Continuous learning part 1 – learn more from experiences

Continuous learning means that employees have the opportunity to drive their own learning. It is done constantly at work, in collaboration with others and from the constant flow of information and knowledge. Companies that excel at continuous learning are 3 times more profitable and twice as innovative as the average company.

Professionals working at L&D can do a lot to encourage and strengthen continuous learning.

In my last article I wrote that this spring meant extensive work digitizing classroom courses. We now need to look to the future. We at L&D have big and exciting challenges ahead of us:

  • Manage a extensive need for re-skilling.
  • Enable the organization to learn much faster.
  • Better meet the needs of employees by modernizing the approaches for learning.

To meet the challenges, we need a new approach to learning in the organization. Digitalization of learning is not enough in itself. To reach further, we need to:

  • Personify learning and meet each employee’s unique need for future capabilities.
  • Look beyond programs & courses and learn continuously from experiences, collaboration and in the information flow.
  • Design work so that learning is embedded in work itself.

The model above is an adaptation of the “Learning Maturity Model” from Bersin Deloitte. It’s a model that I have used in many projects to encourage companies to plan the next step for learning maturity.

According to Bersin Deloitte’s research, a quarter of the organizations are at the top two levels. In a series of articles, I am going to describe what those organizations are doing to enable learning that is continuous and integrated into work.

In a recent study, McKinsey described what the most successful and profitable companies do. These companies (top fifth) have in the last 20 years increased their earnings more than 400% above the average of companies.

What they do coincides with what the companies in the top half of the “Learning Maturity Model” are doing. Common are flat structures, agile working methods, decentralized and quick decisions and a great focus on learning.

The three challenges I wrote about above (reskilling, organization that learns faster, modernization of learning) mean that more organizations need to move towards enabling continuous and integrating learning.

So what’s it all about? Simply put, continuous means that we learn all the time; when we work, collaborate, surf on our mobile phones while commuting etc. The opposite is that learning is somewhat separate, taking place in a classroom or on our LMS, disconnected from work.

Integrated means, in turn, that we have designed work itself for learning. We have embedded learning in what we do at work.

Supporting the organization to learn faster and develop capabilities for the future means encouraging and strengthening ALL ways of learning, not just training:

  • Experiences – We learn from work, from the experiences we’re exposed to by understanding the results, reflecting, experimenting, etc.
  • Others – We learn from others by observing, receiving feedback, collaborating and sharing knowledge.
  • Information/environment – We learn from the flow of information, e.g. from articles, reports, blog posts, videos or information/support built into work.
  • Training – We learn from formal training, i.e. courses and programs.

The image below shows how a training function at the first level support the learning approaches above. By far the greatest effort is put into training with a few activities in other areas as support to provide feedback or coaching for leaders.

In a series of articles I will give examples of how we can encourage and support continuous and integrated learning. I will describe how we can expand L&D focus within each learning approach.

Learnability, culture and technology

Learning continuously at work requires first and foremost the motivation and capability of employees to use experience, collaboration, the information flow and formal training for their learning. This is about establishing new habits, insights about learning, applying methods and capability to use new technologies for learning. Please read my article “Learnability – develop your capability to learn” which describes more.

In order for us as employees to want to, be able to and allowed to drive our own continuous learning, a learning culture is required with leaders who support and encourage. In my article “How to build a strong learning culture“, you can read more about this.

The technology is an enabler to make it easy to learn continuously and integrated in the work. In my article “Digitizing learning part 4 – enable continuous learning at work” I describe more about what technology can be used.

In this article, I will focus on learning from experiences. How can L&S assist in giving employees more opportunities to learn from experiences? In future articles I will then describe how we can empower employees to learn more from others, the information flow and from formal training.

Learn more from experiences

In order to be competitive, we as individuals as well as our organizations need to be even faster at learning and improving. Boston Consulting Group recently described how in the 2020s we will compete with “the speed of learning”.

Central is the use of “feedback loops”. This means iterative ways of working where experimentation, data, feedback, reflection, etc. are built-in. Many companies also use data and AI to learn faster, e.g. about customer preferences, like Netflix, Uber and Airbnb are doing.

There are several models for iterative working, ranging from Toyta’s PDCA (Lean) to today’s agile working methods such as “Scrum”, “SAFe” or “Lean start-up”.

The model I use in my courses on learning at work is based on CCL’s (Centre of Creative Leaderships) research. It was CCL who “invented” 70:20:10 in the 80’s and who researched a lot about how we learn at work.

