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How to Encourage Learning

Bicycle-Training-Wheels 400x265Exploring Activities that Encourage Learning

We’ve been having a lot of fun exploring the in’s and out’s of Learning Organisations recently, you can find a couple of additional resources by following me or following me.

We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of a learning organisation and some of the key characteristics or behaviours you may want to encourage in your employees to develop a learning culture.  But what else can we do?  Is there a tick list for successfully embedding learning into your culture?

Well not quite, but there are a few key components to a continuous learning culture.  So let’s explore a few of the methods.  First off we have the traditional methods for individual learning including classroom training; online learning; mentoring; and participation in conferences, workshops, and seminars that can support you.

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Let’s begin with individual learning, which is the ability of individuals in your organisation to pursue self development. It requires individuals to take personal responsibility for their own learning and development through a process of assessment, reflection, and action – ideally supported by that individual’s line manager.  Individual learning helps the employee and the organisation continually update skills and remain competitive in the market place.

You might want to consider individual development plans, special projects or specifically created learning groups to support individuals in the acquisition or translation of new skills.

Another way to support individuals with their learning is through online learning or in modern vernacular Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  To find out more on MOOCs you can click me.  In summary MOOCs are a great way of using modern technology to deliver consistent, coordinated and measurable learning directly into the needs of your employees.

Mentoring is a great way to hold learners to account, and to ensure that the new skills an individual is acquiring are actually relevant to the broader business goals.  Quite often a mentor holds a higher position and is usually outside the employee’s chain of supervision.  Mentoring has the side benefit of fostering the talent in your business who show high potential for management or leadership responsibilities.

That’s the usual list of things a firm might do to encourage individual learning, so let’s now look at what a business can do to encourage a learning environment – using organisational learning.

Totem Gummi Bears

Organisational learning occurs when the entire organisation addresses and solves problems, builds repositories of lessons learned, and creates core competencies that represent the collective learning of employees, past and present.

Organisational learning not only contributes to resolving organisational issues, but it also promotes individual development of knowledge and skills.  It’s a win win!  So let’s start with action learning.

Action learning is a great process for bringing together a group of people with varied levels of skills and experience to analyse and address an actual work problem.  It’s important that the group continues to meet as actions are implemented, learning from the implementation and making mid-course corrections. It’s a powerful tool for addressing problems and issues that are complex and not easily resolved.

Cross-functional teams are the natural evolution of action learning groups and are composed of people with varied levels of skills and experience, brought together to accomplish a task. These teams may use action learning as a process to solve problems, but the key here is that cross-functional team members come from different areas of the business and so pool a much broader range of skills and experiences.

Finally, parallel learning structures.  These structures refer to groups who represent various levels and functions working to open new channels of communication outside but parallel to the normal hierarchical structure.

Parallel learning structures promote innovation and change in large organisations while retaining the advantage of bureaucratic design.  They take individuals from each level within an organisation, upskill them in a specific way and send them back into their original level of the organisation – often as change agents or ‘champions’ of a particular innovation or business agenda.

For the eagle eyed among you, what key theme links the steps that an organisation can take to foster a learning culture?

It’s the removal of traditional hierarchical barriers to communication and cooperation – even if temporary, between all employees across your organisation that will drive a culture of continuous learning and growth.  And whilst nothing beats doing this face-to-face, the wide range of social platforms now available for business mean that people can connect, share and learn across the globe.

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Cultures of Continuous Learning

stepping-stonesContinuous Learning is Continuous Improvement

At a personal level, continuous learning is about constantly expanding your skills through focused and specifically chosen learning activities. We touch on the advantages that continuous learning can bring at a leadership level here.

But what about at an organisational level?

We briefly explored what a Learning Organisation is in a recent article, but lets dig a little deeper and walk you through some of the steps that you can actually take to develop a culture within your business that embraces learning.





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Learning Organisations

DNA-Totem 400x265Is learning in their DNA?

