Factory whistles (pwbaker/flickr.com)

Wishful thinking

Reda SadkiLearning strategy

Stopping work to learn remains the ideal. After all, many of us carry the memory of residential higher education as a powerful moment of personal growth, at the end of our teenage years and prior to entry into the workforce.

Formal learning in the present includes both in-service workshops and trainings as well as various forms of continued professional development (CPD) offered by training providers and higher education institutions. These were traditionally face-to-face and are increasingly delivered at distance (online).

Why do we wish so earnestly for more formal learning? Our expressed wish reflects our willingness to stay current and improve. However, wishing for more time to stop work and engage in formal learning is likely to remain wishful thinking because of at least four factors:

  1. Time – time is the scarcest resource and formal training requires stopping work to learn, in a learning culture that values task completion.
  2. Applicability – learning formally then requires additional learning processes to transfer and apply what has been learned (the applicability problem).
  3. Relevance – much of what we need to know in our work is in the tacit or informal domain and is therefore not taught formally anywhere.
  4. Currency – in many areas of work, formal courses are costly or difficult to update to reflect the most-current knowledge and practice.

Like the wish for more meetings, more communication, or more resources, the yearning for more formal training is an improbable proposition that fails to properly consider the value of continuous learning embedded into the work.

As a team, we need to accept that we cannot control or prescribe learning the way we could in the past. We need therefore to accept that there will be different initiatives and solutions – and that no one solution fits all.

“Unfortunately, we have been too busy to engage fully” is a standard one-liner to justify lack of involvement due to the “high burden of workload that everybody has” in formal learning initiatives or efforts that set aside time for exploratory dialogue. “Nobody has time for it.” We find that wanting more formal time to stop our work and ‘learn’ is a misdiagnosis.

When formal learning events take place, attending them may be difficult to justify due to urgent priorities. Furthermore, the content and format may be disappointing and make it unlikely that someone who attends will do so again.

Nevertheless, what is interesting is that proposals to stop in order to learn, reflect, or discuss tend to arise following specific incidents which make us mindful of the need for such learning – for example, in response to requests from senior management or upon realizing that we have missed a common target due to lack of regular communication across silos. Dedicated time for dialogue, to take stock, or to reflect on what has gone wrong (or right) may in fact serve as a temporary corrective, a signal to acknowledge that something has gone wrong by stopping routine work or business as usual.

We just need to keep in mind that most continual learning is informal, and that some of the most powerful “aha” moments are incidental learning, i.e. we come to a new insight when we least expect it. That suggests alternative approaches to foster the kinds of outcomes we expect from setting aside time that we do not have. Even when we are successful, we need to learn to look further into the links between actions and outcomes.