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The engaged learner


BOREDOM?If staff are unmotivated and unengaged then that will have an impact on learning. So why is the motivation of the learner so often overlooked among L&D's assessment and evaluation? This is Nigel Paine's diagnosis.

I read recently that 69% of adults of all ages in London are bored! I have no idea of how scientific the survey was that led to this startling conclusion, or the statistical reliability of the analysis. But let's run with it for a moment.

I have never really been bored that I remember, my whole adult life. There is/was always too much to do, and too little time to do it. As I get older the mountain of opportunity seems to loom ever larger over the molehill of available time. That might make me slightly unusual but not downright freaky, and in a minority of less than 30% of the population (well London population). How can it be that in a city with – arguably- more to do and more to see than anywhere else in the world, the vast majority of people are bored? Coincidently that figure of 69%, is approximately the percentage of the population at work (or was until recently).

There is another parallel phenomenon too: most of the people I know who are no longer working (retired rather than redundant) keep telling me what a fantastic life they are having and how they have never been busier, cannot find enough hours in the day, you should try it etc.

The inevitable conclusion, if we stretch this a bit, is that, for most people, most of the time, work is boring and unfulfilling. How can we have got it so mixed up that productive working life is less exciting than what happens afterwards? Has this got anything to do with learning? You bet it has!

Photo of NIGEL PAINE"If you start with a cynical, bored individual, you are unlikely to turn that individual round simply by giving him or her a training programme, so the impact will be negligible."

We usually justify the investment in learning and development by talking about skill increases, extending competence and efficiency. This clearly works. We can teach adults to do things differently or do new things. We can test the success of this, and monitor its effectiveness. But the key missing element from all of this activity is some quantification of the motivation and desire to use what has been learned. This is more about the working environment rather than the learning environment. And above all it is about engagement.

At least two groups of people have attempted to measure engagement at work. One developed what is known as the Maslach Burnout Inventory. The other, out of dissatisfaction with Maslach, developed the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale. Neither particularly trips off the tongue and neither is a part of many learning leaders' boxes of tricks. But perhaps they should be.

Maslach measures work engagement in terms of energy, involvement and efficacy. So high scores in exhaustion and cynicism and low scores in professional efficacy means a high burnout factor and low engagement. High professional engagement, and high energy and high support for the organisation indicate engagement.

Utrecht, on the other hand, measures vigour, dedication (organisational commitment, professional commitment and job involvement) and absorption. The higher the score, the higher the likelihood of engagement at work.

The point is: if you start with a cynical, bored individual, you are unlikely to turn that individual round simply by giving him or her a training programme, so the impact will be negligible. If someone is engaged, it is much more likely that they will fly through the learning and use it to build greater engagement. So does that mean it is not your fault if the learning leads nowhere, and the investment is wasted? Well yes and no!

The key point is that no organisational learning happens in a vacuum. The learning context is critical, and to ignore this is to fail to understand something fundamental about andragogy. Life intervenes! But it is possible to control that environment and maximise the possibilities for the learner by:

  • Making the process as exciting as possible

  • Ensuring that the learning can be implemented as soon as possible after the event (or even during)

  • Challenging the learner so that the experience is demanding yet exhilarating

  • Creating opportunities for informal learning, encouraging different means of support, and backing this by developing mentoring and coaching in the workplace

  • Ensuring that the working environment, to which the learner returns, is prepared to use the new skills and competences and make something of the increased motivation and energy

The learning event, therefore, is far more than a single point in time. It is something with a long tail building up to and leading away from the actual event itself. Any failure to account for this will lead to, at least, a portion of the expenditure failing to make a shred of difference.

So we return to the statistic at the beginning. Boredom at work can be alleviated by a whole range of interventions, including learning interventions. But it is learning in context and learning with a purpose that stretches beyond the time limits of the course or programme.

Those responsible for learning have to recognise that it is not the whole answer to anything but part of a bigger solution. And that is the way to increased productivity and innovation. To achieve this increase in performance you need to up the energy levels, by developing the dedication and involvement of all staff. Rather like increasing the energy output of an engine by increasing the octane of the petrol you put into it. Next year that boredom statistic will have tumbled. Perhaps.

Nigel Paine is a former head of training and development at the BBC and now runs his own company, Nigel Paine.Com which focuses on people, learning and technology. For more information visit his website at


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