How learning really happens

by 10 Nov 2007

TRADITIONAL NOTIONS of learning suggest that the best way to add value in learning is by defining outcomes and then carefully designing content and processes in order to get there.

However, while this might well work for training purposes, recent research has suggested it is not so good when it comes to development, whether it be personal development, leadership development or organisational development.

While there is no single recipe for success, there are some key factors HR professionals can pay attention to, such as space, stimulus and the self, in order to foster learning for individuals and to support change across their organisations.

“Complexity is part of the fabric of our working lives,” said Sharon Varney, a research associate at RoffeyPark, a UK-based HR consultancy which conducted the research.

“Many organisations try to reduce or control it and this simply isn’t possible. It is not about tackling complexity, but more a case of understanding what it means for how we work to develop people and organisations.”

There are a number of implications for HR as a profession, according to Varney – some of which challenge the ways learning in organisations has been traditionally approached. The first is to work with complexity, rather than trying to control it, she said.

“Some practitioners recognise that the complex sets of human interactions which make up organisations often lead to surprising and unexpected outcomes from learning processes. Yet, rather than trying to minimise this by maintaining an unswerving focus on pre-defined learning outcomes, they are interested in understanding and working with this complexity,” she said.

“Why? Because it offers the possibility for exciting new learning to arise which can richly benefit both individuals and the organisations they work with.”

The second challenge is to focus it on real experience by encouraging learners to raise their own content and talk about what’s important to them.

“In complex organisations, learning content is just one of six key areas of focus in creating the conditions for learning. This research report suggests that really meaningful learning can occur when HR professionals step back a bit and make space for people to make sense of their own experience,” Varney said.

And thirdly, the implication for HR as a profession is to offer people in their organisation something different as a stimulus for learning. Varney said this can be difficult as internal HR managers and consultants work more closely with their clients to understand their needs and aspirations.

However, HR can add value by not being too accepting of current thinking and practices. “For example, if the typical pace of working life is too fast in your organisation, the role of the HR development professional is to find appropriate opportunities to slow it down,” she said.

HR professionals could also add value by paying attention to the space for learning in their organisation,Varney said.

“That means, among other things, understanding the specific context they work in and the evolving dynamics at play. It means considering what’s missing in order to offer a stimulus to learning – and remembering that what worked fantastically well in one organisation won’t necessarily suit yours.”

It also meant considering individual impact on the processes of learning. “HR professionals are not bystanders, but key participants in learning processes and must, therefore, remember to consider their own experience and continuous self-development in order to improve learning and development within their organisations,” she said.


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