Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The taken-for-granted practices of learning in organisations

When we talk about the 70:20:10 model of learning there seems little, if any, disagreement that this mix of experience, peer learning and formal learning feels about right.  

However, even for those organisations whose L&D functions aspire to 70:20:10 as an organising principle, their practices continue to reinforce the status quo: that learning is about the 10%, i.e. attending courses. 

Here are 6 examples of common learning processes that interest me not because of their lack of good intentions or, in some cases necessity, but because of what's being taken-for-granted.  

1. Pre and post learning activities

Many organisationally managed learning processes focus on one or more face-to-face learning events.  Communications with participants talk about pre-workshop preparation and post workshop development actions.  It's my experience that these feel rather half-hearted.  Whilst their inclusion in the design is intended to create a link between the day-to-day work and the learning event, it's rare for participants to have done the work in advance; it's rare for the facilitator to then expect the participant to have come prepared; it's even rarer for organisations to address this break in process.  Tacitly, everyone seems to know this and the result is that the pre and post learning activities are seen to be, as a very minimum, optional and this reinforces the taken-for-granted that the workshop, rather than the work itself, is the focus for the learning and the course becomes a somewhat standalone event. 

2. Line manager briefing and debriefing

It is a common complaint in L&D that line managers don't follow the briefing and de-briefing process.  In conversation with some L&D people recently, they were telling me of their plans to talk to line managers about development and the 70:20:10 mix.  Whilst this feels like a good thing to do it was not clear that there was to be any change in the ways of working of L&D and how they would support workplace performance.  The briefing/debriefing process comes from the fact that the work which L&D does is separate from the day-to-day work of the business.  Typically, their work starts when a worker becomes a prospective course participant, which then triggers the need to create a link between the day-to-day work and the learning event.  The problem is that the formal learning course comes as a pre-designed package of content and deals with issues that are abstracted from the day-to-day work. Somebody else has taken the decision as to what will be covered and this rather limits the responsibility of the line manager.  As a result, it's no surprise that the briefing/de-briefing process, if done at all, becomes a rather superficial discussion.  

3. Learning projects and doing the 'day job' 

The inclusion of experiential learning in the form of project work on modular programmes is a common way of trying to link the classroom learning with the workplace.  There is plenty of evidence from learning theory that shows the value of reflective processes to enhance retention.  However, for many organisations the notion of a project is steeped in its own set of dogmas and processes, which means that when we talk about learning projects these also come with the same preconceptions: that a project is about more work that is over and above what's expected in the 'day job'.    

4. Nominations

If you run classroom-based courses, then you need people to attend them and many organisations operate a nomination process as a filter. The problem is that it reinforces a deep seated assumption that learning is rationed and you must wait for your time to be called to attend.

5. Organising attendance

Like nominations, if you run classroom-based workshops and courses then it follows that a room and a facilitator needs to be booked in advance and participant attendance needs to be managed.  The fact that these are necessary is not the point.  The problem is that the focus becomes the schedule and availability to attend on the given date rather than on the timeliness of the learning. 

6. Evaluation

Models of learning evaluation like Kirkpatrick propose an approach to assess the transfer of knowledge and business impact.  Although organisations often call for measurable impacts to be assessed, in my 20 years of experience I have seen just two occasions where any sustained attempt was made to go beyond level 1.  The virtue of level 1 data is that it is easy to collect and its, often, positive results, are seductive for programme sponsors, L&D and facilitators keen to justify their worth...but it tells you nothing about the value of the learning.     

How might things be different?

As the saying goes, 'we are where we are' and the trends in learning that I've written about recently point to how things are changing.  

As I explore my own practice in learning, two things really interest me.  First, the idea of reversal or flipping.  For learning in organisations, I think there is much to be gained from turning the relationship between the learner and the teacher/facilitator upside down and truly supporting the learners own questions and interests.  Second, placing practice centre-stage to look in detail at what is happening in the everyday-always-happening flow of work and conversation to create concrete, observable data that can then be used to ask the question 'what is there to be learned about?'  

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