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Two questions away from a Workplace Learning Culture


With Learning at Work Week (13th - 19th May 2019) happening soon I took the time to reflect on what makes a difference in terms of building a workplace culture of learning, what really makes a difference. In my opinion it’s pretty simple, doesn’t cost a lot in terms of time or investment, and is achievable without major changes in current working practices. I think it comes down to asking, and expecting well formed responses to, two relatively simple questions:



“What did we learn from that?”






“How do we apply that learning?”



Two simple questions, and one is a question that I’ve heard managers ask on multiple occasions. The trouble is that the responses they tend to get, and accept, do not relate to the two questions they’ve asked. These questions are very specific to learning, and if the manager doesn’t have a clear idea about what actually constitutes learning then they are not in a position to discriminate between answers about learning, and those that simply relate to reactive behaviour. The bottom line is that it is absolutely vital that every manager understands what learning is, how to recognise it, and how to lead others towards a similar recognition.



I realise that this assertion might be somewhat contentious, it usually is when I level it at the managers I meet in client organisations, so let me give you some examples to illustrate what I hear and see in workplace conversation. Example 1: In an engineering company a manager is speaking to an employee about a fall-off in production that they have identified as being due to delays in the supply of parts from further up the supply chain.



Q “What did we learn from that?”



A “I need to speak to those guys to get more warning if it’s going to happen again”



Q “How do we apply that learning?”



A “I’ll ask them to give me a head’s-up if they anticipate delays”



Great conversation, but neither answer goes beyond suggesting reactive behaviour. There is no push from the manager to extract the learning here. This is a systems environment, so proactivity will always be more effective than reactivity. Every employee has the responsibility to communicate up and down the supply chain to assess flow and any communications medium that offers insight into the system needs to be fit-for-purpose and updated to keep it current.



When it comes to applying this learning the role of the manager is often around giving permission to the employee to change something they do, and to co-ordinate these changes in pursuit of efficiency.



Example 2: In a retail environment a team is meeting to review a major sales campaign which has been a real success.



Q “What did we learn from that?”



A “ It’s a real winner, selling in that way is so much easier than our previous campaigns”



Q “How do we apply that learning?”



A “Our summer campaign needs to be modelled on the same system so that it’s just as big a success”



Isn’t it great to feel the buzz of success? But where in this team conversation do we identify the available learning? What are the features of the new campaign that made it such a success, how did this attract the customers, what changes did it demand in terms of staff behaviour, how sustainable are these demands?



Then to application: what would we have to do now to prepare for the summer campaign, how do we adapt the campaign model to different product lines, how do we run the summer campaign while simultaneously stocking for Autumn?



Hopefully these examples demonstrate that getting to defined learning means persisting with questions that mine past-experience for specific information, then moves to questioning how this information can be utilised for growth. The manager needs to demonstrate this persistence, but will only be successful if they recognise expressions of learning when they see and hear them.



At RSVP Design we believe that acquiring this level of perception around learning is best done experientially, working through a situation that is designed to evoke learning, then experiencing the process from which the learning has surfaced. A large part of this is about developing the ability of managers in composing well considered questions, and having the tenacity to hang in there until they get the  answers they need.



The tools we recommend with this learning outcome in mind are those which offer the best, and most frequent, opportunities for structured reviews, where these questions may be asked.



Colourblind with one-on-one observation (have only half of the group active in the exercise while the other half are tasked with observing a specified colleague)



T-trade is an exercise that happens in rounds, allowing reviews to be scheduled between rounds as well as at the end of the activity.



Top Priority is a multi-task, multi-team activity that allows for reviews at an individual, team and organisational level, very much reflecting an authentic workplace experience.


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