Simply put, a learning organisation is one that is able to change its behaviours and mind-sets as a result of its experiences.  Such organisations are found to actively promote learning in individuals and in some key instances, they promote leadership at all levels.

As a side point but one worth making, this promotion of learning and leadership has the knock on effect of improving accountability across an organisation – individuals tend to accept more readily responsibility for their actions…

Learning organisations or LO’s achieve this through encouraging a strong network of relationships and peer support from individual to individual across the organisation.  They see learning, or rather something that has been learnt as something that is transferrable from one person to another, regardless of the department or project that those individuals are working on.

And it’s this shared ‘learning’ mentality that distributes intelligence throughout the organisation.

It’s an incredibly effective culture for fully engaging internal and external stakeholders with the goals of the business.  This is achieved by what becomes in effect, the entire organisation responding to issues identified by stakeholders.  A challenge or problem shared at one end of the business, may find a solution in a traditionally unlikely area of the business.

But an LO is more than a group of individuals learning or those individuals sharing that learning with his or her network or peers.  What we find fascinating is that what an organisation learns and how it applies that learning isn’t always predictable.

It has a something to do with The Principles of Complex Systems (Mitleton-Kelly 2003) which in summary describes the emergent and unexpected results of organisation wide collaboration.

Jelly Bean Diversity

The recipe for a complex system is at face value quite simple.  Take a broad, self – reflective environment, made up of many individuals and add this key cultural ingredient:

There is a difference between a ‘mistake’ and a ‘failure’.

Such an environment makes a distinction between ‘mistakes’ that are the result of irresponsibility and lack of forethought and failures, those that are genuine explorations of a new idea or a new way of working.

One is acceptable (even encouraged) and one is not.  How many iterations of the iPod did Apple go through before it was finally released to the general public?  Was each prototype a mistake or a failure?

If you want to find out more about how to start your own learning culture, we highly recommend our fabulous downloadable guide on the subject.

So back to the individual, it’s crucial to recognise that individuals in an organisation influence one another.  Particularly during the learning process, their ideas will co-evolve.  Meaning that those ideas must have a great deal of innate flexibility – and flexible thinking is the pre curser to learning agility.

If you have an organisation full of flexible thinkers, you have the foundations to an agile workforce.

The true strength of an agile organisation lies in this concept of co-evolution.  Particularly in relation to a changing business environment – external or internal.  As the broader environment changes, so to will the organisation but once changed, the organisation, in turn, will influence that broader environment.

When the influence and change are mutual and cyclical, then we have co-evolution.  The learning environment fostered in the organisation is having a direct impact on the business environment outside of the organisation.

And we’d encourage you to take a moment to think this final point through.  It’s only through influencing its external business environment, that an organisation can move from an ‘also ran’ to market leader.

Can you name a current market leader, that hasn’t innovated or applied new learning to the industry it’s operating in?

We can’t.

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Learning Styles

Little geniusHow Do We Each Learn Things?

Each person learns in a slightly different way to everyone else, and many theories have been put forward to explain these differences; in fact there have been over 70 theories postulated!

Each theory has its strengths and weaknesses, with plenty of evidence either supporting or refuting it.  Let’s explore one of the more long lived theories shall we?

One of the most widely used learning theories is the VARK model, developed by Neil Fleming.  This has been widely applied to educational settings and influenced materials used by teachers.  Suffice to say it’s quite popular and it’s likely that we and our children have been taught with this model in mind.

In this model, four types of learning styles are identified: visual, auditory; read-writing and kinaesthetic.  Fleming argued that each type of learning requires a different approach, for example, visual learners learn best with pictures, visual aids and diagrams.  Others will benefit from learning approaches such as movement, acting, experiments or listening to lectures and podcasts.

As this model is so widely used and referred to, it is possible that the use of learning styles could increase delegates’ awareness of their own individual approach and therefore benefit their learning.  But that sounds like a training course on how to go a training course!

