Can you build a learning community or must it grow?

Last weekend, I found myself at the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney. This area was built in the early 2000s on the site of the old Sydney Showground. It was designed to be a new recreation and entertainment hub for eastern Sydney but last Saturday, when I saw the empty shops and not that many people, I was reminded of an invited presentation I gave at a professional conference many years ago about whether you can artificially create communities of practice or whether they need to grow organically. My presentation argued that, although you can create a learning and networking community, it needs a lot of guidance and facilitation to be kept up and running. In contrast, in my experience, a community which has grown organically through a particular project, learning need,m or professional affiliation tends to be more self-sufficient.

Using the title “community of practice” is somewhat problematic since it has multiple meanings in current work and learning practice. On the one hand there is the original meaning proposed in the theory of peripheral participation by Lave and Wenger (1991). The original learning theory argues that a community of practice is a group of people who share a common interest and learn through regular interaction. Lave and Wenger (1991) go on to say that the way in which people learn is through participation in multiple communities where they are at first “peripheral” in that they are on the margins of the group, learning how it works, learning basic skills and so on. As people learn they become more and more part of the group. The community is just as much about how the community interacts and the norms of the group as it is about the learning aspect. Communities of practice have also been widely adopted in corporate learning and development as a less formal learning approach which is more social and better aligned with how learning really occurs at work (i.e. through participation). Such groups are often (though not always) started by the learning and development or HR team as part of the broader organisational learning strategy (often 70:20:10 but more on that in a later post). This means that the groups are not necessarily “owned” by the participants but by L&D. This is not necessarily a problem unless the participants are not seeing value in it or the original convener leaves the organisation at which point it generally fizzles out.

So back to my original question, can you build communities of practice or do they need to grow organically? My own research offers a potential answer to this. In my PhD research, I found that social networks were a key part of working and learning in contemporary organisations. These networks were both within and outside of organisations and tended to follow professional groups (e.g. HR, finance, IT, engineering). Basically, people form their own communities of practice as they move through their careers, and technology, specifically social media, has enabled this to an even greater extent. I think that an issue emerges when organisations attempt to co-opt networks or manipulate networks to meet organisational ends. This is not necessarily conducive to learning and may very well be completely counter-productive. In an excellent study examining exactly that, Boud, Rooney & Solomon (2009) investigated how a local council in Sydney, Australia had attempted to “formalise” everyday learning practices of council workers. One example from the study is “toolbox talks” between field workers at the council. Workers would often meet informally to chat about their work, swap stories – effectively, to network. This might be a chat when they ran into each other or an arrangement for a few workers to meet for lunch in a local park. The compliance unit (does anyone else hear alarm bells when you read that phrase?) then decided to formalise these chats and call them “toolbox talks” which the workers did not discuss in the same way and noted how the experience went from something that was informal and part of their everyday practices to something formal that “needed to be diarised”. Although management had the best intentions, their intervention did not engender the same benefits as the social and informal learning behaviours that they had wanted to foster. This is an excellent example of something I see often, the desire to formalise practices either to measure them more effectively or try to somehow capture their benefits. In contemporary organisations which are widely accepted to be in a state of flux and change, I would question the efficacy of such interventions into everyday practices when we have little idea of the outcome. As learning practitioners, we need to be very careful about co-opting everyday practices and become more adept at getting out of the way to allow organic networking and social learning to occur. We need to question our motives for intervening and be certain that there is benefit to be found in formalising something which may be working perfectly well already.


Boud, D., Rooney, D., & Solomon, N. (2009). Talking up learning at work: Cautionary tales in co-opting everyday learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 28(3), 323-334. doi:10.1080/02601370902799077

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


What’s the value of workplace learning?

I managed to find a few minutes to read the newspaper on the weekend and came across an article in the Sydney Morning Herald that really got me thinking. The article, entitled Public Service spendathon is designed to increase emotional intelligence, was interesting for a number of reasons.

Expenditure on workplace learning

The article talks about the amounts spent on workplace learning in outraged tones. To those who work within the private sector, particularly in larger organisations, these amounts are pretty standard. Indeed they are often considered par for the course and a part of keeping employees engaged, skilled and motivated. It’s interesting to see that these amounts are somehow a waste when they are tax payer funds. I tend to wonder if the writer has ever attended a course like that in the course of their career? Why is it unacceptable for public servants to recieve this kind of development opportunity but fine as long as it’s not from the public purse?

