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Nigel Paine

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What are your plans for 2022: Transforming L&D anyone?

Could this be the year when learning becomes integrated with, and enhances, the work process? Nigel Paine asks.

I think it is about time we cashed in our insights and learning from working through the pandemic. And upon doing so, I feel that the only possible conclusion that can be drawn from the experience is that the way we work with people in organisations can no longer be fragmented into onboarding, then a bit of development, mixed in with an element of leadership, plus a bonus dive into the shallows of organisational culture wrapped up in some narrative about values.

At the very least we have learnt that if we all bring something of our whole self to work, and share some of the rest of our life with our colleagues, the result is greater understanding, more tolerance and some compassion. These feelings link directly to increased productivity, better teamwork and a happier workplace, for the most part.

At times of crisis and uncertainty, distributing learning and know-how as widely as possible, both geographically and hierarchically, shores up the organisation and prevents it being swept away by a sudden tidal surge of disruption.

Let’s take Matthew Bidwell's research at Wharton Business School (part of the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania based in Philadelphia) as an example. He showed that the impact of any skills development or workplace upscaling was directly related to the degree of motivation and empowerment felt by the learner alongside the quality of the skills development programmes themselves.

Empowerment and motivation, however, are seen as functions of the organisational culture, not considered to be the direct responsibility of the learning and development operation.

An L&D function that looks inward and concentrates on perfecting its programmes and delivering optimum quality will find it hard to be as successful as an L&D function that spends time creating the conditions for learning. Or one that ensures attention is given to motivation and empowerment and recognises that what happens outside the learning zone can have as much impact as what happens inside it. 

Putting greater value on organisation-wide excellence

This links directly to my second point. That an element of transformation should be a switch of focus from exclusively concentrating on individuals and their skill sets, towards a focus on the nature of the organisation itself and how learning permeates through organisational structures.

The more the learning is spread widely across the workplace, the more resilient the organisation should become, and the less dependent it will be on individual smartness. At a time when there are a large number of resignations and gaps to be filled, an organisation that shares and empowers is better able to plug the gap left when people leave, than an organisation focused on bolstering only individual excellence.

The makings of a true learning organisation

It is possible to imagine that learning happens through the multiple and multifaceted connections in an organisation, and in the spaces between individuals. That, in essence, is my definition of a learning organisation.

Clearly, at times of crisis and uncertainty, distributing learning and know-how as widely as possible, both geographically and hierarchically, shores up the organisation and prevents it being swept away by a sudden tidal surge of disruption, or the slow incessant gnawing of attrition and talent loss in the foundations of workplace systems and processes. 

Let’s take the example of the successful learning organisation WD-40 Company, which is case studied in the second edition of my most recent book: Workplace Learning. The CEO Garry Ridge has a strong learning and development operation, but that does not make the company special in any way.

What distinguishes it is that learning and teaching are distributed functions. They are the responsibility of every leader, and it is written into their DNA. People share both their successes and their failures. Even that is not sufficient though, because to work well learning and teaching in WD-40 Company has to be closely aligned to the organisational values.

The company celebrates success but also looks forward to future successes. It is only when the learning aligns with the values, and the focus on belonging locks into a skills development agenda, that you are able to build the necessary resilience that allows the organisation to prosper through rapid market and social transformation.

At WD-40 company, L&D is one piece of a complex jigsaw that focuses on engagement, motivation and capability. It is not separate and neither does it believe that it, alone, holds all the cards when it comes to developing people.

I want 2022 to be the time when the notion of a learning organisation, with a powerful learning culture, is not deemed an irrelevancy but is an essential part of the modern work environment.

Communities of practice in uncertain times

Etienne Wenger's concept of a community of practice (CoP) has really come of age in the last few years, although Etienne developed the idea in the 1990s. Etienne emphasises that a community of practice does not exist primarily to share knowledge. Rather it is a platform and a focus for the organisation to engage around uncertainty, and work on its challenges.

CoPs iterate any number of experiments that may lead to solutions to those challenges. This is learning that focuses on engagement around uncertainty, rather than delivering certainty.  

Most standard learning in organisations offers people the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, but rarely encourages debate about ‘why’. Therefore, the limits of that certainty are never debated and the generative tools needed to overcome complex and wicked problems are never shared.

When teams are grappling with incredible complexity, and trying to work out possible options for moving forward, a part of the organisation that cannot get beyond packaging and delivering certainty is more conflicting and contrasting, than complimentary. This means it can be part of the problem, rather than being an element of the solution.

How L&D can solve the complex equation

If you are going to continue to build learning resources, delivery systems and technology infrastructure, this is most useful when it is part of a process that encourages the whole organisation to take responsibility for working and learning together.

If you run formal programmes, then you also have to enable and support a large and potentially unlimited number of informal and social exchanges where learning emerges rather than being delivered. Formal learning as we have known for a long time, is only part of the equation, offering the tools and the facilitation to work out what to do is the other half of the equation.

Aspirations for 2022

I want 2022 to be the year when learning becomes integrated with work. It emerges from work and enhances and improves the work process. We should be celebrating gentler organisations with an environment that allows people to flourish and determine their own agendas.

I would like whole person learning, where wellness, connection and contribution sit alongside skill development and behaviour change. I want 2022 to be the time when the notion of a learning organisation, with a powerful learning culture, is not deemed an irrelevancy but is an essential part of the modern work environment.

There is absolutely nothing to lose, by moving forward and building post-pandemic workplaces that work better. That aspiration should have you eager and ready for the year ahead.

Interested in this topic? Read 'Three learning and development trends for 2022'.

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