Written By Donald McNaughton

‘Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I remember. Involve me, and I learn.’ — Benjamin Franklin

I have dedicated my entire career to helping people learn. I have always tried to approach my work with humility and respect, recognizing and acknowledging the knowledge, experience, and achievements of the people with whom I am are working.

‘To teach is to learn twice.’ — Joseph Joubert

I have learned as much from my clients, if not more than they have learned from me. I have always approached learning from the perspective of ‘learning with a purpose.’ What ‘shared comprehension’ is required by what group of people and for what purpose.

When thinking about learning, I consider the need for education (what and why), training (how), and application (hands-on experience). I then think about the appropriate medium, face-to-face (hopefully again in a post-Covid world), virtual, self-paced, and hands-on coaching. I have found a blended learning approach to be most effective.

Think of an organization as one or more individuals. This perspective highlights that there are individual learning needs (what do I need to know, to do what I need to do), and then there are group learning needs (what do we need to know, to do what we need to do).

When developing a learning plan, carefully consider the intersection of individual learning and group learning needs.

There is a plethora of information available on learning theory and practices. While this information is essential, I have gleaned the most value from the universal learning principles outlined in the book ‘The Art of Learning’ by Josh Waitzkin. The book is an engaging look at the love of learning and the pursuit of excellence. You may be familiar with Josh from his portrayal in the movie ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’, which is well worth watching if you have not seen the movie.

Josh outlines three universal learning principles.

The first is to ‘feel the fundamentals.’ Go slow to go fast. Focus on and simplify a few core components of what you are trying to learn. Practice until these components feel natural and effortless. Then add more complexity from there. Think of skill as a brick wall, with each element of skill being a single brick in the wall and the mortar being the intuitive feel associated with that skill component. To build a structurally sound ‘wall’ (skill), you need to ensure that you have a solid foundation and then diligently lay each ‘brick’ (skill component) with the appropriate amount of ‘mortar’ (intuitive feel).

The second universal learning principle is to ‘stay true to your style.’ There is no right way to master a skill, but there is a wrong way, by not being true to yourself. In its simplest form, there are four learning styles, visual (learn by seeing), auditory (learn by hearing), read/write (learning by reading and writing), and kinesthetic (learn by doing). While we all use a combination of these styles, most of us will have a dominant learning style. Utilize your dominant learning style as much as you can. The principle of ‘stay true to your style’ relates to your learning style and staying true to who you are as a person, ‘be yourself.’ We all have things we have to learn out of necessity; however, we will be most successful in learning something we are interested in. When learning a new skill, try and find ‘teachers’ whose style resonates with you, then gradually tweak their style to develop your own.

‘I believe that one of the most critical factors in the transition to becoming a conscious high performer is the degree in which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition.’ — Josh Waitzkin

The third universal learning principle is to ‘invest in loss.’ To be an effective learner, you need to enjoy and embrace the process of learning. However, you must also put yourself and your work on display and invite feedback and critique. Some ‘losses’ (negative feedback) are inevitable. The return on your investment will come in the form of being better prepared next time, new approaches, and motivation to improve.

‘Great ones are willing to get burned time and again as they sharpen their swords in the fire. Consider Michael Jordan. It is common knowledge that Jordan made more last‐minute shots to win the game for his team than any other player in the history of the NBA. What is not so well known is that Jordan also missed more last‐minute shots to lose the game for his team than any other player in the game’s history. What made him the greatest was not perfection but a willingness to put himself on the line as a way of life. Did he suffer all those nights when he sent twenty thousand Bulls fans home heartbroken? Of course. But he was willing to look bad on the road to basketball immortality.’ — Josh Waitzkin

For an organization to develop a learning culture requires a specific mindset that recognizes the competitive advantage achievable by creating an environment that produces curious information seekers.

An organization learning culture is defined as a culture that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward its mission and goals.

Despite the general recognition by most organizational leaders that having learning as a cornerstone of their organizations’ culture is important, most organizations are not successful in establishing a robust learning culture.

According to the Harvard Business Review, although organizations’ annual global spending on learning is $350 billion, organizations do not effectively spend their money. 70% of employees report that they do not have mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs. Only 12% of employees apply new skills learned in learning and development programs to their jobs, and only 25% of employees believe that learning measurably improved their performance. Given these statistics, the total loss to a business from ineffective learning can be a staggering $13.5m per year, per 1,000 employees.

To develop a learning culture, begin by recognizing the primary constraints that prevent individuals from reaching their full potential as learners and develop policies and processes to address obstacles that inhibit learning.

Two core things inhibit individual learning, our ego, and fear.

Ego. Being liked and perceived favorably by others is something we all want. As a result, we defend, deny, and deflect what we think may cause us to lose face or look uninformed.

Fear. We seek to avoid the embarrassment of failure. Once we have learned something, complacency sets in, and we tend to retreat to automatic pilot mode, resisting new challenges and ideas.

Several steps need to be taken by an organization to develop a learning culture.

It starts at the top; executives must model behaviors that communicate their commitment to learning, critical thinking, motivated learners, and effective collaborators.

Cultivate a ‘growth mindset’ that expects continuous improvement. People should be encouraged to expand their knowledge to contribute to achieving the organizations’ objectives and goals.

Hire people that are driven and have a learning mindset.

Ensure the acclimatization of newly hired people to the organizational learning culture.

Encourage open and honest communication with respect for the individual.

Support individuals when they take acceptable risks to avoid people becoming risk-averse.

Executives need to practice humility and not focus on confirming their personal views.

Reward teams, not individual stars. People learn more when others support them.

Keep teams small and manageable; small groups are better for learning.

Create routines to keep ego, fear, complacency, and arrogance in check.

Reward what you say you value. How somebody does something should be valued as much as what the person accomplishes.

Measure to improve, not to punish.

Learning is vital to ensure that people and organizations have the necessary capabilities to contribute and compete in this decade and beyond. What is not clear is individuals’ and organizations’ readiness to effectively and efficiently meet these learning needs.

Learning and development practices rapidly chase technology trends. The temptation is to deploy technology to address learning needs without careful attention to individuals’ needs and the organizations’ objectives and goals or the learning culture.

‘Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.’ — Socrates