Perception of the value of “soft-skills” training

This was a real eye-opener for me as a learning practitioner. I realise that a lot of people make fun of workplace learning, especially courses such as emotional intelligence (which is particularly targeted in the article), but this was the first time that I have ever read someone actually articulating their contempt of  so called “soft skills” courses. Sure, some of them are a bit…well…dodgy, but there are a lot that do a lot of good. I fail to see how management and leadership training aligned to business and individual needs can be a bad thing no matter who is paying. This brings me to my next point…

Why don’t public servants deserve the same development and engagement perks that private sector employees enjoy?

This seems an important question for me. The article focuses on public servants and hinges on the argument that this sort of workplace learning is not an appropriate use of tax payer funds. I agree with this in principle. The current government is asking a lot of people in their budget and it must seem that they need to get their own house in order so to speak if only from a perception point of view. My issue, which obviously we can’t tell from this article, is whether these learning initiaives were targeted and well planned and executed or whether they were just there to keep people happy and use up training budgets (not that anyone would every do that – guffaw). In the private sector there may not be tax payers but there are often shareholders – they seem to have cottoned on to the fact that nothing gets done without the staff but not so the public service. I wonder what would happen if shareholders suddenly started to take more of an interest in the learning and development? Would there be a knee-jerk reaction about waste and no development would occur or would they realise that it’s an important cost of doing business that could perhaps be better targeted in many cases?

Basically I think that this article has led me to the conclusion that we need to ask more questions about what we offer as practitioners, and as managers. No surprises there! Are we getting the best “bang for our buck”? Are we offering targeted development solutions that actually offer a need or are we just trying to look good or spend the budget? It’s interesting to get an outsider’s view on this as presented in the SMH article. It might do us all good to take this sort of view when we’re asked for a development imtervention or we want to organise something for our staff.

Back when I was an internal learning specialist (i.e. before I was a manager and had people to do this for me 😉 ), I developed a brief template to help me determine what the manager was actually after when they requested something nebulous like a “team building day” or some “communication skills training”. Here are the questions in summary  (based loosely on the GROW model from my last post) that should help learning practitioners to work out what’s needed and also help managers better brief learning practitioners and consultants.

  • What are the session objectives? What skills/knowledge/attitudes do you want participants to have at the end of the session?
  • What do you want the team/group/individuals to be able to do or think differently afterwards? Are you open to follow-up activities?
  • Is the session part of an overall conference/course/offsite? If so, how does it fit into the overall event?
  • What’s the budget and any time constraints? (I once was asked to run a half-day session on the Friday afternoon of a long weekend when many participants had early flights home which puts rather a dent in your time allocation!)
  • Where is the venue? What resources are available at the venue (including space as well as AV, etc)?

Reflections on reflection

Good heavens! Is that the time? It seems that we just celebrated last Christmas and here we are again. I’m working on a journal article based on my PhD research listening to Christmas music sweltering through 30 degree heat here in Sydney and starting to drift away and ponder the year that was. A lot of people do that. Take stock, review the year, revisit their goals (for the more organised among us). It’s a fantastic practice, one that I often, if sporadically, do.

Reflection is such a key part of learning. I’ve just finished writing the first draft of my Results chapter and one of the findings was around a lack of reflection in workplace learning. In the case of my research it appeared when I asked people about the greatest barrier to their learning. Not surprisingly ALL the participants answered that time was the main barrier for them.  In this case a lack thereof. I think I may be preaching to the choir here because everyone can relate to the sense of rush and overwhelm that is so endemic these days that it’s almost a badge of honour for some (ask someone how they are these days and you’ll likely get the response “So busy” rather than the traditional “Fine”). This is a problem for effective learning at work or otherwise since this feeling of not having enough time and being constantly rushed is the enemy of reflection. Countless articles have told us that we need to daydream to be creative or that we need to reflect in order to learn properly (see the classic Argryis and Schon for this in a workplace context) but still we struggle.

My research suggests that, in the workplace, it’s because this sort of thinking time is not recognised as learning and is, in fact, seen as unproductive and “slacking off”.  Organisations are doing a great disservice to their employees by not encouraging more…well…thinking time. A lot of successful people incorporate thinking and reflection time into their work practice. The most recent example of this that I saw was the Australian mining magnate and Member of Parliament, Clive Palmer. Whatever you may think of his politics or his antics he was interviewed by Annabel Crabb on her Kitchen Cabinet show on the ABC and revealed that he dedicates 4 hours a day to thinking time. 4 hours! Imagine having the luxury of 4 hours a day to do anything, let alone just think and reflect?! What great insights could you gain from that? What fresh ideas? Of course, 4 hours is beyond the reach of most of us but how about 1 hour, 30 minutes, 15 minutes, 5 minutes at lunch and 5 minutes at the end of the day? Every little helps.

