The need for people - rather than business or technology - centricity in learning
There has never been a more important time to focus on the role and opportunity of learning. This is due, firstly, to the increasing amount and pace of change in the business world meaning that the need for learning has never been more important. This is leading to increasing disquiet about the ongoing difficulties we find in getting people to develop new skills, change their behaviours and improve their performance. And the second reason that focus on learning is so important is that today’s tools and techniques mean we have never had a bigger opportunity to impact on this intractable organisational problem. But most learning practitioners also realise that we need to do more than to focus on new tools.
For many practitioners, the perceived need seems to be to increase focus on our businesses, ensuring that learning needs are tied back to business needs and that learning is embedded within the workflow so that learning activities are related to peoples’ day-to-day jobs and will definitely impact on their performance. Personally, I am not too sure this will provide the difference which will make the difference. Compare it to creating an ethical business for example. I think most businesses would agree that it will never be enough to cement ethical behaviour into their business processes - they need people to behave ethically all the time, not just whilst they are following the workflow. So why should things be different when we are trying to create a learning organisation? I would suggest that we do not in fact just need people to learn at certain points in a process, we need them to be searching for, reflecting on and taking action against learning opportunities wherever these present themselves.
As an HR consultant, I see the same tensions and challenges in other areas of people management and development as well. For example in recruitment there is similar disquiet about our ability to attract and select people who will remain engaged and stay in our businesses and focus their discretionary efforts on business performance whilst they remain employed. And for many, the solution once again is seen to be to focus more clearly on business needs, perhaps by limiting the length of time that someone spends in a job, for example by building on Reid Hoffman’s concept of tours of duty. However, once again, I am unconvinced that this change offers a true solution.
To me, the solution to all these problems is for learning and other areas of HR to focus much more on the individual. Yes, we need to be interested in the needs of our businesses, but to link our people related activities too closely to these needs limits and curtails what we are capable of as people. Instead, or at least as well as this, we need to become more interested in how we work as people - for example in what causes our engagement, how we deliver on our potential and how we learn deeply rather than just superficially from our life and work experiences.
The stretch on this, once we have already increased our focus on people, is to also become more interested in how people learn in groups. How we we encourage people to share relevant information, support each other and construct new meanings across teams, communities, networks and even whole organisations? And note that even whole organisational learning rests on an understanding of the learning of people within the organisation more than it does on understanding the business needs which the whole organisation needs to learn.
Recent experience of MOOCs offers a practical example. We know that for those employees who engage in MOOCs this new learning format offers an amazing new opportunity. However we also know that very few employees will ever engage, and that most who do so will not sustain this engagement. As discussed in this years Learning Technologies conference, the few people who do engage tend to be those who are already highly motivated to invest in their own learning. So to me, the need is not about designing MOOCs to connect more closely to what people do in their jobs, it is to excite people about learning. If we do this then the rest will follow - employees will start to take up more of the opportunities we put in front of them, including MOOCs and other informal and social learning opportunities too. Some, if not all of these opportunities, will relate back to peoples’ jobs and performance so this performance and business results will improve. But these results will be an oblique outcome - they will be achieved by focusing on the individual employee not by paying more direct attention to the business.
Developments in neuroscience can definitely support this increased focus on the individual. We are learning (or at least we are hearing and reading about - I am less sure we are truly learning) more and more quickly about the way people learn now than we have ever done before. I am particularly struck by neuroscience’s findings linking learning with emotion - and the way that associating skills development with an emotional experience opens the door for for deeper learning to take place.
Yet to me, this finding also shows why it would be a mistake to try to make learning or other elements of HR into a science. We can learn from science but this does not mean learning should actually become a science. In fact I think this perspective on science comes from the more general focus on business. The belief seems to be that if the rest of the business works largely as a science (based upon the science of Finance and Accounting) and if we are going to be more closely focused on the business, then we should operate more along the lines of a science as well.
But if we are focused on the individual and especially when we understand that learning comes most naturally when we provoke an emotional reaction, then it is clear that learning needs to be an art. It is something that takes place when we inspire, excite, challenge and provoke - when we help people see new things, or at least existing things in new ways. And this means we need to respond and react to each new learning opportunity, rather than to seek too much consistency and standardisation.
The same is true, once again, across most other areas of HR. For example, recruitment is also becoming much less concerned with scientific placing of job ads and much more about artful conversations with individuals in order to attract and engage them into deeper relationships with an organisation.
I have emphasised the similarities in changes within learning and the rest of HR as I do not think the art of learning can emerge from learning practitioners on their own. Engaging and exciting individuals about learning is as much about communicating with people about the importance of learning, and rewarding people for having the right attitudes and demonstrating the right behaviours to learning as it is about putting the appropriate learning interventions and environment in front of them. And the good news is that as the rest of HR moves towards a greater focus on the individual, it will also become easier to integrate individually-focused, artful learning, into this broader new approach to people management and development as well.
This is also why I try to speak and write about the role of the individual rather than about the learner. I think that as soon as we start to think of someone as a learner we have already closed down our thinking about that individual. People learn but they do all sorts of different things as well. The more we can think about people as holistic, rounded individuals, the more expansive and useful our thinking about them can become.
None of this should be taken to mean that learning cannot draw some benefits from science or from greater alignment with a business - especially as new scientific fields like big data analytics offer us huge new opportunities to improve the effectiveness of learning. It is just that we should not expect the growing gap between the strategic opportunity for learning and current delivery to be filled by these any more than they are going to be filled by wonderful new technologies. The secret sauce is still what it has always been - a better understanding of our people, more focus on engaging them in learning and the artful creativity to generate and take advantage of opportunities for learning when they occur.
This article was previously published as The People Vs The Organisation in the 50th edition of Learning Technologies & Skills magazine.
I'm going to be talking about the topic at ATD MENA in Riyadh on Sunday.
- Consulting Research Speaking Training Writing
- Strategy - Talent - Engagement - Change and OD
- Contact me to create more value for your business
- jon [dot] ingham [at] strategic [dash] hcm [dot] com