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It’s important to remember that when you’re designing any workshop or training course, you’d do well to integrate a variety of exercises that touch upon these VARK learning models.  Nobody learns a great deal from a full day of Power Point slides…

Learning styles are arguably, too simplistic an explanation for learning, which is inherently a complex process.  You’ll often here the term ‘blended learning’ – it means slightly different things in different contexts, but for us it’s about creating a learning journey using a range of different, but blended exercises.

Quite critically, blended learning relies on the skill of the training deliverer to recognise the needs of the individual delegates and to adapt their approach to teaching within that context.

So what’s the secret sauce to effective learning for all?

Quite simply, there isn’t one.  Learning is as individual as the people teaching as those learning.  The best approach going forward is to expect to be flexible, and change the methods of teaching accordingly.

If delegates are included in the process and teachers are willing to be that bit more flexible then the perfect learning situation should be created.  However, this really is an idealised version of learning and how practical and applicable this is in the work place on a daily basis is a whole other question.

Getting in touch with us about learning styles is brilliantly simple – just follow me!

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Why Perfectionism Isn’t Perfect

Peas 400x265Why Being Mr. (or Mrs.) Perfect may not be so perfect after all.

Perfectionism is one of those wonderful character traits that we all aspire too, but can often lead to drastically negative behaviour.  It continually points to our failures, no matter how small and undermines our achievements.

Culturally, we prize perfectionism; Steve Jobs is frequently held as an ideal for insisting on perfection.

As we’ve discussed elsewhere, adaptability is a key ingredient in resilient people.  And resilient people are the ones who will come back time and again to face a challenge.  The irony of perfectionism is that eventually, the perfectionist will give up.  And whatever challenge they faced will be left un-conquered.  Was Steve Jobs a perfectionist?  Or was he able to adapt his ideas to the modern marketplace?  That debate still rages on in our office today.

But research now shows us that perfectionism is an acquired trait, we’re certainly not born with it.  How perfect were your idle doodles as a 4 year old?  Could they have been better?

One interesting shift in modern society is the pressure we place on our children to succeed.  Without the requisite social skills in place, children often perceive this pressure as criticism.  And it’s this perceived criticism that works its way into the psyche and develops as a trait.

One side effect to perfectionism is a focus on control; it encourages rigid thinking and behaviour.  That’s precisely the opposite of what is required from individuals across organisations in the modern context, where we want to see innovation and flexibility.

According to Psychology Today:

“Perfectionism reduces playfulness and the assimilation of knowledge; if you’re always focused on your own performance and on defending yourself, you can’t focus on learning a task. Here’s the cosmic thigh-slapper: Because it lowers the ability to take risks, perfectionism reduces creativity and innovation—exactly what’s not adaptive in the global marketplace.”

“Yet, it does more. It is a steady source of negative emotions; rather than reaching toward something positive, those in its grip are focused on the very thing they most want to avoid—negative evaluation. Perfectionism, then, is an endless report card; it keeps people completely self-absorbed, engaged in perpetual self-evaluation—reaping relentless frustration and doomed to anxiety and depression.”

Totem Gummi Bears

Below we list some of the personality traits exhibited by perfectionists.

Concern over mistakes: Perfectionists tend to interpret mistakes as equivalent to failure and to believe they will lose the respect of others following failure.

High personal standards: Perfectionists don’t just set very high standards but place excessive importance on those standards for self-evaluation.

Parental expectations: Perfectionists tend to believe their parents set very high goals for them.

Parental criticism: Perfectionists perceive that their parents are (or were) overly critical.

Doubting actions: Perfectionists doubt their ability to accomplish tasks.

Organisation: Perfectionists tend to emphasise order.

In a team environment we’ve experienced first-hand that the rigidity of perfectionism is difficult to work with.  The drive for the perfect answer doesn’t make space for the weird and wonderful world of collaboration.