As employees, we learn from new challenging tasks. We therefore need to actively seek challenges. The next step is to understand and create meaning from the task at hand, e.g. trying out different options. From that we draw lessons by reflecting. In the last step, we use the lessons learned and improve the work.

1. Offer more developing challenges

Learning from experience means, first of all, being exposed to many developing challenges. Working 20 years with the same duties, performed the same way means limited learning.

Ray Dalio is known for building the world’s most profitable hedge fund, Bridgewater. He is also known for his principles of a learning organization. One of the most important principles is that employees are constantly growing and developing further. As soon as an employee at Bridgewater has mastered a role, managers help them to find new challenges to constantly develop.

In order to give employees the opportunity to constantly grow and develop, we need to work with culture and our leaders. For example, we can support leaders not to hold onto talent for their own purpose but instead help employees grow, working in the “stretch zone”. We can coach the leader to find new challenges for the employee, in existing role, in projects, in new collaboration, by job rotation etc.

We also need to create awareness of the value of constant challenges in order for employees to be motivated to grow and constantly develop.

Those of us who work with learning & development can help to highlight the opportunities that exist in the organization. A first step is a transparent and open job directory that displays all types of jobs that are in your organization. Today, managers usually sit on that information.

In an open career planning tool, employees can find all jobs and roles that exist in the organization.

The image show Fuel50 that recommends roles in the organization based on the employee’s interests and capabilities. Fuel50 presents the capabilities needed, development activities and persons who can coach the employee in the development towards the role.

Changing roles, however, is a big step that you don’t do very often. Imagine if the employees themselves could easily find projects and shorter assignments in the organization. Imagine if the employee could get recommendations, like “now there is a assignment opportunity to arrange this year’s dealer meeting. This would develop your skill “planning & organization”.

This is now possible with “Talent Marketplace Platforms“. These types of new platforms are more like open marketplaces. Employees express ambitions and capabilities and receive new roles, projects and assignments recommended.

The focus is on capabilities needed within the organization rather than on complete job descriptions. The platforms use AI to collect “skills” from user profiles and match against roles and projects.

We also get support to match the entire workforce, including consultants and gig workers, not just employees.

That was some examples. You can certainly think of several other activities to encourage employees to seek more challenges.

2. Maximize learning from experiences

The next step is how we as an organization tackle new challenges. Too rigid processes, employees who do as it’s always been done, manager who want to take the “inner curve”, go directly to the solution. There are many examples of how to go about challenges without learning very much.

Again, much depends on the culture, the leaders and the employees’ own capability to learn. Successful organizations decentralize decisions and give employees a mandate to design and decide over their work and learning.

L&D play an important role in cultivating a culture where employees dare to try, experiment, fail and see the process/learning as important as the result.

One example on initiatives is from the Swedish retail chain ICA ́s “Fail at ICA” or FICA. (note: FIKA is the Swedish typical coffee break) Employees gather around a coffee and tell about their mistakes and what they learned from them. Participants are then supposed to contribute to the issue and to reflect on what was learnt.

At Bridgewater, the company I talked about earlier, mistakes are rewarded. Employees are supposed to report their mistakes and to figure out what to do with them. Every week, employees are selected to share their mistakes and are rewarded for what they learnt.

Learning from your challenges is about not going directly to the solution, or seeing tasks as “tick-in-the-box”. We need awareness that the process or “journey” is as important as the result. This is, of course, a question of culture and something that can be difficult to change. We at L&D can help create awareness of Growth Mindset and Divergent Thinking.

Divergent Thinking includes expanding options, exploring ambiguities, seeing different perspectives, brainstorming, challenging assumptions, and more. An example of a working method is Design Thinking, which emphasizes on creating deeper understanding before problems are defined and to create many options before starting to draft solutions.

We can work with Design Thinking ourselves when we create solutions and also train the organization on Design Thinking and other methods like Six Hats, brainstorming and “5 why“.

3. Measure and reflect to increase learning

How common is it that we measure the results of our work? How do we know if what we did was good enough? How do we do better next time?

My view is that it is easy to accept one half of the agile way of working, to experiment and test ideas. This means not needing to address the hard part of analyzing problems before. However, we are often worse off in the second half, measuring whether our ideas or prototypes really work.

