Gentle Bamboo Solutions

I don’t think we have a “continuous learning” culture

Hi,

[This week's emails are contributed by Rakshith, and he ponders about a serious topic in a lot of detail: How to develop a Learning Organization?]

At Gentle Bamboo, our calendar in May was full – until it wasn’t. With the number of COVID cases rising, it is but natural that L&D takes a backseat to safety, family, and business deliverables. What is still worth pondering though, is that many companies claim “continuous learning” is part of their culture and yet, in a crisis, Learning and Development is the first (and often the only) casualty. If marketing, operations, and sales can’t stop in a pandemic, why should learning?

Watch any toddler in action, and you’ll see a master of learning. I remember observing my niece in her first few years on Earth and being fascinated! She spent her days hungrily amassing knowledge about the world. She smelt, touched, and licked everything she saw. She constantly practised new skills, crawling and walking again and again until she got it right. She was completely undeterred by failure.

That curious toddler still lives inside every one of us. We’re all dying to learn more about the world.

But many modern companies quickly stamp this drive out of us. And it can feel like they throw everything at that effort – from hierarchical structures to limiting job descriptions, to improper management.

Our drive to learn is strong – but our work environments can quickly extinguish it. One great way for a company to hamper learning is to give everybody a narrow job description. This can easily kill off any sense of engagement with what happens in the company overall. It encourages employees to just punch the clock. They do their specific tasks, sure, but they never think about how they can learn to solve broader problems. When something goes wrong, they’ll probably blame someone else. But they’d often be much better off thinking about how their own actions contributed to the problem.

Why are people so eager to apportion blame? Well, one reason is that sometimes they can’t see beyond their own departments. They have no sense of what happens across the entire organization – and thus no sense of ownership.

Second, companies also destroy learning opportunities when work becomes too reactive. If everyone is continually putting out fires, there’s no time to analyze things or to come up with creative solutions for the future.

This narrow focus on what’s happening right now can lead to the so-called “boiled frog” syndrome. It’s an old parable: a frog placed in a pot of cool water will eventually boil to death if the pot is heated up very gradually. Change takes so long that the frog doesn’t notice it – until it’s too late. If companies are stuck in reactive mode, they too, run the risk of missing subtle-but-growing problems.

Finally, a key obstacle to learning is created by managers who have no idea how to support their staff’s desire to think creatively and build new skills. This is often because such managers have themselves long since stopped developing.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Budget, Strategy, Knowledge Management, Career Development – all play a role in elevating learning and development into an impactful function. The good news is that none of these obstacles is insurmountable. Opportunities to learn, test and share can and must be baked into any workflow for a learning culture to develop.

Over this week, we’ll explore how to develop a roadmap to a successful learning organization. In the meantime, what is your take on the role of learning and development in companies?

Pondering a learning culture,

Rakshith