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Jackie Clifford

Clarity Learning and Development


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How to better support your flexible learners

Offering flexible learning experiences has never been more important. What steps can you take to ensure your learners are taking ownership of their development?

While flexible learning is not a new topic, it is one that is worth coming back to on a regular basis, especially during this current period of disruption.

With traditional learning and development programmes, we have always encouraged line managers to spend time pre-programme with their team members discussing personal learning objectives. We then urge learners and their managers to undertake a post-programme review of the learning to result in action planning for implementation. But in all honesty, this probably happens much less than we would like to think.

With flexible learning, there are likely to be less start and end points because, by its very nature, it is happening on a more ad-hoc basis. Flexible learning provides the opportunity for much more ‘learning in the flow of work’ as discussed by Andy Lancaster in a recent CIPD Podcast. And the learner is much more in control of their own learning.

With this in mind, what can L&D professionals and line managers do to support flexible learners in the workplace?

1. Revamp your PDPs

First, I would strongly advocate for every employee to have a personal development plan (PDP). Nothing new I hear you shout! This may be the case, but it seems to me that often the PDP is something that is produced either as part of the performance review process or as part of a formal qualification-based programme. Because of this, it is not always seen as a priority and can sometimes be seen as a so-called ‘tick-box exercise’.

I believe that we should all have a PDP that is linked to our ongoing objectives (which of course are linked to team objectives which are in turn linked to organisational objectives) and within the PDP we should identify specific learning that is required for us to achieve those objectives.

PDPs should be a living, breathing document, not something that is completed once a year and then sits in a drawer (real or virtual) until it’s time for the mid-year or end of year review. I feel as if this may be a pipe dream, but it should definitely be an aspiration. 

Once we have a PDP, linked to our objectives, it is much easier to then undertake a range of activities that will support the individual to implement the plan.

We know that social learning – learning from each other on a daily basis – is one of the key ways in which we can increase an organisation’s bank of knowledge and skill.

2. Transform one-to-ones into learning conversations

Regular one-to-one conversations between line managers and their team members are a common feature in successful organisations. During these conversations there is a huge opportunity for learning to be highlighted and plans made for maximising the benefits of that learning. 

Line managers can be supported by their L&D colleagues to make the most of the one-to-one process by providing guidance, coaching and perhaps some paperwork. 

A simple structure for a conversation can elevate it from a humble monthly chat to a powerful tool for development. 

Elements for a learning conversation can include:

  1. A review of what has been happening since the last conversation and how the individual has responded. This review element should include some questions that are specific to learning undertaken – both formal and informal. The line manager can facilitate this by asking about what the team member has read, watched, heard and participated in, rather than simply saying ‘what have you learned this month?’.

  2. A question-led discussion which supports the individual to reflect on their experiences on a number of levels – including what happened, alongside reflection on why it happened this way and the contribution of the individual to the success of the situation (or not!).

  3. A question-led discussion which then enables the individual to reflect on their learning from the situation. This element would include an identification of the required outcomes and a discussion of how successfully the outcomes were achieved. This would lead into consideration of what should be repeated next time and what should be avoided next time. 

  4. An action plan for implementation of the learning points. These actions would be recorded for review at the next one-to-one. 

For learning to make a difference to how our organisations succeed, both L&D teams and line managers will need to get involved.

3. Create space for learning

Another feature of successful organisations is the provision of ‘headspace’ for both individuals and teams. I am using this term to describe the ways in which organisations facilitate making time available for flexible learning.

This can mean anything from scheduling time for ‘lunch and learns’ right through to resisting the urge to give an audible ‘tut’ when a line manager sees their team member watching a TED talk. 

We know that social learning – learning from each other on a daily basis – is one of the key ways in which we can increase an organisation’s bank of knowledge and skill. To this end line managers should trust their team members to be able to judge when and where they engage with their colleagues to learn from them. 

4. Turn your line managers into coaches

Managers can support the implementation of learning through their scheduled one-to-ones as well as through what is often described as ‘spot coaching’ or the identification of ‘teachable moments’. 

Managers are best placed to use these learning methods because they are in regular contact with their team members. Having said this, in recent months where many people have been working remotely, managers may need to come back to a more formalised way of checking in with their team members and conducting coaching-style conversations. 

Driving business value through flexible learning

If you have yet to download The Open University and TrainingZone’s whitepaper, Driving Business Value Through Flexible Learning, written by the marvellous Laura Overton, do it now! It provides some great information and food for thought around this important topic which has become all the more relevant over recent weeks.

As Laura Overton says, “flexible workplaces demand flexible learning” and for that learning to make a difference to how our organisations succeed, both L&D teams and line managers will need to get involved.

It would be great to see comments on this article about how your organisations support flexible learners so that we can get a conversation going and learn from each other. Thanks for reading!

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Jackie Clifford


Read more from Jackie Clifford

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