Some reflections on learning from recent weeks in a new role

Not working directly in a workplace L&D team for a little while has been nice in some ways.

It has allowed me to reflect once more on the nature of learning and what we are trying to achieve via investments in ‘workplace learning’ teams and initiatives.

This time has only reinforced in mind the reality that everyone at work is learning, all the time.  Those of us who might consider ourselves as ‘learning pros’ are really only able to support this through appropriate infrastructures/scaffolds, interventions, etc.  At the same time trying to ensure, from an employee engagement perspective, that people feel valued and supported.

As I am working in formal education again (albeit now in the 2-18 age range which is mostly new to me) I’ve also gained new insights into what we really mean by ‘learning’, ‘performance improvement’, etc.  It is also clearer to me than ever that the idea school teachers are educators stuck in didactic formal learning (sage on stage/chalk n talk type stuff stymied from change) couldn’t be further from the truth.  This, in part, reinforces my old view about how stuck-up/presumptive a lot of the L&D industry’s focus is.  It also makes the case for more interaction between schools, colleges/universities and workplaces to better leverage technology and better understand what we are all trying to achieve (or “business needs to stop complaining about talent and do more with schools and apprenticeships” as I’ve put it in the past).

More thoughts will no doubt come out of these experiences in coming weeks – first up is a feeling…

Corporate change and the hamster wheel

…A feeling that workplace learning conversations, continue to be stuck like a hamster on a wheel.  This has been triggered by seeing some of the old workplace learning arguments coming up once again on social media in recent weeks and also from a quick flick through of “Beyond Knowledge Management: Dialogue, creativity and the corporate curriculum” which I’ve recently picked up (Bob Garvey and Bill Williamson, 2002 – BKM from here on).

BKM’s forward (by Rosemary Harrison) suggests the book is a “response to…turbulent competitive conditions” and considers/suggests how to tackle this via “the competencies and ethical issues involved in working in a continuous learning environment”.  Here we effectively see the L&D staple of VUCA vs the need for learning organisations to tackle such uncertainty and continuous change.  The point though is that this is from 2002, before VUCA became the standard descriptor.  Consider that with another recent excerpt I got from a book:

href=”https://twitter.com/iangardnergb/status/1092430958437883904″

The answer to the question in the tweet is 1975

The Hawleys were talking about the growing volume of media in the ’70s (TV, magazines, newspapers, etc.) but I thought the quote clearly felt contemporary in the ‘information overload due to the Internet’ era. 

Overall these examples show that, for decades, we’ve been talking about the same issues and really wasting effort in tackling them.  Another recent-ish tweet of mine considered how Mad Men picked up on this in showing that whilst some things have clearly changed, although in areas like racism perhaps not as much as we’d like to think, there are other aspects where the same conversations are happening ad nauseam.  The specific example in my tweet being the rise of the machines:

https://twitter.com/iangardnergb/status/1089955996607434752

That issue being particularly appropriate given that AI, automation and associated technologies are very much the vogue topics in 2019.

The difference in BKM’s title to the more modern conversations would perhaps be that the “corporate curriculum” has come and gone in preference to learning ‘in the workflow’ via increasingly bitesize and flexible provision.  That said, I can consider my own personal experiences in the interim years with global curriculum management (2012-2015) and redefining a UK learning curriculum from local practice to national and accredited (2016-2018).  Compare those six years to someone delivering a traditional curriculum, for example, a traditional ‘trainer’ doing the rounds and you hit the classic of “doing the same thing for six years is one year’s experience versus doing different things for six years is six years’ experience”.  Thus, we hit another L&D trap – an assumption that ‘in workflow’ is the way to go rather than more formalized approaches.  This is in part the snobbery I mentioned previously where white-collar knowledge work is all anyone does (to be fair, BKM is specifically considering issues stemming from the rise of knowledge workers).