What can you do to overcome the drawbacks to perfectionism?  As a starting point, we can take a leaf from Taibi Kahler’s book on drivers.  He identified ‘Be Perfect’ as an inherent driver type and offered these suggestions:

  • Encourage playfulness in your thinking process
  • Cultivate mindfulness when dealing with others
  • Practise accepting imperfection from others as well as yourself
  • Acknowledge the effort that’s put into meeting challenges
  • Invite feedback and embrace it

Perfectionism can be problematic because it can lead to obsessiveness, which in turn leads to a whole host of issues around attendance, performance, and morale.  For example; you’ll often see a perfectionist procrastinate because they’re afraid of failing before they start.

Or even worse, they may position themselves as a martyr. Certainly in a business context, the employees we regard as heroes, the ones who come in early, stay late, and solve every problem can actually mask inherent business issues.  The simple fact that heroic measures are required means at least some things are not working right.  So whether we call a person hero or martyr – we need to ask the question, what is really going on and what can we learn from that?

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Psychological Capital

12It’s a bit like hope, but with a purpose!

As part of our continued updates from our PhD studies, we’re exploring Psychological Capital or PsyCap, (which we really aren’t keen on as an abbreviation)  Psychological Capital is an umbrella term for the personal resources we have, specifically our self-efficacy, optimism, resilience and hope.

There’s a brilliant book about it which we’ve reviewed here.

These resources have been shown to help us engage with our work, develop a positive mind-set and deliver great performance.  Some have even gone as far as saying that it underpins the value in an organisation.  So making sure that we have each in abundance will make all the difference to our experience at work as well as our productivity.

So let’s take a look at those four factors individually:

Self-efficacy is a term that has been around in the academic literature for a while.  It’s about whether we believe that we are able to contribute and this has been shown to have a significant effect on our performance and the goals that we set ourselves.   It’s not about just telling ourselves we can do it – it’s about an honest evaluation and creating a plan to ensure that we are able to contribute.

Jelly Bean Diversity

Developing our self-efficacy is about listening to the conversations we have in our minds and the self-limiting beliefs we might hold, challenging them and taking action to ensure that they are eradicated.  So what are your personal limiting beliefs?  And how can they be challenged?

Optimism is another term that we’ve all come across.  As a part of our psychological capital, it represents our disposition and is not necessary linked to ability, but it has been linked to reduced stress and improved commitment and performance.  You can read more about Optimism here.

Hope – whilst optimism involves expecting a positive outcome, hope focuses on the actual execution of reaching goals, thus linking it performance and goal pursuit.  Individuals high in hope are likely to find a route to achieve their goals and adapt their route as it changes and challenges occur.  Three incredibly bright researchers named Luthans, Youssef and Avolio refer to two components of hope:

1) will-power (motivation) and

2) way-power (capacity to determine alternative methods to reach a goal).

Which is quite different from our day to day understanding of hope.  Without hope, the will to accept challenges is not present and the way to overcome those challenges will not be found.  Two more super clever researchers Peterson and Byron found that hopeful sales employees, mortgage brokers and management executives had higher job performances.

Totem Lollipops

Resilience – whilst the behaviour related to resilience could be described as persistence, resilience is a wider capacity found at a personal or emotional level.

Luthans described resilience as:

“a positive psychological capacity to rebound, to ‘bounce back’ from adversity, uncertainty, conflict, failure or even positive change, progress and increase responsibility”

This suggests that resilience produces a buffering effect whereby engagement is maintained despite burnout-inducing job demands.  It’s been demonstrated that there’s a link between resiliency and the performance of sales staff; finding a positive correlation with their adaptive selling behaviour.

And if you follow this link, we have a fair bit more to say on resilience!

Most importantly each of the components of Psychological Capital can be measured; can be developed over time and have a positive impact on performance.

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Maximise Your MOOC

maximise 400x265How Do You Maximise Your MOOC Experience?

We introduced the concept of a MOOC here, so if you’re unfamiliar with the concept we’d recommend jumping back a page.  In this article we’re exploring how an individual learner can maximise the benefits of using an online course, whether that’s as an employee, or as an indivdual looking to learn a new skill.

