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Roddy Millar

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Just don’t call it learning


Roddy Millar, from Ideas for Leaders, looks at the power and role of online development

We keep hearing that the Internet democratises everything, from protest movements to shopping and beyond. What this means is that it is now very easy to access and share information and this applies doubly so to learning, particularly adult learning.

Adults learn differently from children, we are less receptive, our brains are less elastic. For adults to learn successfully the conditions have to be set more carefully, which essentially means less prescriptively and more on the learner's terms than the teachers' (which would not be a sustainable high school approach). The key preconditions for adult learning are:

  • They must feel in control of the process (self-direction)
  • They can relate the learning to their own experience (relevance)
  • The learning has an application to current challenges they face (immediacy)
  • They can learn through practice (experiential)

The advent of online learning ought to lend itself well to these factors and we are seeing in the last twelve months the enormous surge in popularity of MOOCs which fulfil at least the first three of these criteria. The success of Coursera, Udacity and edX amongst others in attracting staggering numbers to join their online learning programmes - with programmes starting with upwards of 70,000 or more registered students though whittling down to more manageable but still impressive figures at the end of the several week programmes of 5,000 or so – shows that there is both an appetite for learning and a willingness to do so online.

Perception and semantics

However, research conducted at IEDP with Deloitte and other studies indicate that executives are not embracing the opportunities of online learning with the enthusiasm that might be expected. This is initially puzzling as the main barriers to traditional development programmes most often cited are the time and travel disruptions which online delivery overcomes very effectively. It seems the problem is much more of perception than reality though – and also semantics.

Online learning in the business arena is dogged by the image of dull content poorly presented, as was widely touted to junior management around the turn of the millennium, and those impressions still linger. But things have moved on, with much more engaging and immersive technologies allowing more flexibility for learners and with richer content with streaming video and gamification elements. The opportunity to interact is also much better – allied to the fact that we are now more used to participating in forums and webinars than 10-15 years ago.

The semantics issue our research highlighted is interesting too. Adults really do not like to be told to learn. The MOOCs have succeeded because they are self-directed, but in a work environment to be told you must go on a 'programme' or that 'doing this will help you learn how to do that' is a quick way to lose any learning energy.

Behaviour change

More fundamentally though, the concept of what online learning is has also evolved. The Internet has always been good at sourcing and distributing ‘codifiable knowledge’ or facts. To a large extent this is what MOOCs do too. The challenge for executive development professionals is more complex than that; it is to achieve behaviour change and ‘tacit knowledge’ acquisition. This is learning new skills – and most skills can only be acquired by the fourth of the points above (practice/experience). No-one can hope to learn to swim or ride a bike by just reading a book and equally no-one can expect to become better at leading a team or managing negotiations by just sitting in a class or participating in an online programme.

Tacit knowledge acquisition requires time to achieve and this is where online learning can play its part. It is not the whole solution, but when used in collaboration with on-the-job practice can be powerful.

Best practice today suggests that L&D departments should be exposing their ‘learners’ to a digital diet of new ideas and practices that drip-feed new thinking to them. This should be combined with more structured conversations, either online or face-to-face where these ideas can be explored in more detail and applied to the specific circumstances relevant to the company’s challenges.

Don’t tell them they are 'learners'

This approach allows the self-direction, relevance and immediacy elements to be actioned – and also gives room for users (don’t tell them they are ‘learners’) to go away and experiment with applying these new techniques and then come back and discuss them further and adapt them.

In the past, traditionally, managers would be seen (and see their own role) as the brokers of information, the tellers of ‘what to do and how to do it’. Today the digital age has emasculated that role and they must alter their purpose from ‘Gods to guides’ – the benefits of this are huge, as we have seen, as they empower and engage employees in innovating and improving themselves and the organisation. 

The challenge for the L&D professional is now to deliver to their busy executives new ideas and concepts to stimulate and catalyse their thinking with relevance to their organisation’s - and their own -  development and challenges; and to follow this with structured conversations and discussions that can be built-up over time to change behaviours and practices. There is no silver bullet for this, each business will require a different mix of elements, but to ignore the accessibility and range of mobile content delivery is no longer acceptable.

Just don’t call it learning.

A version of this article first appeared in the L&D newsletter from leading HR recruitment company, Digby Morgan


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