It’s also important to teach people a bit about reflection while you’re at it of course.  Maybe some questions or a template to get them started.  My research participants reported that they struggled for time with reflection but that they didn’t really feel like they knew what they were doing anyway and so any learning gleaned from reflection was ad hoc and came in the form of sudden “ah ha” moments when they had a few minutes to come up for air out of the maelstrom. I’m a big fan of the coaching model GROW. For those not familiar with it you can find a nice little video here. Basically there are sets of questions that go with this framework to help people work through decisions/problems/whatever in a coaching scenario. I’ve also successfully used it when consulting to help get all the client’s needs and expectations down as well as for personal goal setting and reflection. It’s an acronym that stands for Goal/s, Reality, Options, Way Forward. Simple as that. Maybe give it a go with your New Years’ Resolutions!

Learning on the road

I am the first to admit that I can be a bit of a stick beak. When I’m on the train for the morning commute I just can’t help but glance up from my book occasionally to see what my fellow travellers are up to. This morning my seat companion was doing something that warmed my little learning geek heart – she had a self-paced “Learn to Speak Spanish” book. Oh joy! People are still learning for fun in their own time!

In my day-to-day practice in the corporate LOD world I can sometimes become despondent about people not wanting to complete their development plans (a world of issues there, I know), not wanting to devote time to learning but at the same time whinging that they never get to go to anything like so-and-so at the next desk. It can be all too easy for me to forget that these same people are quite probably taking evening classes in origami, learning a language or turning to YouTube to learn a new crochet stitch.

We’re all learning all the time, whether intentional (like reading a book to learn Spanish) or unintentional (watching a reality cooking show and picking up a few tips along the way). The issue is convincing people of this and that learning at work need not be particularly effortful since it is something they are, in all probability, already doing.

It occurs to me though that maybe it’s like kids and vegetables. Maybe it’s better to “hide” the learning in other things that people enjoy more? Like the child who will happily eat spinach in a lasagne but claims to hate the stuff maybe learning practitioners need to get better at creating informal learning experiences that embed learning in practice and so make it just part of the everyday. The big question is how to do that in a world of compliance training, certificates and ROI. Watch this space.


I am, by nature, a goal setter and maker of lists. It follows then that every year for as long as I can remember, I’ve set about making New Years Resolutions. Big, lofty goals for how I would be a better person and achieve wonderful things for the coming year. When I say that I am a goal setter and list maker it does not follow that I always follow them and, like many people, I always find myself in June wondering what happened to my resolve and why I haven’t been following my resolutions. They’re always great – very ambitious and detailed – but not always motivating. This year I am determined to change that.

I firmly believe that you do need some focus for the year otherwise you find yourself sitting around on NYE with a glass of champagne in your hand wondering where the year went (or is that just me?). With this in mind, I looked around a little online and started to think about a different way to look at my goals for the year. Notice that I didn’t say resolutions there, they are goals and focus areas. I picked 6 areas that I want to focus on and made some goals to sit underneath. I have 4 key goals for the year (one is a home renovation! Help!) that will help me measure progress. I still have resolutions but I have relegated them to more of a loose list of “rules” to help guide me. Let me explain. I thought about how I’d like to do things differently in 2013. One of the things about me is that I can be a bit of a perfectionist (stop laughing husband), OK, quite a lot actually. When I thought about it, I really waster a lot of time trying for perfection when done will do so there are a couple of resolutions to help me manage my time: “Keep it simple”, “Important first”, “Enjoy the journey”, “Not everything needs to be organised” and, my favourite, “Perfection is the enemy of done” (borrowed from this book).

I also found a great planning resources on a blog by Susannah Conway where the writer talked about having a word for the year that sums up what you want out of the year. This was an easy one – “Simplify”. There are many things in my life that I’d like to simplify, including how I work, so this seemed like a good all-encompassing word.

I had intended, like any good learning geek, to reflect my 2012 and distil my learning. Hmmm, not much time for that but I feel like this is something I do all year anyway so I’m happy with that. Maybe next year (she says with a cringe).

All of this goal-setting makes me wonder about how we set goals at work (I’ve done that too for 2013 but only the first quarter since things change so much so fast). Should we “simplify” our performance systems? Why do we need them to be so convoluted? Complicated may look clever but it takes too much time and effort to follow. That was my problem in years past. I has beautifully articulated goals for the year but then no real impetus to follow them. Let’s see in a year if my simplify approach works.

So what about 70:20:10?

