard manner with no strategy.
Personal learning has been bolstered by personal technologies. Smartphones, for example, can provide us with any-time, any-place access to experts, content and resources that can support, enhance and extend our learning experiences. Personal learning networks can easily be built using social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and many professionals communicate regularly through these tools. Learning occurs largely through dialogue, and although this can be hit-and-miss, and is totally informal, it is often effective for learning transfer due to its immediacy and relevancy.
On the down side, due to its informal nature, some personal learning can be chaotic, distracting or even irrelevant to the work we are doing. To be effective, we may require specialist advice and support from L&D departments particularly around what we learn, how we learn it, and the digital skills and literacies we require to learn effectively while engaging with content and experts through digital media. L&D departments might be able to advise for example on what apps, subscription services or web services to use, the availability of bespoke course, or shortcuts to content that may otherwise be missed.
Deeper learning occurs when what we learn can be incorporated with what we already know. The efficacy of this kind of approach learning will rely on being able to profile previous skills and knowledge and organise appropriate and relevant learning opportunities. L&D professionals should also be able to support this.
Good L&D professionals should also be able to advise on how to use technology effectively, and what to avoid. Being able to use digital tools and media effectively and appropriately is an indispensable skill set of the 21st Century worker. This is known as ‘digital literacy’ and describes a spectrum of skills, competencies and fluencies that help us to leverage the power and the potential of digital media and tools as we learn. Probably the most important digital literacy is transliteracy – the ability to harness the affordances of a range of personal and social technologies to optimise your learning. Transliterate people are those who can use a selection of different tools equally effectively to communicate with their professional community of practice, discover and navigate content, create their own resources and share their ideas. Literacy goes beyond skills, enabling us to interpret and evaluate new and unfamiliar environments, ideas and spaces, and to appropriate them for our personal learning needs.
Learning is one of the most important human activities and is something we will increasingly need within the workplace. We should all try to make time to learn within the work space, because in doing so, we can directly transfer that learning to our professional practice. Sending employees on day release – or even for an entire training week – may still be common practice in many organisations, but as budget restrictions bite, and return on investment becomes more critical, it is evident that learning without leaving the workplace will become the standard, and new ways to implement this will be discovered. Informal forms of learning in the workplace will proliferate as personal digital technologies and networks become more accessible and reliable, and opportunities increase. Ultimately, each of us will find the time to learn what we need to, if we are motivated to do so. There is no greater intrinsic motivation than desiring to be the very best at what we do. And learning effectively within the work place must surely be the key to that quest.
Steve will be a featured speaker on our spotlight stage