Working in a school I’ve already made the point multiple times to pupils that time is the commodity they do not realize is most important.  They will come to realise this in the workplace, of course, but supporting the international baccalaureate is an eyeopener in the specific focus on what we mean by knowledge/learning and what the profile of a learner looks like.  I’d be tempted to say every L&D professional should familiarize themselves with this as, if you are hiring IB graduates, you should have a very different breed of new-hire than if not.  Certainly different than I was at 18 and probably still so after the extra academic skills and instruction of university to 21 and travel/reflection to 22.

So what about dealing with that VUCA world?  Well it was interesting to see the 20th anniversary comments on Office Space (http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20190205-office-space-turns-20-how-the-film-changed-work) and the “Is this good for the company?” culture of the 90s versus the employee wellbeing and engagement culture that is increasing the case today.

One thing where we can be happy to stay on the wheel is in agreeing that learning is continuous, good for the organisation and good for the organisation’s people.

The often ignored realities of talent management (#4): A little bit of appreciation can go a long way

Employee engagement remains a key issue in business discussions and literature. It has even combined with other trends/buzzwords – such as in a blockchain solutions for dealing with disengagement.

I’ve been lucky to have line managers who have been very supportive of my career but that feedback rarely goes beyond the one-to-one relationship. Indeed our traditional 360 and other feedback mechanisms, usually tied to annual review, have often over complicated these arrangements. Such issues have encouraged me in the past to look at simpler solutions, like Rypple. Therefore, I thought I would give a shout out to my new employer and the ‘staff shout out’ wall – where anyone can stick up a post-it with a message to the team, thanks to a team member, etc.

A simple and really nice idea.

Also nice to pick up some thanks for some of the IT support I’ve been giving in my first few weeks:

One of the many problems with Office365 is people need time to take a look at it and be aware of some of the options – so great to be facilitating some productivity improvements through Sway and Teams!

The often ignored realities of talent management (#3): buzyitus as a social curse

Are you really busy at work?

There seems to be a growing division between the genuinely busy and those ‘coasting’. Guardian articles argued for two sides of this recently:

Britain is chronically overworked. A four-day week would liberate us

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/09/britain-stressed-overworked-four-day-week-free-market-workplace

Why coasting at work is the best thing for your career, health and happiness

https://www.theguardian.com/money/shortcuts/2018/nov/13/why-coasting-at-work-is-the-best-thing-for-your-career-health-and-happiness

Slave to the grind?

This is, of course, nothing new.

But the issue surely is if people can hide behind pointless tasks, email or other activities then there is something fundamentally at fault with your workforce planning. Here is the bigger challenge going forward – people appearing/claiming to be busy as that is the ‘norm’ and what should be accepted. It has negative effects on many things, for example people being hesitant to contribute to ESN/LMS systems as it might be a sign they are not ‘busy enough’. This is another area where honesty is needed and where trust and transparency needs to be (re)built – with clarity for talent via HR key.

A new identity: The Learning Reducer

Following on from my reflective posts in recent weeks about my experience, things I have seen in the workplace and the challenges the world faces I have come up with a title for myself: The Learning Reducer.

Inspiration (outside of learning)


instead of adding stuff, try taking stuff away” 


– Rick Rubin: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/rick-rubin/

The inspiration for this title is a combination of music producer/reducer Rick Rubin and what I have realised during this period of reflection.  Further logic behind the ‘reducer’ moniker:

“Girls” is indicative of Rubin, who initially portrayed his role as “reducer,” not “producer.” 1980s music had a lot of needless flourishes and additives. Rubin’s mission was to boil off excess and serve the essence. Rick is often portrayed as a producer who does almost nothing to the music he touches. Which isn’t to say that he does nothing. The opposite, in fact, is true. Like a great chef, he chooses the best ingredients and lets them speak for themselves. The genius is in the selection and arrangement of those ingredients.

In the case of “Girls,” it’s one part drums, one part piano, and four parts asshole.


