Learning is The Walking Dead

Right, time for another blog…

A trip to an oil refinery in Hull last week, brought into sharp focus advice we all should remember, “people don’t care about us, our products, or our brands, they only care about themselves*. We discuss the intricacies of learning programmes in corporate business, whilst chemists and engineers go about their work, using practical skills to turn a measurable profit. Suddenly my work seems incredibly insignificant, and I have a new found respect for the processes that create everyday products I take for granted. It’s a testament to the quality and efficiency of manufacturing that I can pick up a carton of Tropicana from the supermarket shelf, and despite the complexity of materials and chemicals that have made that carton; I only have to pay about a third of an hour’s minimum wage for the result.

Looking around the canteen at the end of the refinery tour, I watch burly Yorkshiremen eat slices of cake as big as my head and think, “how the hell do we connect with these guys!” How, for example, do we convince them to embrace gender diversity and progressive leadership practices. The answer is perhaps, we don’t, and we simply have to wait for this generation to die before we can start having an impact on company culture. The ‘way-in’ therefore, is at the very beginning i.e. graduates and new joiners, and at the top i.e. leadership – the people whose job it is to care. What is crystal clear to me at this juncture is that big, expensive initiatives – sending people on training and building a nice shiny website, is going to make sod-all difference to these guys. They just don’t care and the only way of making a mark in this environment is to understand it, even be a part of it.

But working in a bubble works both ways. In a restaurant on the first evening I learned some of our hosts had used one of our performance support websites, “you forget how much work actually goes into making that stuff happen”, they said. Exposure is the way to develop an understanding between the people whose job it is to know about things, and the people whose job it is to know about other people. We create exposure through connectivity (face to face or online) which is the first necessary step in creating a real measurable cultural shift in corporate business. It’s certainly been my experience of classroom training that the networking part is the most enlightening and exciting bit. So, forget training courses, just grab a bunch of learners, stick them in the pub and put £1,000 behind the bar.

The second component to create a shift is a leadership that role-models the behaviours we’re looking for. This probably means you need to spend time with leaders and provide them the opportunity to develop their own thinking and recognise the benefits of positive behaviours. Here’s an argument for more intensive/conventional learning perhaps. At least this gives people the chance to get away from the office and spend time on self-reflection. The third element is reward, and making sure the behaviour is consistently reinforced. In each case, what we’d be doing here is creating the conditions for “learning” to take place amongst the wider population, rather than doing learning at them.

So for me, “learning” is the wrong term to describe what I think my job is. Perhaps building an environment where learning can take place, and where learners have the support needed when they need it, fits more into a content marketing role. In a nutshell, content marketing is about producing useful assets that develop consumers into loyal brand advocates. For example, at its humble beginnings the John Deere company was producing a free publication for farmers across the U.S. Providing farmers with useful information demonstrated John Deere’s knowledge and expertise, and when it came time to purchase, farmers would rather go back to John Deere verses a competitor who had provided nothing but “buy me” advertising. Content marketing is about getting “under the radar” and purposefully not selling, in order to sell.

And this makes sense in the field of “learning” because ultimately what we want to do is improve people’s performance. The way we do this is by using our own expertise or the business’s direction around where changes in behaviour need to happen and then driving that change by creating things that learners actually want and which simultaneously shifts the behaviour in the right direction. Yes, it’s VERY hard to get both parts right, which is why learning solutions that are slow to market and meticulously planned seem to be counter-intuitive. Thought needs to go in, but there’s a limit to how well we can predict a product’s success, just as in the regular product marketing field. Even the rare geniuses of Steve Jobs or Sir Richard Branson had several failures before their resounding successes.

If we accept that learning and development needs to compete with/support the likes of Google and the person standing next to our learner when he/she has a problem – we need to change the perception of learning from our point of view and the point of view of the learners themselves. We need to be helpful, and encourage people to come to us with an open mind to solutions when they have a problem. And of course, we need to have the assets and expertise to assist using a range of techniques. We need a rebrand if learning is going to change its perception from – at best a well-meaning group of philosophers or at worse a pain in the arse – to a genuinely helpful, exciting part of the business. To find this new image, I don’t think we can look inwards, we need to look elsewhere.

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