Tag Archives: learning

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.

References

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.

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What has Adriano Zumbo got to do with workplace learning?

I am the first to admit that I’m a bit of a “procrasti-baker” – I will happily bake while everything else goes to rack and ruin. As part of my obsession I’ve been watching a new TV show recently called Zumbo’s Just Desserts which pits amateur dessert makers against one another in a competition which also asks them to face regular challenges of making the devilishly difficult desserts of pastry chef extraordinaire, Adriano Zumbo.

As some might have noticed, one of my other obsessions is learning.  Specifically, how people learn at work. While I was watching the show the other night I started thinking about learning through work which I’ve been writing and talking about a lot lately in my PhD dissertation (nearly there!) and in the Designing Innovative Learning course I teach at UTS. The vast majority of research in the field of workplace learning tends to agree that learning at work tends to happen through the practice of work rather than separate from it in educational institutions or other “formal” courses. Experience, our own or vicariously from the experiences of others, is the single biggest way that most of us learn anything.

Obviously the contestants on the Zumbo TV show have learned through experience, through the trial and error of enthusiasts who are entirely self motivated. At one point, as they worked on replicating a challenging recipe of Zumbo’s I thought about his training.  The hard yards that he spent as an apprentice from his teens, all of the years gaining work experience around the world, and starting his own business. The winner of this contest, like the similar show Masterchef, seems to somehow circumvent this.  They win money, an entrée into work experience with famous chefs in the field, and so on. A short-cut if you will.  I started to wonder, is this fair?  Pastry chefs, along with many other professions, work hard to gain their qualifications and often at unsociable hours.  Is it fair that some hobbyist who was pottering about their kitchen gets all the glory?

More thinking ensued.  Bet you didn’t think that watching a cooking show, ostensibly to relax, could get so deep!

I needed to take a deep breath and remind myself that there is no “right” way to learn something and chastised myself for falling into the trap of creeping credentialism – the idea that learning hasn’t happened unless you have some sort of piece of paper or have done the “hard yards” to “deserve it”.  Nonsense!  This is exactly the sort of thinking that has got organisations into trouble for years.  Thinking that the only learning worth mentioning  must be trackable and measurable – generally a good, old-fashioned course.  How many managers or learning practitioners would (or should) welcome enthusiastic, self-directed, motivated learners who direct their own learning out of interest?  But is this what we reward?  Is this what we foster in making sure that everyone does the same sheep dip training sessions?  Organisations could learn a lot from the enthusiastic self starters on Zumbo’s Just Desserts.  How many of these motivated learners lurk within our organisations now but we’re not enabling them?

So, good luck to the contestants on reality cooking shows. Your learning is just as valid as the world’s top pastry chefs.  As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating!

 

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)?

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.

Funny how time gets away from you…

I had no idea it had been so long since I wrote in this blog. When you’re busy, everything seems to have just happened yesterday.  It has been a very full few months with lots on at work and home. Going back to uni, particularly to do a research degree, has been very challenging. Having a management role makes this even more difficult. The benefit, however, is the experience of being a learner again. I now firmly believe that you cannot be a truly effective learning and organisational development practitioner without putting yourself in the place of the learner and what better way to do that than to become a learner yourself?

It’s important to keep learning if you want to encourage others to learn. LOD practitioners who focus solely on “training” others probably won’t understand this but in my view we’re here to develop learners. That’s the goal of the LOD practitioner. If that means teaching them some skills along the way so that they can do their job, absolutely, but if you find that’s all you’re doing then you need to take a good hard look at what yourself. If we’re not helping people to develop as learners, then we’re not giving them the tools that they will need to succeed in such as rapidly changing world.  The question is how to develop learning? Ah ha, that’s a challenge. Part of the reason I went back to uni – to find out the answer to this question!

Learning Non-believers

Have you ever had a run-in with a learning non-believer? Those people who still train like it’s 1989 and have no idea why you might be trying to do things differently? We all know these people. I had an interaction with one such person yesterday and it got me thinking about how the world of learning has changed and why we need to change with it.

When I first started in the L&D world I was a lowly instructional designer. The most cutting edge things back then were the very early attempts at e-learning. In the course of only eight years since then e-learning, just one small part of learning and development, has taken off and you can now find every possible permutation of e-learning. It changes as rapidly as the world around it. Face-to-face training does not have this kind of flexibility. We can design flexible programs, beautiful programs with many interactive activities and opportunities for practice but will this be enough in such a rapidly changing world?

