Wednesday, 24 August 2011


Jonathan Miles post “A group of would be friends” ( reports a Twitter discussion last week that hinged around reasons why people do not engage with learning.  Jane Hart (@c4lpt) believes it is to do with people not being interested in their jobs, so why should they be interested in learning?  Jonathan was asked to tell his story, which is what his post is about – a great example of a community beginning to thrive when it began to build on its humanity.  Jane is clearly right, but her response, quoted by Jonathan, is only part of the story.

I have discussed before on this blog that the activity of learning is fundamental to our humanity.  It is the core activity that equips us first for survival and eventually for whatever prosperity and fulfilment of our potential that comes our way.  We are, by nature, curious beings who experience, reflect and re-model our behaviour in a continuous and progressive loop. 

During my early career as Trainer in a high powered science research environment I was once involved in an experiment to try to determine how creativity gets lost in our make-up as we grow up.  At what stage in life and what was the cause for the natural inquisitiveness and creativity with which we are born becoming so muted? Why is it that many of the proud products of the education and training system and of our childhood and adolescent lives have lost the ability to notice what is going on around them, to analyse and reflect on it and to make plans to succeed in the environments in which they find themselves? 

The shocking answer from that experiment was that the blockages begin to appear very early in life and are already well and truly evident by the age of about 7.  Parental behaviour, societal norms, schooling systems (thanks Roger Schank for crusading on this point!) and everything surrounding young lives seems to conspire to knock out of them the ability to think out of the box and conceive the extraordinary.  I remember a colleague of mine expressing huge indignation that her child’s teacher had forbidden the telling of fairy stories in infant school “How dare they” she screamed “deny my child the ability to fantasise and to dream?” 

So what’s this got to do with non-engagement in learning in the workplace or in college and university?  If we have become used to not learning and our environment makes no distinction between those who learn and those who don’t, what incentive is there for people to re-awaken their fundamental and in-born skill?  If the person who learns gets the same reward as the person who “is just here for the beer” then what is the point, where is the stimulus. 

I want to combine the hypothesis that learning is part of our humanity, and couple that with the oft quoted premise that the successful organisation of the next decade is the one that can harness the knowledge and skills of the people who work within it. Surely then it is important for organisations, their business leaders, their HR and L&D functions to find ways of enticing, encouraging and supporting their people to learn and to perform better. 

Jane says quite correctly that if people don’t care, they won’t learn.  Jonathan says what many of us experience repeatedly – that even good programmes fall flat and people do not engage.  The story in his post then goes on to exemplify what I believe lies at the centre of this problem.  If the environment is not right, then however good the programme, however strong the incentive, however powerful the individual urge to learn, it will not happen.  Get it right and remarkable progress is made. 

Dick Beckhard’s famous so-called Change Equation ( provides the clue.

D x V x F > R

Three factors must be present for meaningful organizational change to take place. These factors are:
D = Dissatisfaction with how things are now;
V = Vision of what is possible;
F = First, concrete steps that can be taken towards the vision;

If the product of these three factors is greater than
R = Resistance,
then change is possible. 

In a situation where people are not learning and don’t care about their jobs, something has to happen to alter the situation to prevent a slow and terminal decline in the individual’s capacity and that of the organisation to perform. Beckhard’s Change Equation says that change is dependent on three factors that must all be present for anything to happen – and that the combination of the three must be strong enough to overcome the emotional resistance to change that is a part of the nature of every human being.  Therein lies the paradox.  We are all programmed to learn, but at the same time our security needs make us resistant to take risk and to explore once we have a place of safety in our lives. 

A dissatisfaction with where we are now, a vision of a better place somewhere out there, and some idea of how to get from the unpleasant now to the better future are the components. 

How does this apply to L&D and to our learning communities? 

·         Complacency and too great a comfort with our current skills levels, our performance and a lack of ambition, if not challenged in an environment that is supportive but firm (tough love) lead to switch off and entrenchment – and rejection of anything to do with learning and trying to do things better

·         A failure to describe, in ways that are easily understood and which excite, that a future that involves learning and change and that will offer more than the monotony and hopelessness of the current situation, is sure to prevent people even looking at the possibility that with a bit of effort there might be something better out there.

·         Presenting those who we seek to assist with methodologies, platforms and content that are alien to their lifestyles, are inconvenient, not timed to be relevant, and which lack support in applying new knowledge (whether from manager, coach, subject matter expert, mentor, or work colleagues) is not the way to re-kindle the desire for learning, difference, change and improvement. 

In L&D in-house trainers. vendors and educators have become extremely clever at devising content and packaging it in ways which from an academic perspective are ground breaking and worthy of great praise. Every day my mail is full of new offerings incorporating every new tool, application and gismo that can be imagined. But if they are not used in an environment in which the individual is comfortable and is motivated to try them out, embrace them and apply the learning they can undoubtedly generate, then it is like having a magnificent space satellite without a rocket to put it into orbit.  It is worthless. 

Our role in L&D must be to partner with our organisation leaders and managers to create that environment in which people will see a world of possibilities.  Then we have to show the skill and sensitivity to encourage people through the workplace networks and communities of which they are part, and through the learning communities we initiate, foster and invite them to join, to take some steps to try for themselves what might be out there for them.   

That’s hard enough on a face to face basis and requires the focussed efforts of everyone who influences the workplace environment.  For it to succeed with the online communities that are now part of our social world and are rapidly becoming our working world requires us to plan carefully for those communities and to show great skill in making them places that are personal, warm, welcoming and supportive.  Organisation culture, learning platforms, hardware and software accessibility, technical support, personal encouragement and forward thinking stimulation of the communities are all part of the job of the Learning Leader in our new and incredibly exciting world. 

There is every reason to be optimistic that the tools we now have at our disposal can make a real difference if we are able to ignite the spark that lights the desire to learn in those around us.  The good news is that the availability of the wirearchy, the social media and its empowerment of people to social learning and working smarter makes it a responsibility of everyone and a possibility for everyone – not just the L&D function. 

Jonathan’s story is an inspiring one of taking some small steps and seeing some unexpected and extraordinary results – thank you for sharing it!

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