Everyone in working life, in any industry, needs to develop the capacity for self-directed work, collaboration, and continuously learning new things and skills faster.
Where restless management teams, and learning-experts advising them, may sometimes go wrong, however, is in thinking that this learning capacity in a person can be ‘switched on’ merely by requiring everyone to take more responsibility. This process would perhaps work within machines, but not with human beings.
We need to recognise that learning needs to be learned. In past days, this learning to learn was a relatively uncomplicated process. Knowledge was a set depository of information, mastered and delivered by a teacher, and it did not take very much deliberation to realise what to do and how to behave as a pupil in a classroom. Still, for most of us, getting the hang of ‘being in school’ consumed the better part of the year in First Grade.
With this recipe most age-cohorts are still surviving in the workplaces of today. The classrooms are merely retitled, referred to now as ‘courses’, ‘workshops’, ‘kick-offs’ and ‘off-sites’. In some industries real-life classrooms are giving way to virtual ones in which one rarely meets a ‘teacher’, and there seems to be much more ‘homework’ one is instructed to ‘complete’. The content to be delivered in equal measure to every participant, and the time-table of the school-day, are pre-planned and still specified by the instructor and other authorities on the subject. Detailed pre-planning of training and development activities is considered a mark of professionalism in any contemporary organisation. Such is the mainstream set-up of learning in working-life of today, however much our thinkers of learning envisage a new world of autonomous learning and interacting individuals at work.
But there is more. In addition, and much more importantly than the physical arrangements of training activities, many seem to have a corresponding mental mindset to learning in school. For them, a mental map for beginning to take responsibility for ones personal and professional development is missing altogether. Much to be expected, these individuals are often the same ones that remain the most sceptic towards increasing self-management and appear to resist change at work in general. Introducing new ideas hits not only a cognitive barrier of understanding the concept of learning in a new way and of what one is supposed to do actively and differently at work: for many of us the many years and perhaps decades in a workplace have meant forming a professional identity which does not necessarily include a notion of learning, or changing, in the ways suggested today. According to my own observations as a leadership coach, such identity-traps may be encountered by experienced people in knowledge-intensive specialised jobs just as easily as by people in lower-skilled jobs.
Overcoming cognitive and emotional barriers and developing a personal approach to learning is what is meant by learning to learn. In making this happen, there are many realities seemingly at play at once. Professionals from different walks of life tend to view the same need, i.e. learning to learn, in different ways.
Many companies currently seem heavily focused on choosing the ‘right’ Learning Management System (LMS). The underlying thinking here is to make information, often described as knowledge, accessible to everybody, anytime and easily. For employees already savvy and understanding the need to develop their learning capacity, the access to an LMS further increases learning opportunities. To many others, however, who are still guided by the view of ‘learning-in-school’, an LMS risks becoming perceived as yet another program to be mastered and to bring more stress.
Another reality, with more decisive positive or, alternatively, devastating potential for an individual and the whole company, is the growing interactive networking-nature of work. While individuals are enabled to work increasingly autonomously, they also increasingly need to communicate and work together. Where teamwork once was an admired and fascinating choice of organisation form, the contemporary version is becoming a norm including much more flexibilities of practise and more learning-demands on all members.
In an increasing number of industries, all team-members need to find their voice for collaborating with others, for learning, and for sharing the actual leadership of the team. What’s more, they must start doing this immediately. In many companies, the strategic need for business reinvention is great, but offering on-line courses or occasional inspirational workshops for employees is a far too slow response.
The only way to accelerate the development of the learning capacity of the whole workforce in a company fast enough is to rethink and renegotiate the job description of team-leaders. Team leaders need to adopt the role of learning coaches on all levels. Contrary to traditional training approaches, results of this method can be expected within a year, regardless of the size of the organisation. Train-the-trainer support needed by the team managers, in their role as learning coaches, can be digitally scaled to any number of team leaders using special fit-for-purpose tools.
Julia Milner, Trenton Milner in HBR; Most managers don´t know how to coach but they can learn
TalentMiles article; Digitalising leadership of change, training and development
Melissa Harrell & Lauren Arbato, Google; Great Managers Still Matter