Online learning is a relatively new and alternative way of studying a range of new skills.  It’s  progressed massively in the last few years, and has become an equally valid form of learning in the workplace.

However, with change come a few challenges.

Totem Gummi Bears

Common sense and an awareness of the pitfalls of self learning can hugely improve the experience for everyone involved.

One of the main hooks into online learning is the freedom to study in your own time, but this can also be its biggest drawback.  Managing your own development requires self-motivation, discipline and self-control.  Which is a lot easier said than done for many people!  And we’re not about to have an online course about taking online courses!

If you always put it off and think ‘it can be done tomorrow’, maybe online learning is not the best option for you.  For many MOOCs you are required to manage your own time, often set your own deadlines and will be required to find the energy and motivation to work when perhaps you really don’t want to.

One main way to stay on track is to try and follow the schedule of courses as much as possible.  Whilst you won’t always be able to achieve this, if you can either work ahead for when you know in advance you will be unavailable, or catch up when needed, you shouldn’t go far wrong.

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Another consideration is that of general life; most people complete online courses around the craziness of day to day life, whether it is work, home or family.  All these competing demands will put pressure on your time and ability to cope, and unfortunately, online learning can easily be put to the bottom of the list.  Particularly if the outcome from the course is linked to some greater sense of reward or advancement.

Finding a way to manage the demands of daily life and working will ensure a much smoother and more enjoyable experience.  And we’d also suggest linking the completion of the course to some greater purpose.

Finally, a MOOC offers us something quite unique in the world of online learning, it’s social interactivity.  You have a whole world of learners from all walks of life out there who are interested in the same topic as you, so use them.  Whatever time of day or night you are studying, whichever module you are on, chances are there is someone else on the course somewhere in the world doing the same thing as you.

By staying in regular contact with the other learners through message boards and course chatrooms/messaging features, you get the social side of studying without leaving your home.  Sometimes all we need is a nudge in the right direction by someone who understands what we are trying to do.

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What is a MOOC?

communication 400x265A Cow With a Sore Throat?

MOOC, or a Massive Open Online Course to give it its full title, is a relatively recent phenomenon.  The impact that these online courses are having on our industry are truely breathtaking, so let’s find out a little more.

The explosion of the internet has made the world a much smaller place and connected every corner of the globe; education is no different to many other industries in this respect. Within a MOOC learners from anywhere in the world are connected with each other, teachers and institutions that could be local or thousands of miles away.

Apply this idea to business and you can quickly connect the learning objectives of an entire, global organisation to the individual development areas of their employees.

Although MOOCs are a unique way of learning, they retain all the features of a traditional learning environment such as lectures, assignments and exams.  MOOCs enable employee’s anywhere in the world with an internet connection to join a particular course, are set tasks and are able to log in and complete the work at a pace that suits them.

Totem Gummi Bears

Learning in this new way has many advantages over traditional training for employee’s, the main benefit of MOOCs is that they enable employee’s who are excluded from traditional forms of training to learn.  This could be because they have roles that don’t allow time out from the business, or because the cost of training a large population of people in a workshop environment is prohibitive.

In this sense, a MOOC can provide tailored, targeted learning to individuals across an organisation.  You can even go further by connecting learning objectives, development plans and bonus structures to the satisfactory completion of certain courses.

What’s particularly exciting is that you can map your employee’s completion rates and which courses have proved most popular to broader, more traditional development programmes that complement the courses offered on your MOOC.  This is likely to increase engagement with the courses and the likelihood of completing a course.

Totem Lollipops

For trainers and HR professionals there are differing, but equally as valid, benefits.  By providing materials online, organisations are able to offer their services to an essentially endless number of employee’s, with minimal work.  Workshops, or courses can be filmed and uploaded, and all without adding much to a trainers workload.

