Different Perspectives of Learning by all the Players

This year has been an immense journey of personal and professional development for me.  Coupled with a challenging project environment which saw me part of a Learning and Development team of 11 people on a cultural transformation program that had to rapidly develop learning solutions within serious time constraints, we were put through an organisational restructure.  The restructure decimated the team from 11 to 4 (2 of whom were interstate) and three of whom had no instructional design expertise but were facilitators. So needless to say I am feeling the pressure.

At the same time with all this organisational turbulence, it seems as if my eyes have been opened for the first time.

The restructure created such stress, anxiety and utter helplessness to many of the team members and those who did have jobs by the end of it questioned their value.  Senior leaders explained that ‘we can’t do what we’ve been doing in the past: we have to think of other ways that don’t involve face-to-face classroom training” and this challenged many of the people.

This wasn’t a big deal breaker for me because if there’s any way to develop people, I will think of ways OTHER than the classroom knowing that the challenge will be ahead of me.  What stops me from creating these different learning solutions are the expectations of my managers and the Project Team who may not understand my explanations for informal or social learning, or I am expected to design learning solutions that must assess or cater for our LMS standards to track learner progress; course results and the like.

The sheer amount of development that needs to occur in this project meant that facilitator-led courses would not have been the solution.

Instead, after doing the analysis, I noted that there would be many subject matter experts who simply would be ‘repointed’ to new teams to undertake some of the processes they were doing in the past; and some new.  I thought, ” they’ve got the knowledge, skills and networks – why do they need to go into a classroom? Let’s put the tools into their hands so that they can ‘instructionally coach’ their new teams through the process on-the-job.”

And so the idea was born.  (You can read about it in my blog posts: Coaching Framework Comes Good and Is There Any Agility in ADDIE?)

So what were the reactions of my stakeholders? What I found was this…

1.  The Business Reaction

The initial reaction of the business (my internal clients who are the business teams who are undergoing the change) was to look at me quizzicly when I said that their people will not be going into any classroom.  My first challenge was to overcome their perception that development=classroom; or training=classroom.

After pitching the idea to them that the best way we learn is on-the-job, by doing, by learning with subject-matter-experts and using performance support tools, you could see in their eyes that they liked the idea.  That is, they were open and flexible to consider their own people developing other team members on-the-job to gradually build skill competence.  They also saw this as a developmental opportunity for their own people.  More importantly, they offered suggestions to me as to how they think this would happen and how it would occur. That is, they were already thinking of ideas for their own development on the job when they could see that their options weren’t limited by the four walls of a classroom.

Working with one small team as my “pilot program for social learning” over the last few months, I have noticed the team bond (despite pressures to cross-specialise); they are more open to new ideas; everyone contributes to their own learning and more importantly, my subject matter experts who were initially obstructive with comments like, “there’s no way you can learn this subject X in such a short time!” are now open to the idea that their team don’t have to be experts instantly – but we give them the tools to be able to self direct their learning, to learn and grow in the role; “Seek, Sense and Share” with others (this is from Harold Jarche’s Personal Knowledge Management Framework); and apply to their learning to their work in their workplace.

(I have recently used some other methods for learning in the workplace with this team using a game to learn about Product Knowledge but this is a post in itself for another day).

All in all, in my experience, the customer is not your problem – pitch the idea to them in such a way that it will solve a business critical problem or issue for them and in the process, create a stronger team culture and you’ve got them sold.

2.  The Project Team Reaction

This was an interesting reaction when the Project Manager asked me when they could ‘tick off that learning and development’ was completed on their project plan.  I explained what different techniques I was using with the teams and they too looked at me quizzicly and then looked at their large A4 project plan.  “So when can you tell me that their training has been completed? I need to tick it off in my plan.”

Project managers I noted, don’t care how it’s done – as long as it’s done.

So the challenge here was to give a deadline of when this training was completed. In their minds training = classroom.  If you book the classroom; you get learners to attend; the facilitator instructs the class; then this means they can tick off their project task on their plan.  Having me explain that learners will be continually learning and developing on-the-job through a longer period of time was not what they wanted to hear.

Their measure of completion was “has training (read:classroom) been conducted?”  What I was proposing was a concept too nebulous and conceptual for them.

Through the project, there has been comments fed back to the project team about how the instructional coaching model is working; and similarly, how team members are becoming self directed which also feeds into the cultural change of the program.  I’ve had emails and requests come from parts of the business who have heard what our ‘pilot team’ is doing and asking, “how do we get some of what they’re getting?”

In the end, I did say to the Project Team to ‘tick off’ their project task because we started the development (the learning on-the-job) but I couldn’t tell them when the true development of the learners would be completed – that could be any measure of time!

So this got me thinking that the hard and fast rules and procedures of project management methodology don’t necessarily fit in with the informal and social learning activities but the way I overcame this is to change our perception of ‘start-end’ for project speak to just ‘start’.

3.  The Learning and Development Team

This one was a real eye opener for me but the organisational restructure did not do any favours for the team.

The majority of the team came from the business and who were subject matter experts who had the facilitation skills to pass on their knowledge to others but the only solutions provided were classroom based.  Similarly, their professional development lay with only facilitation skills and not analysing performance problems and designing and developing solutions (in whatever format).  So not only was there a gap in learning and development knowledge and skills; there was also an increasing gap in their business knowledge as the business went through a major transformation change (so what they knew to be current state will not be future state).

At times, this was the hardest group to pitch the concept of informal and social learning to because it was seen as a direct ‘hit’ on the value they were providing.  Comments like:

“What’s it mean for us now?”

“Isn’t facilitation needed anymore?”

“I don’t know how to come up with different learning solutions like creating eLearns!”

“I don’t believe in online learning – are we expected to do this?”

“Why are we giving the skills to SMEs for them to do our jobs?”

“This is just a fad.”

“Are we doing ourselves out of a job?”

The last one has been coming up quite a lot both from team members and managers and although I understand why they say this (in the past, I have said it myself many times), it has made me realise that there’s a skill gap with our own people.

The challenge is that my role now is also to use my own knowledge and skills and share these with my colleagues.  Many of them are now moving to an acceptance of the change and are asking questions, interested in different learning solutions and options and having a more performance consultative approach with their clients – but don’t get the ‘how’ just yet – they know it needs to be done.

So my learning from this is that as learning and development professionals, we will need to continually be learning ourselves and question how we have done things in the past.  We need to be open to new ways of learning and embracing the change that is occuring in our workplace as well as share what we know to others and then be the ones to inspire and lead a change the perception of learning in the workplace.

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About Activate Learning Solutions

Helen Blunden is the founder of Activate Learning Solutions and Third Place. She has over 20 years of experience within learning and development across private, public and not-for-profit organisations. With a specialty in performance consulting and networked learning, Helen believes that workplace learning is integral to business success. She has a passion for enabling people to learn beyond the classroom and believes in the power of networks and communities to drive collaboration and meaning within the organisation. From facilitator-led instruction, online and blended, Helen deploys social and informal learning such as enterprise social networking, collaboration tools and emerging technologies that have been proven successful and embedded workplace change.
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