Successful companies give employees various forms of feedback on work results. This can be in the form of data, such as the rating we give an Uber driver or data a sales person can get in tools like SalesForce.

However, most of us do not have access to data as feedback. Here L&D can help by creating a culture of feedback. We can train employees and managers in how to provide effective feedback.

According to Bersin Deloitte, companies that can provide detailed feedback at work are 3 times more likely to have high business results. Feedback can be from customers, other employees or the manager

The culture can be supported by new technology for feedback and recognition. There are several specialized platforms for recognition. Most LMS/LXP and collaboration platforms today also have the opportunity to provide feedback, “praise” or badges.

I would also like to add continuous performance management processes and systems as tools for coninuous feedback.

Successful companies have left the annual performance appraisal to instead work closely (weekly) with goals and feedback in the work. Modern platforms offer collaboration around goals (OKR), weekly planning, continuous evaluations and short weekly 1:1 meetings with employees and managers

Whether we get feedback or not, we need to reflect to learn lessons from what we’ve done.

Reflection is a fundamental building block in employees learnability and in a learning culture. Those of us who work with development and learning can help establish habits for daily reflection or to include reflection in team meetings. Reflection is also a natural part of agile processes.

Working with reflection contributes strongly to learning. According to one study, 15 minutes of daily reflection gave 23% higher productivity after just 10 days. Learning professionals can train employees to use models for critical reflection, after special events, the end of the day, the end of the week, etc.

We also need to help employees document the lessons learnt. This is necessary in order to find the knowledge once needed. A first step is to use simple, mobile tools such as OneNote, EverNote, or Google Keep.

Even better is if we can document the lessons learned so that others can use it, for example, in collaborative platforms such as Teams, Slack or Yammer. Several companies use video platforms to let employees record and share knowledge that will be easy to find.

The picture below is from Swedish Telecom company Ericsson’s video platform “EriPlay”, with channels for all major product and functional areas. Here, experts and other employees share their lessons learnt.

Many learning platforms now offer the same kind of opportunities One example is the Swedish Hotel chain Scandic’s use of Fuse to spread employee lessons. A common work platform like Microsoft 365 now offers the same opportunity through their video portal Stream.

Contributing to feedback, reflection and sharing of knowledge is perhaps the area where we can contribute most from L&D.

4. Encourage experimentation and improvement

To what extent can employees in your organization themselves introduce changes and improvements in their work? Do you encourage experimentation and continuous improvement. Are leaders communicating “improvement rather than perfection”.

To work step by step, quickly develop a result, evaluate and then improve is the basis for an organization that constantly learns. For this to happen, leaders need to give employees the mandate to change how work is performed. This becomes more difficult when central staffs designs rigid processes.

Agile working methods, “Lean startup” or continuous improvement (“Lean”) are all examples of working methods where employees are expected to apply lessons learned and constantly improve their work.

The picture is an example of a “Retrospective” which is part of the agile approach and gives lessons for the next “sprint”.

Also here, technology can be used to support continuous improvements. These are platforms that supports the process of gathering ideas for improvement, encouraging employees to experiment, collaborate around improvements, follow up on results, share “best practices” and drive a culture of continuous improvement.

It is the business, with units such as IT, production and R&D, that usually runs this type of initiative. L&D can help with training and implementation of the agile ways of working in the organization, e.g. “take lead” in the implementation of SAFe in the organization. We can also start applying agile ways of working ourselves at L&D.

Conclusions – learn more from experiences

What does it look like in your organization? Do you spend most of your resources on formal learning? In order to enable continuous and integrated learning, we need to put the most resources into enabling learning at work, of experience. That’s what the most successful companies do.

In the article I have proposed some initiatives to better support & encourage learning of experiences as shown.

You probably reflected that several of the activities above are things that others in the organization run. It is true, by supporting learning from experiences at work, you also work closer to the business. You become part of initiatives that are critical to management and increase the mandate for L&D.

Getting a mandate to pursue some of the issues will not come overnight. However, you need a strategy and a plan to reduce the focus on courses and increase support for learning at work.

In the next article, I will describe how we can increase learning from collaborating with others.

Author: Johan Skoglöf
Johan är visionär och senior konsult med missionen att hjälpa företag att skapa framtidens lärande organisation. Med över 25 år i branschen och kunder som Ericsson, Volvo, Scania, SEB, Handelsbanken, HM och ICA har Johan en bred erfarenhet i hur lärande organisationer skapas.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: