Learning to learn: Overcoming barriers to learning

by 13 Feb 2012

Organisations need staff to learn new skills constantly. Every CEO wants her team to have greater understanding of the customer, products and marketplace. So each year, Australian businesses of all sizes collectively spend at least $4bn on training – much of which is greeted with apathy, cynicism or outright avoidance by the staff.

This is strange, because people actually like to learn. Outside work, we save for international travel, we sign up for cooking classes, personal training and coaching sessions, we watch documentaries and spend our own money on non-fiction books and magazines.

The mystery is why do people so often disengage from learning and resist the new in the work environment?

The most widely agreed reason is that people don’t have time, and it’s hard to argue with that one. Most of us can’t fit all the things we’d like to do into our working day. So we’re forced to choose between short-term deadlines and long-term goals, and too often we prioritise the urgent over the important.

The second reason why teams can seem uninterested in learning is less openly recognised.

In some corporate cultures, people are afraid to ask questions or show any gap in their knowledge or understanding, for fear that it will be seen as a weakness. In some organisations, the desire to learn is simply overwhelmed by the need to protect your turf or even your job.

And the third reason is a bit sad. In some workplaces people simply aren’t inspired to learn because they’ve lost track of why what they do matters. So they don’t care very much about new ways to do it better.

All three of these barriers can be overcome. I’ve been lucky to work in and with organisations where learning wasn’t just encoded in the corporate vision statement; it actually happened.

Making time

Of course, the best solution is to integrate learning with the daily work: discussing best practices and new ideas on a daily basis. But for people to find separate time for training, leaders need to demonstrate, rather than just assert, that learning is a priority. If senior staff don’t participate, then it can’t really be all that important.

In learning organisations, the executive team attend internal and external training sessions, as well as industry conferences, and they report back on what they’ve learned. Examples of new ideas are shared frequently, customers or guest speakers are invited to address regular staff meetings, and continuous innovation programmes are supported by senior resources.

It also helps if training is enjoyable and interesting. People talk, and they’re a lot less likely to make time for a workshop that they’ve heard is boring. Cutting through the cynicism and apathy is harder than ever now. Trainers must earn our attention, or we’ll go straight back to our Blackberries and iPhones.

Reducing fear

In learning organisations it’s OK not to know all the answers, as long as you’re working to find them. Leaders should share their curiosity in order to inspire the rest of the team and openly discuss the gaps in their own knowledge. In meetings, they should show a willingness to question and to change their minds.

Smart businesses also encourage safe experimentation, with scenario-based discussions and measurable pilots, while using awards programmes to celebrate employees who deepen their specialist skills.

Building purpose

It’s key that new skills be immediately applicable to real-world challenges, but it’s also essential that those challenges seem worth tackling. Learning organisations give their employees a reason to acquire new skills, by connecting the daily task to a larger purpose that is inherently meaningful.

Whether we’re making coffee or cars, selling insurance or balancing the books – we need to believe that what we do matters, before we’ll learn how to do it better.

About the author

Kate Messenger is director at Meme Partners