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David James


Chief Learning Officer

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Why learn? When knowing is enough


Modern technology has increased our expectations of immediacy.

These days, we’re disappointed if we're waiting a couple of seconds for connectivity on our smartphones, even if, and in the words of Louis CK: ‘It’s going to space! Can you give it a second to get back from space?’

That’s the age we live in and speed is a competitive advantage for business. However, in the world of Learning & Development, the time between inception and execution of an initiative can still be too long:

“You’ve got a need? Ok, well let’s start with a meeting to discuss it. I’ll do some research and go out to market to find the right external supplier, who’ll take a brief and… Oh, you don’t have budget? Ok, well I can spend some time getting up to speed and designing something inhouse. When do you need it by...? THIS YEAR!?!?”

In relation to this point, and in his fascinating blog, Nick Shackleton-Jones (Director of Learning Innovation & Technology at BP) made the point that “the most common mistakes in learning today stem from not being able to see beyond learning”.

Funnily enough, employees already know this. When they need to know something to help them with their jobs (and depending on which studies you look at) more than 70% will perform a web-search to find out what they need to ‘know’ for their jobs - and then continue with their work.

So, what if we reassessed and questioned whether ‘learning’ is really necessary and when ‘knowing’ is enough?

There's an interesting take on this in a TEDx talk by Tom Chi where he describes knowing as the enemy of learning - because it’s impossible to be in a state of learning and a state of knowing at the same time. However, he goes onto say that ‘the time and place for knowing is in situations where you have problems that have already been solved really well’.

So, I’ll ask you: What problems have already been solved well in your organisation? What is currently packaged as ‘learning’ that could quickly and more easily be made available to employees at their moments of need?

  • - How have my peers successfully sold product (x)?

  • - How have people successfully navigated their careers in the organisation?

  • - How do I prepare for a difficult conversation with a team member?

  • - What do all budget holders need to know about fiscal year-end?

  • - How should people use [insert name of internal system]?

  • - What activities do people need to complete around performance review time?

These are hardly the most difficult ‘problems’ to solve - but I’ve seen each addressed with ‘training’ before now.

If you can identify where - and by whom - a problem has already been solved, then you can amplify this knowledge or know-how across your organisation, quickly and easily. This will free up time and attention for those skills that do need to be learned and honed.

Commissioning learning initiatives can be both a lengthy process and often unnecessary. Business moves fast - and people move faster - so sometimes we just need to find ways of helping people get from not-knowing to knowing in order to perform.

This post was written by David James, former-Director of Talent, Learning & OD for The Walt Disney Company EMEA and now Learning Strategist with

Author Profile Picture
David James

Chief Learning Officer

Read more from David James

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