Learning as a human need has always been natural and stemmed out of curiosity. In an organizational context, it has often evolved as a reaction to business needs with business being at the center of learning.

This has had its own benefits and, in many ways, served the needs of the time. But going forward, it is important to stay cognizant of the mechanics of this approach to learning:

  • The modality of learning is usually learner-centric, which means that the target audience of learning is the individual learner.
  • Learning and development (L&D), in such cases, is usually perceived as a department or vertical with certain deliverables, and learning is consequently a process that learners have to go through.
  • From the learner’s perspective, the organization may be considered a demanding entity that aids in the process of learning, but also expects behavioral change (in both hard and soft skills), which the learner may or may not concur with, depending upon the level of engagement.

Impact of Learning as a Process

While the intention of learning departments in organizations is commendable and useful, approaching learning as a process tends to leave loopholes in the system, which may make employees feel disengaged. Let us explore the general status of stakeholders in such a scenario:

  • The organization usually acts as the custodian and owner of knowledge assets, and manages data relevant to the business. The learner receives and processes parts of these assets in the form of training interventions, certification programs, etc.
  • The organization certainly benefits from heightened competencies of employees and it is likely to result in the desired level of business performance, should market conditions be conducive. The employee, on the other hand, is helped to raise his/her skill and capability levels through formal or informal coaching and mentoring processes.
  • It is the responsibility of the organization to maintain a motivational environment through engagement measures and open communication. If this is facilitated, the employees may be open to receiving counselling and feedback when required.

The Loopholes

The intent in this process may be right; however, the impact as observed in many organizations around the world is not always encouraging. Here are some of the loopholes that may occur due to this approach.

Environment not conducive to performance. Sometimes, organizations are quick to send learners into a learning intervention without checking if the environment is conducive to performance. For example, if an employee has been trained in a certain soft skill, such as assertiveness, and has to go back to a supervisor who expects him/her to not question back, the learner feels let down. The perception then is that the organization demands something from the learner without giving him/her a fair opportunity to utilize the skill or knowledge.

Wrong intervention utilized. At times, a wrong kind of intervention is utilized for learning simply because it is cost or process efficient. For example, a low-performing sales person may be sent to revisit a sales training course, when he/she may already have the knowledge in place. What the person may need instead could be allocation of a mentor or a buddy who could help to convert the existing knowledge into performance through practical tips and encouragement. If such instances are repeated, learning is perceived as an enforced activity conducted simply to justify the existence of a department.

Lack of alignment. Sometimes, engagement and rewards mechanisms in organizations are designed to fulfill a macro target, but the reality at the micro-level may not be aligned. Individuals may not feel the need to perform or utilize their learning productively perhaps because of a specific relationship issue within their teams, or even in their personal lives. However, the learning system does not have a way to address this.

These are general issues encountered around the globe that impact effectiveness of learning initiatives. While some organizations do better than others, the approach does not lend itself to having an equal conversation between an organization and its employees.

The Case for Organizational Vulnerability

The times call for a change of tone in the conversation. Learners need not learn “for” the organization – that is, the organization need not demand learning simply for the sake of enhancing performance while the system claims to be conducive and facilitative.

Instead, the organization needs to adopt a stance of vulnerability and stating that the system needs to learn through the individuals, so as to facilitate collective growth. This opens up the possibility of evolving learning as a culture, and then as a process.

Conscious Organizational Learning

The conscious learning process is an alternative approach that can help organizations move toward a vulnerable stance that can enhance engagement.

This process begins with defining the intent of learning in an organization: that of optimal utilization and enhancement of capability and capacity of both employees and the whole system. While this takes care of the business objectives and the mission of the organization, against which the capacity is anchored, it also facilitates the creation of a learning culture. When we integrate this further into rituals, engagement becomes the facilitator of learning, and coaching and mentoring may well be styles of leadership in the system.

Here is why it is important to adopt a conscious learning approach when we are now working actively with disruptive technology and millennials:

  • The modality is learning-centric, not learner-centric. This ensures that individuals do not feel unfairly targeted for learning even as the environment around them may not be perfect.
  • Learning is perceived as a cultural stance rather than as a process. There is more depth and buy-in because the system visibly learns simultaneously with the learner.
  • The organization now becomes a vulnerable organism showcasing that it values its people, because it learns only through its employees.

Stewarding Conscious Learning

For conscious learning to happen in an organization, it is imperative to have a perceptual shift of the roles of L&D teams, including external vendors.

From being a department that was approached only when a training program had to be organized, L&D evolved to integrate forward and backward, and proactively take up other allied services including organizational diagnostics, content design and delivery, effectiveness evaluation and on-the-job integration of learning. What a lot of learning teams seem to be aspiring for now is to be a true business partner: understand the mission, vision, values and business objectives, and track competency development in a manner that results in achievement of the objectives, even as motivation and morale is kept up.

Conscious organizational learning calls for a step forward. It requires the learning team to adopt the notion of stewardship and redefine engagement. Once the impact of learning is articulated, they need to execute systems and processes that capture and disseminate learning happening organically in the system, through means such as an internal wiki (crowdsourcing learning experiences – technical and behavioral), facilitated through regular documentation and other data capturing processes in the regular course of work.

Leaders in such a system need to double up as coaches and mentors when needed – in fact, coaching may well be the preferred style of leadership. At the core of coaching is the belief that the client (employee) knows the answers; it is simply about asking the right questions and holding a neutral space in a manner that the answers emerge and are utilized productively. The mentoring role of the leader can help in aligning the answers with the larger business cause.

Facilitating Conscious Learning

Here are some competencies that emerge as critical for L&D professionals if they have to steward conscious learning.

Influencing skills: They need to engage with top management to redefine their perception and deliverables and get employees to respond to engagement as a learning mechanism.

Organizational engagement: While engagement is sometimes equated to fun-at-work and low attrition, it is powerful enough to be the central learning enabler. If it becomes the key deliverable of L&D, then design and deployment of creative, organic engagement practices may be the order of the day.

Coaching culture creators: The tone of conversation in a system can change with the principles of coaching. This demands that coaching is adopted not only just as a competency, but as a value, by the entire system. At the base of this is the belief that the learner is capable of finding answers, if he/she is asked the right questions.

Some companies already may be on the path to create conscious learning systems. We could look forward to organizations speaking a more compassionate language in the coming years, even as they continually evolve and adapt through learning.