It’s also a great way to raise the status of an organisation as an employer of choice.  For the first time an organisation can actually demonstrate a coherent map of what training and development is available to it’s employee’s, what the take up has been, the success rates and the interventions that come from those statistics.

Another brilliant benefit is that by basing training online, staff are able to engage with other trainers and subject specialists, and therefore collaborate in new and unexpected ways.  And it’s these new and unexpected ways that we’ll be keeping a close eye on the coming months.

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Getting The Full Picture

Totem-Picture-400x265What Our PhD Has Taught Us So Far

Part of the process of writing up my PhD has demanded a theoretical review of concepts such as ontology (the nature of reality) and epistemology (the nature of knowledge & meaning).

This has taken me through the world of philosophy, meta-physics and back to psychology. Have no doubt…. My brain hurts! But I’ve found that the result of the mulling has really helped in decision making at work, in planning and in challenging myself and others to think more creatively.

What if you are a part of a leadership team trying to evaluate options or strategies for the future?

I thought it might be interesting to share a couple of the big questions that were involved in that journey…. And how I now have become more comfortable on the fence!

So the two big questions, philosophers and theorists have asked that relate to how research is designed:

  • What is reality?
  • Where does meaning come from?

In terms of the first question about reality, theorists call this your ontological perspective. In simplest terms it’s a question of whether we are uncovering reality (i.e. it is pre-existing) or whether we are discovering reality as a product of engaging with the world (i.e. it is relative to experiences and frames of reference)1.

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If I think that facts need to be uncovered then my approach is going to be about measurement and numbers.   My experience as a business owner highlights that whilst I can get a whole lot of measures and numbers to describe the state of the business, the reality can sometimes be very different.

My profit and loss might say one thing but comparing that to the market, our vision, expectations and the experiences we have had along the way mean that I may draw very different conclusions than when I simply look at the numbers. It is the conclusions that we draw that inform what we do so the value of both viewpoints on reality is helpful.

If we are taking the view that reality is pre-existing, it is also helpful to challenge ourselves to consider the frame of reference that we are describing that in and consider other frames of reference – surely that gives a more considered view?   Equally if we are taking the view that reality is relative, it is helpful to challenge ourselves to consider what measures we have to describe that.

Acknowledging where our thoughts are on that question will help us to know where we need to focus our extra efforts – to get the fuller picture.  That fuller picture will involve numbers and words.

Jelly Bean Diversity

The second question is all about the nature of knowledge, how do we know what we know?  Theorists call this your epistemological perspective, this time there are three camps: the objective stance suggest that meaning exists independently; the constructionist stance takes the view that meaning is developed; and the subjectivist stance suggests that without the person there is no meaning1.

This actually completely informs the way that we make sense of our world.  If we are looking for the objective truth we are seeking a measure of success.  If we are looking for how that truth has been developed then we can get a sense of growth and change.  If we are looking for how each individual interprets their world, our search may be longer but certainly there will be many colours to the interpretation!

In my work as a psychologist, I cannot avoid the evidence that I have that people interpret things in different ways and change their views based on their interactions with people.  Does that actually mean there is no objective truth?  Some would say yes, I am not sure that the two statements are necessarily linked.

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What is more important is to acknowledge what we are wanting to get to and the limitations that will have: a statement of fact (that may be flawed in some contexts); clarity on development (that may be difficult to define); or a very personal clarity (that may not be clear to others).

So whilst my brain hurt as I read about the differing philosophical stances I had to conclude that whilst I may have a preferred camp, acknowledging that and looking at the differing views can only add to my experience and the value of the research that I will produce.  You might not be sitting on the fence like me but asking yourself these questions can only help you develop a fuller more meaningful picture of the context and world that you are operating in:

  • Do I think reality is relative or needs to be uncovered? How does that inform my conclusions?  What else can I do to get a fuller picture?
  • Do I think that meaning is personal, developed or objective? How does that inform what I do?  What else can I do to get a fuller picture?

1 Crotty, M. (1998) The Foundations of Social Research. London: Sage

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