How to Make Learning at Work, Work

The 70-20-10 mantra is bandied about in most corporate learning discussions like a toy weapon by a bunch of toddlers. But this intensity of focus lacks rigour — the “how” to do it.
Most solutions to access the “70” are a combination of e-learning modules, new performance management frameworks and tools, and other processes that land with a thud on the floor of most operational leaders’ offices.
Organizations haven’t been able to effectively embed learning at work because they have been pulling the wrong levers. The “70” is so strong because people are tribal. People replicate what the people around them do — their behaviors, attitudes and work practices. Consider your own first week in a new role, and think of how closely you watched people. When people enter roles in organizations, they suspend part of who they are, and adapt to the new norms and patterns they find around them. To make learning at work work, focus on the basics; embed learning into your social system.
Here are three places to start:
1. Learning at work begins with leaders. Organizations are one of the few places in the modern world that have been able to retain the power of hierarchy. The legacy systems of reward and talent still place considerable power in the hierarchy. It’s still the power broker in most organizations; people look up for approval. Therefore, to get learning at work to work, start with leaders.
Specifically, get them to teach. Teaching can be transformative for leaders. To be effective, they have to move from judging people to helping them get better. I deployed a global leadership development program to 12,000 leaders at BHP Billiton that was entirely leader led. Most of the teachers were veteran leaders who viewed themselves — rightly — as very successful people.
The vulnerability of having to teach things they weren’t masters of, and then having to listen to other’s ideas to be successful, reshaped their perceptions about their roles. Two general managers, in particular, were so moved by the experience that they committed 20 percent of their time to helping people develop. The experience of teaching — and being vulnerable in front of people they’d historically wielded power over — shifted their understanding about their priorities.
2. Reorient from competency maps to routines. We spend tens of millions of dollars defining competencies that no one doing the work really cares about. Leadership and learning in organizations is a contact sport; it happens every day in a million complex, nuanced ways. Jump into the messiness of application. To get people to focus on learning, study their rhythms and routines, and identify the right leverage in your social system.
At BHP Billiton, we identified six core routines for line leaders using behavioral economics lenses. We focused on and taught the routines, not abstract ideas, again, because leadership is a contact sport. By focusing on where leadership happens and not a collection of abstract competencies, the credibility of the approach with line leaders skyrocketed.
3. Revisit traditional face-to-face learning programs. Organizations can use traditional classroom sessions to yield huge impact — if they build them from the right premise: focus on application, not abstraction.
To reshape traditional face-to-face learning, you have to move from defining program outcomes to defining applications. Face-to-face programs are great catalysts, but they have to start from a different place. Build all learning events from the application backward. If you can identify and start from a different problem set, what you teach and how you teach it will change profoundly. What’s more, you will no longer be stuck scampering around on the final day of a program trying to figure out what people should do, as it will be built in.
The world is changing too fast, and if organizations can’t learn faster in this world, their competitive advantage will erode. The trick to learning does not lie in technology, or in more robust performance standards. It lies in the social fabric of organizations and how people do work. When organizations can build learning from the basis of application and social systems outward — instead of building them from models and expertise inward — we will start to see the learning landscape shift.

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