I’m currently working with an organisation who uses the 70:20:10 framework. I realise that is hardly newsworthy these days but it has got me thinking. Since I’m researching the experience of learning within complex organisations for my PhD, I’ve been reflecting on the usefulness of 70:20:10 and whether it really is the right tool for the job in the current organisational environment.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree in principle with what it articulates, namely that we learn mainly through experience. I question whether it has become just another fad. Are all learning professionals who are using 70:20:10 really aware of what it is for and what it offers? Deakin University recently published a white paper that talks about 70:20:10 – how it’s used in organisations and how it could be best utilised.

Often I have heard HR, learning and even other professionals in workplaces wax lyrical about the virtues of 70:20:10 but when you actually ask them to describe it they often (but not always) come up short. A lot of managers and executive types seem to think of it as an excuse to spend less money on learning initiatives. Others think that it means that all “formal” learning experiences are somehow worthless and that all learning must be through projects and mentoring programs.

I believe that none of this is completely true. The 70:20:10 model is just that – a model. It’s a useful heuristic to guide thinking but it shouldn’t be the alpha and omega of learning in the workplace. You need to take into account the needs of the learners and of the business as well. You wouldn’t tell a trainee Qantas pilot to “learn from experience because research says that’s more effective” – would you? (I really hope that you answered no to that…especially if you work for an airline!).

As usual, balance is key. Too often learning practitioners (mia culpa) are swept along with the latest and greatest, or just the most famous, without pausing to reflect on the true underlying needs. We go for either/or rather than a combination of what fits.

Not much has changed for women

When I was a young, enthusiastic uni student (still enthusiastic but not so young!) I believed that we had really made some head-way with equality in the workplace. Sure, there were some pockets of sexist idiots but basically the feminist project had worked. As I get older and gain more experience of the world I am, sadly, revising my position on this. All of the media activity in the past 24 hours has got me thinking about this again. It seems that the media is full of discussions about women in leadership in Australia and why there seems to be so little progress in getting more women into the top echelons of management in both large and small organisations.

For example:

Australian firms trail world for women in top roles –

Female Leader concerns despite triumphs of ASX200 –

While this is important I can’t help but think that this is not where we should be spending our energy. Of course we need more women in leadership roles (if they want to – that’s another story). I think that there is definitely a lot of work to do about entrenched sexism in the Australian workplace generally, not just at the management/executive level. By and large, these are educated women who can look after themselves and potentially seek employment elsewhere with a more appreciative or flexible employer should the need arise. It is the women further down the workplace food chain that worry me. The women too dependent on their jobs to take a stand, the women with few skills who think that they have no options, the women with no confidence who don’t feel like they can argue back. These are the women who still need help. An older female colleague once said to me (rather unbelievably) that we shouldn’t “rock the boat”. Her perspective was that she’d made it by “playing the game the boys’ way” and that the problem was, more or less, “solved”. I couldn’t, and still can’t, believe this attitude from a woman who really could have made a difference.

Just yesterday I was powerfully reminded of this by a phone call from a friend who had just had an appalling experience when applying for a job. My friend, a woman, works in hospitality management, specifically managing pubs and clubs. She has a lot of experience in this area and had applied for a new role that would be a promotion. Although this can be a male dominated area she’d never really come up against blatant sexism before…until last night. She got an email follow-up to her interview. They told her that she was a great candidate and they would definitely hire her for one of their other pubs but that for the job she had applied for the selection committee had decided that they needed a man to do the job. They actually put than in an email. She was, naturally, shocked, angry and upset. The only reason they had given for not getting the job was her gender. The most galling thing was that there doesn’t seem to be any recourse. Sure, you can go back to the employer and complain but where will that really get you. Legal avenues are risky and expensive. She doesn’t want her currently employer to find out that she’s applied elsewhere and she’s conscious that this is a small world and she doesn’t want to get a reputation for “being a trouble-maker”. What else is left?

I can’t believe that this can happen in 2012. At least these guys were honest though to give them some credit. How many employers make decisions like this every day but cover themselves with platitudes about not being the right candidate, stiff competition and all that. None of that helps my friend and women like her though. This is a situation that must play out repeatedly across many industries and roles across the nation. I’m lucky, I’ve always worked in a female dominated field. That hasn’t always stopped inappropriate questions about when I might start a family or whether my husband agrees with a decision I’ve made but by and large that’s as bad as I’ve ever had to put up with. The fact that I’ve ever had to put up with this at all is a truly sad indictment of the Australian workplace and we need to do something about it. My daughter is one year old and I am sad that this is the world she will one day need to navigate.