DAN CHARNAS: https://www.complex.com/music/2012/03/25-best-rick-rubin-songs/girls

Inspiration (from learning)

In part my adoption of Reducer is based on some things that have really stood out to me during my time working in learning over the years, including:

  • Subject Matter Experts (or worse people responsible for something who are not even an SME) throwing requirements ‘over the fence’ to L&D whilst refusing to engage or find time for proper needs analysis.
  • Mandatory ‘training’ stipulated by government and other groups with no consideration for personalisation, real outcomes or other needs.
  • Bloatware learning where learning is elongated by everything from a corporate logo (even just for 5 seconds) at the start of a video through to fixing ‘learning’ into an arbitrary schedule of an hour, a work day, etc.  As a result organisations have been left with lots of legacy learning content that is difficult to manage, update and makes little us of the opportunities AI, AR and other tech gives us. 
  • Inefficiency – we hear a lot about productivity gaps but do very little about the basics around skills, process, etc.  There have been improvements in encouraging honesty and learning from mistakes but tackling fundamental bad practice, for example with Microsoft Office, remains an issue.
  • Self importance.  Unfortunately we all fall into the trap of thinking our piece of the pie is most important.  Realistically, the product/service of our organisation is most important and in big organisations we only contribute to (or sell) it.  Therefore, the need for learning to drive self aware and reflective practitioners is all important – what we don’t need are bloated learning (or other support teams) expecting the impossible or putting self interest ahead of the shared vision/goals.  There is also the snobbery issue here in self importance of learning professionals and a failure to support all learners – too often focusing on leadership and high level concepts.
  • The learning industry is in need of shedding a lot of dead weight (learning styles, Myers Briggs, etc).  We are seeing new ideas emerging but often people are clinging to ideas (like 70/20/10 in totally the wrong kinds of ways).  As an industry/profession it feels like learning pros constantly beat themselves up but are far too slow (still) in shedding the old sheep dip training for something that adds more value.  Admittedly because too often things are thrown over the fence as ‘requirements’ (see above).

Reducer as critical friend

So – can I be the learning asshole?  Well, perhaps I already am – I noticed myself verging into this territory recently when asked to give feedback on pre-launch content from new vendor Thrive and also with the UI of a recruiting platform I was given early access to.  

There feels like a value in looking at L&D from the perspective of critical friend.  Seperate from industry or SM expertise.  If only to ask a question of L&D pros practice: why?

What is applicable to super scientists is applicable to all.

Reducer and curation

Curation is not new – even though some L&D commentators would have you think it is.

Blog followers will know I get a bit of a “bee in my bonnet” about curation as an L&D topic.  However, it is a facilitator of ‘reduction’ – pick the best of what is out there and maintain current awareness without excessive build times and other traditional L&D activities.

Curation done well has to be part of a continuous improvement culture.

Reducer and culture

Through a learning reducer focus we can establish true learning organisations. 

Agile learning through experience and reflection, combined with ongoing collaboration via digital means.  Where face-to-face and virtual classroom are reserved for real value added sharing and relationship building.

Learning can be embedded in work, agile in deployment, is owned by everyone and contributes to learner/employee engagement.  This works both in education settings and the workplace.

What next?

Contact me to discuss further as I continue to develop this chain of thought.

The often ignored realities of talent management (#2): one real solution for (screen based) workplace productivity

I think some posts on this topic have been lost on an old blog of mine so it can come in here as the second in this series…


Do you hunch over a laptop?  Do you constantly switch between apps, windows and tabs?  Are you desk based but just have one monitor?

If you answer yes to any of these questions a simple solution to improve your productivity may be to get more displays.

This is increasingly recognised (see a Guardian article here) and was touched upon at a JISC keynote that I must have seen/been about 10 years ago now.

A short post but a useful one – if your organisation presumes only IT, fx traders or other internal groups are worthy of multiple monitors then they are probably selling you down the river.


Miss #1 in the series? Here’s a link to location, location, location.