May 12, 2016

Tips for building a more agile learning environment

This year’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development L&D Show has been taking place this week in London’s Olympia.

The event, a mix of conference and exhibition, focused on the theme of driving growth through agile learning, and looked at new ways of meeting the needs of both individual employees and the wider organisation.

There were 29 sessions covering five topic areas: leadership development and coaching, digital learning, the science of learning, learning and talent development and organisation development.

So, what tips did the conference speakers share to help organisations create more agile learning environments?

Understand how learners learn
Sessions by Nick Shackleton-Jones, director of learning & performance innovation at PA Consulting Group and performance coach Jamil Qureshi made the point that in order to better support employees L&D needs to have a better understanding of how they learn. Once you know this, you will then understand what makes effective learning that is responsive to employee needs.

Shackleton-Jones talked about the theory of affective context which describes how humans make sense of situations based on their context. In effect, humans conjure up images based on our recollections and feelings about an event. We create emotional connections.

This means we build up patterns of the things we care about. So the challenge for learning is: how can we use this in the design of learning?

Compliance for example does not have affective context. Employees do not care enough about it. So L&D has to use techniques to try and make them care e.g. make learning experiences really impactful so that people connect emotionally with it. Safety simulations can change your attitude to safety, for example.

To be more agile L&D must provide resources to help employees do their job better and also create learning experiences (such as simulations and stories) to make employees care more about topics such as health and safety.

From a leadership development perspective, Qureshi said that L&D must understand how humans make sense of the world in order to provide development that works. For example, through our belief systems we delete, distort or filter information to fit our beliefs. Qureshi said that super-performers remain open minded and see things how they are. They always look for facts.

A shift to courses not resources
This is something many speakers talked about. To be agile, L&D needs to focus first on providing resources people need to do their job. Resources are not necessarily learning – for example, we use a map to get from A to B but that is not learning. That helps us get from A to B. The learning comes from finding the way so we know for next time. The challenge for L&D is to identify what employees need to do their jobs better and design resources for that. The default position should not be to design courses – they won’t necessarily help an employee do their job better.

Beyond blended learning
Charles Jennings, champion of the 70:20:10 framework, said that tacit knowledge is really important for workers and is best developed through conversations and relationships. However, traditional approaches to blended learning – with pre learning, classroom, post-learning – what he called “sandwich learning” – are too simplistic and miss out on the value of conversation and connections. He said that L&D must focus more on the 70 (on the job experience) where it can help embed learning in work. Currently, L&D focuses too much on the 10 (formal, structured learning), he said.

New roles for L&D
Jennings went on to describe a whole range of new roles for L&D, from performance detective to performance architect. At the heart of these roles is a mindset that supports a new approach to learning and performance, he said. This mindset helps L&D design for performance rather than knowledge

For example, in a ‘performance detective’ role, an L&D professional would be looking at:

  • Defining current process
  • Defining desired performance
  • Determining the performance gap.
  • Mapping barriers in the work environment
  • Listing critical tasks
  • Prioritising causes

These are a long way from the more traditional approaches of defining learning needs through a training needs analysis and then designing traditional learning interventions. New roles need to focus on performance first and evaluate current needs as a first step, rather than a last step.

The CIPD released research at the conference that showed there is a shift towards learning in the workflow. The survey of over 2,000 employees found that, over the last twelve months, employees are most likely to have received on-the-job training (28%), online learning (26%) and learning from peers (20%), creating a culture of ongoing knowledge-sharing and collaborative working.

Judging by the research and the conference speakers, a more agile approach to learning will put learning and performance in the flow of work and that will have big implications for how L&D teams operate.