New Year, Old (Unfinished) Learning Business

Senge--Fifth-Discipline_CoverIt’s no secret that the most successful organizations have a commitment to continuous learning. We see this in the annual celebration of BEST Award winners through the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). We’ve read—and reread—Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization and walked away with a clear understanding of how the development of communities of learning is a winning proposition. We’ve inhaled and absorbed The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results by Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, and Andrew Jefferson, so we know that simple actions can transform one-time learning events into a cohesive learning process that makes learning stick.

And yet we don’t have to go very far to see that workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts still are seen by many managers and employees as something that we have to do when we really should be doing our jobs—a diversion away from work.

It’s not difficult to understand how we’ve reached this point. Many of us feel as if the pace of work continually increases with little compensation, so we find ourselves trying to do more with less and less discretionary time while recognizing that something has to give. And let’s be honest: there are plenty of staff training offerings that are more deadly dull than the list of ingredients on the side of a bag of potato chips—workshops or webinars offered to meet a legal or company mandate, or thrown together at the end of a budget year so we’re not left with unexpended funds in an organizational training budget. We and our learners are tired of being forced to look at PowerPoint presentations with cheap clip art and far too much (unreadable) text, delivered by instructors who are trying to cram too much content into too short a period of time—whether it’s face to face or delivered via an online asynchronous course which, by the way, keeps crashing because there’s a disconnect between the technology used by the instructor and the technology used by the learner.

On the other extreme of our learning landscape, we have first-rate learner-centric offerings that creatively meet our organizations’ and our own learning needs—yet we almost feel guilty for taking advantage of those opportunities because it means we leave our colleagues short-handed while we’re away from our worksite.

That, I believe, is the small but essential bit of unfinished business we need to address, and the beginning of a new year gives us an admittedly artificial opportunity to take a new look at this long-standing workplace challenge. Each of us—from highest level executive to least-motivated member of our organizations—needs to work toward seeing training-learning as an integral part of all we do rather than continuing to support the myth that learning is a diversion, something apart from work that needs to be quickly completed and checked off a to-do list so we can literally get back to work.

If learning becomes a recognized and cherished part of work, we’re taking a significant step toward developing first-rate communities of learning all around us. This, in turn, provides more motivation to make each of those learning opportunities as professionally polished as the products and services provided by the best organizations we can find. It also makes us better, more deft, at serving those who rely on us.

We’re not going to change the face of learning in a single year; transformational success stories along the lines of those told in Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons take a commitment to decades of changing attitudes and procedures. But if we do begin by fostering a greater appreciation for the magnificent results that engaging training-teaching-learning offers, and recognize that work and learning are completely intertwined rather than somehow in opposition to each other, we may be closer to completing another piece of unfinished business.

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