Work is learning and learning is the work

We have come to a point where organizations can no longer leave learning to their HR or training departments. Being able to understand emerging situations, see patterns, and co-solve problems are essential business skills. Learning is the work.

I had mentioned that I was talking to a financial advisor at a bank the other day and I asked her what kind of professional development she did. The bank has a central online learning portal where employees can take ‘courses’, particularly compliance training. The financial advisor told me she just went to the end of each course and did the test. She found it rather useless.

I talked about some of the communities that we have supported for sharing professional development, like my workshops, and she said it would be great to have access to something like this, but it most likely would be blocked. It is a major business mistake when learning is not connected to working.

Our workplaces are shifting from hierarchies to networks. Hyperlinks have subverted hierarchy. Everyone is connected. In many hierarchical organizations, workers are more connected when they go home than when they’re at work. This is a sure sign of the obsolescence of our older management control systems and why becoming a social business is so important today.
hyperlinks subvert hierarchy
Living and working in non-hierarchical networks is our challenge this decade. The effective use of social media, to learn from and with others, is essential for individuals and organizations to be productive in networks. Social learning, simply put, is getting things done in networks.

Work is learning and learning is the work, but learning is not often a line responsibility. Why would an executive, manager, or supervisor entrust such a core business asset as learning agility to a third-party? Too frequently the learning professional is someone who does not intimately understand the business, the day-to-day work practices, or the fields of expertise. This does not make business sense.

When did learning become the work?

This is the network era. Our workplaces, economies, and societies are becoming highly networked. The transmission of ideas can be instantaneous. There is no time to pause, go into the back room, and then develop something to address our learning needs. The problem will have changed by then. We need to learn as we work.

Established practices work when the environment is simple or complicated. For complex problems (where the relationship between cause and effect can only be seen after the fact) there are no easy answers. We need to engage the problem and learn by probing. This requires a completely different mindset from training for defined problems and measurable outcomes. The Cynefin framework explains this. The integration of learning and work is not some ideal, it is a necessity in a complex world.

Being so tightly connected requires a greater acceptance of risks and failures. All businesses are dealing with more complexity. As I mentioned in leadership emerges from network culture, a Probe-Sense-Respond approach to work is necessary. Dave Snowden, creator of the Cynefin framework, underlines the fact that over half of your probes need to fail in order to learn — hence the need for a culture where failure is an option. It’s what Dave calls ‘safe-to-fail’ — “We conduct safe-fail experiments. We don’t do fail-safe design. If an experiment succeeds, we amplify it. If an experiment fails, we dampen it.” Failure is not just an option, it has to become a common occurrence. This is why learning is the work.

How to make learning the work

Businesses need to adapt to life in perpetual Beta.  Not just rapid change, but continual change, requires practices that evolve as they are developed. In programming, this has meant a move from waterfall to agile methods, for example. Beta releases are the norm for Web applications, and as we do more on the Web, other practices will follow. Here is how it all relates:

  • Our world is getting more complex as everything gets connected.
  • Complex problems require more implicit knowledge.
  • Implicit knowledge can only be shared through conversations & observation.
  • Collaborative and distributed work is the norm.
  • Knowledge-sharing and narration of work make implicit knowledge more visible.
  • Transparent work processes foster innovation.
  • Learning is part of work, not separate from it.

Taking care of business means taking care of learning. If learning is everywhere, it should definitely be where the work is getting done. When learning is the work, we need to observe how people are learning to do their work already. We should find these natural pathways and reinforce them.

Take Action

  • Connect any “how-to” learning to the actual task. Show and tell only works if it can be put into practice. The forgetting curve is steep when there is no practice.
  • Make it everyone’s job to share what they learn. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to find ‘how-to’ videos and explanations on the Web? That’s because someone has taken the time to post them. Everyone in the organization should do this, whether it’s a short text, a photo, a post, an article, a presentation with notes, or a full-blown video.
  • Make space to talk about things and capture what is passed on. Get these conversations in the open where they can be shared. Provide time and space for reflection and reading. There is more knowledge outside any organization than inside.
  • Break down barriers. Establish transparency as the default mode, so that anyone can know what others are doing. Unblock communication bottlenecks, like supervisors who control information flow. If supervisors can’t handle an open environment, get rid of them, because they are impeding organizational learning and it’s now mission critical.

All of this can be done within business units. Work teams can leave the courses to the training specialists, but they should take control of their own learning. Learning is the work.

• Did you like this post? Check out the perpetual beta series

37 Responses to “Work is learning and learning is the work”

  1. Bonnie Zink

    As a knowledge worker, I have signed onto the principle of “learning is work and the work is learning” for quite sometime. No matter what role I perform (writer, editor, researcher, columnist, journalist, and the list goes on) there is always a high level of learning involved.

    In order to write effectively, I must learn about the topic. In order to share that topic with the world, I must first learn the parameters and guidelines of the publishing entity. In order to field questions and inquiries after the article is published, I must learn the techniques of sharing knowledge effectively.

    I am always learning and thankful to have be a professional in a networked society where learning is becoming more valued each and every day. You are right, Harold, in that we need to take charge of our own learning journey. Organizations must support their workers in embracing the notion of continual learning, for “learning is work and the work is learning” in nearly all sectors.

  2. Harold Colin Kilburn

    Thank you for the quality Harold. I hope to see you permeate further and further. NB proud 🙂

    I have always found your (and Stephen D) intent and articles on PKM … comforting. I want to help build the next ones, individual eco-resonators … and hopefully get around to putting out some good material.

    Amassing information centrally is now a crazy notion (unless you are the PMO), and that changes the game, and the tooling.

    It seems what I am producing is slanting to art. and well, not worth posting … yet. It is what I fell I should do to highlight the mess, as I have lived it and got rolled a few times to many.

    Gonna go with the flow, and perhaps do some Community building / volunteering; more useful then ranting about the last civil service prison sentence, or fidgeting waiting for ‘workplace-change’. I am listening to The Suzuki when he says … effect local to effect global.

  3. Matthew Van Matre

    As a student of L&D, where does this manner of thinking place the future of the L&D Department? As a former teacher, I would have loved to have students as forward thinking as this article suggests for the present worker. Yet, the more and more I learn about modern corporations, large and small, the dysfunction inherent therein, I wonder if such an idea as free-flowing intelligence will not blow companies to bits. My former students now work in such organizations; I think it would be wishful thinking to believe they have become so independent as to guide their own learning by having the knowledge and understanding to filter analytically the necessary nuggets of truth needed for their specific function or role within the business. I agree with the concept overall but the application I think will prove difficult for: 1. digital immigrants – who will like the idea but be frustrated with the process; 2. digital natives – who will find the process just their speed but many will struggle to distinguish between error and quality advice (Mark Prenskey, 2001) So, maybe L&D will be or should be the leaders of this new movement? Well, this is one digital immigrant who is changing his digital status – digital innovator.

  4. EU sfia

    Employee training and development are terms often used interchangeably, across sectors, and encompass various employee learning practices.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)