Thursday, December 08, 2011

Building a learning culture

Continuous learning is a way of life for me, I can't recall spending a day where I didn't attempt to broaden my knowledge or understanding on a topic I'm interested in - and I have broad interests.

Coming from a background of working in, and operating, small and medium businesses, the ability to continually learn is a tremendous advantage - even a necessity. You simply don't know what you might have to turn your hand to next. So the more you know about every area of the business and the more general knowledge and experience you have you more ready you are to deal with challenges effectively and rapidly when they occur.

I've noticed that many people I come into contact in the public sector with seem to take a different view of learning, the "on demand' model, where they'll only seek out information at the point of making a decision.

I think this is partially a product of a large organisational culture, where individuals can afford to specialise in a particular narrow discipline. It is also influenced by strong hierarchical structures and siloing, and by the way the public service rewards effective work.

Ultimately though, I believe it is more a product of how individuals have been shaped by their own personal educational journey and experiences. Cultures attract those attuned to those cultures - they can influence how people operate over time, but it takes a long time for a culture to change a person's learning style and behaviour.

So why bring up learning styles at all?

Because something that worries me, and has worried me for quite some time, is how hard it can be to get many people to learn about the new approaches available to help them achieve their goals - do their jobs - more effectively.

I've run a number of training courses with public servants and those who attend are willing and able to learn - they're smart people - however the people who show up because they have a paper on the topic to finish in a couple of days, or don't attend these courses and rely on an 'expert' to tell them what they should do, seem to be missing major opportunities to develop their own capabilities and be ready to address new challenges with a pre-prepared set of tools.

I worry about the number of people who don't anticipate what they might need to know before they take on a particular task (particularly when related to social media) or those who are 'learning on the job' when they don't have to be (I have nothing against learning on the job generally, it's a time-honoured tradition of the upwardly work mobile).

Maybe the best way I can put it is - you don't go and get a relevant degree AFTER coming in for the job interview, so why set yourself up to do the research and obtain the knowledge of a topic after it has become part of your job if you don't have to?

If you can predict that an area is going to be important in your profession in three months, six months, a year or even five years, start learning now.

If you start when you are expected to start delivering runs on the board, you may have left it too late.

In relation to the internet, social media and Gov 2.0 I reckon there's a lot of tricks being missed by public servants who haven't begun their learning journey, but face significant changes in how their jobs will need to be delivered. I'd like to see broader upskilling now to prepare for current and future needs.

And those who claim there's not enough training available (and I am one of them) are partially right - there isn't.

However if you have a personal learning culture you don't wait for the powers-that-be to prepare the courses for you, you go out and seek an education from peers, books and the world's biggest university - the internet.

Are my impressions fair?


  1. You have hit the nail on the head. I too am a life-long learner but I also began my career as a passionate young high school music teacher, eager to ensure all my charges loved learning as well... I actually think it naturally reflects the community rather than just the public sector?.. Others feel it too..
    'In times of change, the learners will inherit the earth, while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists'... Eric Hoffer

  2. I loved this post Craig. It really hit home a few frustrations of my own. I have a saying:

    There is a lot of charcoal in the public service but if scratch beneath the service you see the diamond who keeps it moving.

    We need to expose the diamond to inspire the rest. Unfortunately I suspect we have an SES is the major departments who like the charcoal because it’s easier to manage.

  3. Lets write that in english shall we: :)

    There is a lot of charcoal in the public service but if you scratch the service you see diamond who keeps it moving.

  4. A great piece Craig. There used to be a lot of talk about the learning organisation. Social media and Gov 2.0 gives us that by empowering and connecting individuals.

    A bit of letting go on the part of management and the provision of certainty and a can do message would go a long way me thinks.

  5. I agree. I see the same thing with current awareness services. As a librarian this was a service that was greatly valued in the law firm I worked in. In the public service it is a 'find the information' as you need it culture. People don't have, or won't spend the time learning new skills, keeping up to date and reflecting on what they do and how they do it. This would save so much time, improve innovation and make a much better skilled work force.

  6. Is this an organisational issue, or an issue for individuals? or perhaps a bit of both?

    I certainly agree that you have totally hit the nail on the head with this one. I often wonder whether (many but not all) indviduals have just gotten lazy, has the work ethic changed or have large organisations just beaten the initiative out of people?

    My experiences have exposed me to a little bit of both... postive individual characteristics that drive people to take control of their own learning, and negative organisational factors that disincentivize or don't value these traits....


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