In a word, no.

The world, and organisations, change so frequently these days how can we possibly hope to design valuable learning experiences that help our learners navigate this world? How can we ever expect to get our head around a topic when it all changes so much? Once upon a time the trainer was an expert who taught others what they knew. That’s how the apprenticeship system worked for hundreds of years. These days the experts are usually the learners. The modern organisation is coplex and dynamic. It no longer requires us to deliver content that we are “accredited” in or consider ourselves experts in. Our expertise is not in the content we teach but in learning and learners. Our learners and our organisations need us, as learning and development professionals, to give them the skills to learn for themselves, to critically analyse, ask questions, seek knowledge.

Organisations and learners don’t often realise this for themselves unfortunately. It is emcumbent upon the learning and development community to show them what they can do and how learning and critical thought can make a real difference. It’s not as tangible as an attendance list from a course but the business and individual learning outcomes will be far superior.

So what happens to the non-believers in this world? Sadly I think they, like the dinosaurs before them, will be left behind. Superceded by newer and better adapted learning professionals. Now, honestly ask yourself – am I still a trainer or a learning enabler?

To learn more about informal learning and complex organisations you might want to look at the following blogs:

Training accreditations – the good, the bad and the ugly

Last week I had the good fortune to go to an external course as a participant for a change. I enjoy these experiences for the networking opportunities with my L&D peers as much as for the learning opportunity. The two-day course was just a starter to the topic and there was more than a little pressure to sign-up for the “certification program” for three days the following week. At a bargain cost of several thousand dollars of course.

This experience got me thinking about all of the “accreditation” and “certification” programmes I’ve been on over the years. The quality varies but overall the experience is the same. After an initial period of excitement at the possibilities of a new programme you start to pull it apart and work out which parts you actually want to use. This is, naturally, frowned upon by whichever company accredited you who usually want you to buy all of the necessary paraphernalia from their extended version.

After years of observation I have compiled a list of a few things to consider when looking at completing an accreditation for any particular training course/model:

  • Is this one of those programs where you can’t run the content any other way? An example of this is one organisation I’ve come across that licences their models to an organisation for an annual fee and does train-the-trainer as part of the deal. The only way to use the model it to pay the licence.
  • Will you really run the program often enough to warrant the investment in the accreditation? Sometimes the next big thing in training can seem really exciting and you want to jump on the bandwagon. Before you sign-up though make sure that this is a program or tool that you will actually use. There are two points about this. The first is that it needs to be worth the, often substantial, investment. Secondly, if you don’t get to run the program often enough you will lose the skills and knowledge you acquired in the course through lack of use.
  • Are the tools/materials that you need to buy post-accreditation expensive? I have looked in to a few accreditations where the actual coursework in reasonably priced but the measurement tools cost a small fortune per participant. Be cautious about this and always ask what the materials are worth upfront. Its also worth checking how difficult they may be to get hold of. Can you order online or do you need to do it all by phone or fax?
  • Is the theory/tool available in some other format? One thing that always amazes me is that some organisations will charge a fortune for models that are available in the public domain but try to convince you otherwise. Often what oyu are really paying for is to learn to use their version of it and run their version of the program. DiSC is a good example of this where the theory and model are freely available, it is the measurement tool that varies and that’s what you’re paying to be accredited for. It also pays to be aware of current theories. I’ve seen many a program in an aspect of positive psychology that claims to have the exclusive rights but, in fact, much of this stuff is published and freely available in the public domain.

It’s important as an L&D professional to understand copyright and intellectual property. IP is the bread and butter of the training world and it’s important to respect that. Just remember that you may have other options before shelling out the big bucks. Do your homework to make sure the program will suit your needs and the needs of the organisation and happy learning!

When I grow up…

When I was young I wanted to be a lawyer. I can’t remember why but I was completely convinced that the law was for me. It was a boring week spent on Year 10 work experience that finally convinced me of the folly of my dream – I was bored to tears.

To this day I’m not quite sure what has led me to the fascinating world of adult learning but I’m glad to have landed here.

This blog is designed to help me capture what I learn as an L&D Manager. Often people working in the corporate learning and development space forget their own learning and growth but it is critical to keep reflecting and seeking knowledge to be a truly successful L&D professional. This blog will, hopefully, help me to capture what I have learned along the way of information that I have found useful in my 8 years on the job.