Almost all the organizations say that they ‘value’ learning. Some of them even claim to be a ‘learning organization’. The trouble starts when we look at the extent to which this ‘proclaimed importance’ of 'learning' gets reflected in the ‘actual way of working’ or the ’decisions made’ in the organization.
The answers to the following questions can throw some light on the importance (or lack of it) of learning in an organization:
- Is ‘learning’ supposed to be something that one should do only when one is ‘free’ (from the demands of other work activities)?
- Are the capability building programs conducted on regular working days or on holidays/ weekends?
- Do the senior leaders participate in capability building programs? Do they 'teach' in the capability building programs that their team members attend? Do they ensure that their team members don’t get pulled out of the capability building programs when some important work comes up? Do they demand/facilitate/track the transfer of learning/newly learned behaviors to the workplace?
- Is learning considered to be mainly a 'cost' or an 'investment'? Do the learning budgets get cut at the 'slightest provocation'?
- Is ‘learning’ a ‘cherished presence’ in the organization or is it is just a ‘tolerated presence’?
Of course, the answers to these questions are not binary – they are indeed a matter of degree – with each organization finding their equilibrium point between the two polar opposites.
This choice of the equilibrium point does have implications. For example, it is one thing to make world class anytime learning (e-learning) solutions available to the employees. It is entirely a different matter to make it ‘culturally acceptable’ to do an anytime learning course during office hours. Hence, even when two organizations in the same industry make the same set of anytime learning solutions available to their employees, how the employees perceive them (and the utilization of those programs) can be very different. Similarly, if two organizations, with one working Monday to Friday and the other working Monday to Saturday, nominate their employees to a capability building program that takes place on a Saturday, the employees might perceive it quite differently.
Now let’s come back to the title of this post. Does the organization consider 'learning' to be a legitimate 'business activity'? 'Business activities' can be defined as activities that a business engages in for the primary purpose of making a profit. Hence, the core issue here is whether learning is considered to be an activity that adds substantial net positive value to the business and hence worth investing in. If the answer is a clear ‘yes’, then prioritizing and investing in learning should happen naturally. If not, investment in learning is more of a 'necessary evil' or a requirement for the 'license to operate' or a 'nice to do (and not a must do) thing'.
Of course, 'learning' is not just about ‘structured capability building programs’ or ‘anytime learning’. Learning indeed happens in many ways and as per the ‘legendary’ 70:20:10 model, about 70% of the learning happens ‘on the job’ and only about 10% of the learning takes place through ‘structured learning programs'.
I do agree that most of the learning happens through job experiences. It does become problematic when this finding is used as an excuse for 'cutting capability building budgets without establishing any concrete mechanism for facilitating the learning through job experiences'. Since 'job experiences' are outside the traditional domain/mandate of the Learning & Development (L&D) function, it is easy (and very convenient) for the organization to jump to the conclusion that 'the entire responsibility for ensuring that this type of learning happens lies with the employees and their managers.
Unfortunately, this type of learning (learning through job experiences) often does not happen automatically. Just doing a relevant project/activity need not necessarily lead to learning the target capability. It requires multiple cycles of ‘deliberate practice' and 'reflection' (ideally with help from a coach) to derive and assimilate learning from the on-the-job experience. Therefore, there is a need to put in place mechanisms to structure, facilitate and track this type of learning (please see ‘Truths stretched too far’ for details).