Helping people become ‘learning animals’

The business environment is volatile, uncertain, changing and ambiguous (VUCA). By the time you have trained people, the content is out of date.

HBR says “most jobs today demand … the capacity to keep learning and developing new skills and expertise, even if they are not obviously linked to one’s current job”

The book How Google Works has a chapter saying that “a major pillar in Google’s recruitment strategy is to hire ‘learning animals'”

Jane Hart says “For me, this is what today’s L&D department should be focusing on … helping their people become learning animals.”

Last week in our Christmas team meeting we had a long discussion about the future of learning, including this idea of helping people become learning animals. This is quite a fundamental shift in thinking for L&D professionals. Just a few thoughts I want to share – and it is hard to remember which came from the group discussion and which were what I thought about afterwards, stimulated by it.

Build skills and appetite for learning

It is common in schools and universities to have seminars on “how to study effectively”. Those seminars from the academic world are only partly relevant to the workplace because they tend to focus on

  • Retaining academic knowledge (whereas in business it is more about skill, information can always be looked up)
  • How to get good grades in the things that are to be tested (in business only some learning is about being tested, mostly it is about doing a job well)
  • And there is a big emphasis on avoiding plagiarism (whereas in business, reuse is seen as a productivity boost).

So it’s slightly different in the business world, with some overlaps. Here are some learning skills that I think we do need to help people with, to help them become learning animals:

  • Search is a key learning skill. The Search like a pro masterclass I helped with recently was extremely popular, and I personally learnt a lot from the other presenters.
  • Reflective practice amplifies learning from experience and helps apply and reinforce learning from other sources. Another masterclass I’ve done a few times.
  • Personal knowledge management – which for me involves using OneNote a lot
  • Knowledge elicitation skills – getting it out of the heads of an expert
  • Strengthening and broadening your own learning by taking a lead in knowledge sharing, mentoring and so on.

And I’m sure there are more topics to include. Please add your own thoughts in the comments.

Embed learning skills into comms and learning design

People can’t possibly retain in their heads all the information they need to do their job. They rely on being able to find information when they need it, based on “half-remembering”. Maybe they take notes, or print out a cheat-sheet, search, or ask someone.

So why do we create learning resources that try to get it all into your head? And why is it almost impossible to use a search engine to “find” something half-remembered from an eLearning course?

Does our approach to comms and learning design need to change to support the way people really get information when they need it. For example, trying to be practical:

  • Include using a cheat-sheet in the learning activity. Even better, embed it in the operational system, and as part of the learning activity, have the learner go through the “normal” steps to get to that job aid.
  • During the learning activity should they read the content in the form they are most likely to find it in the moment of need (e.g. a powerpoint or intranet page) so they recognise it more easily next time?
  • What if the learning resource didn’t include the information but explained how to search for it, and required learners to practise finding it and using information not included in the course to complete the course? Would that equip them for the real world of searching for it in the moment of need.
  • eLearning doesn’t usually identify any real people. So who should people consult when they need it? Shouldn’t we make a point of identifying the people who know about this subject so that people have someone to consult in their moment of need? It could showing the current set of subject specialists in a subject group related to the topic, for example.

All of that means that the learning activity will be much less of a McDonalds ready meal, and much more of a Jamie’s 15-min meal recipe that you have to cook yourself. Some might not like cooking/learning for themselves. Does that mean our school kitchen should just serve chips because “that’s what they want and they complain if they don’t get it”?

We want the person learning to see the prime location of the knowledge as an accessible findable place, which is probably not the course we are designing. That means a different way of thinking about learning design.

Blogging as an excuse to learn

When I write my blog posts I usually read around the subject a bit. Specifically that means googling the main things I’m talking about. I want to get a bit of context and make sure I’m not misinterpreting a sound bite. I want to check the ideas haven’t been completely debunked. That in itself is a learning habit of course. And while doing that I usually come across much more than I can possibly include in my blog post. Here’s some of what I found today while writing this, not necessarily in a logical sequence, but noted here to help my own memory as much as anything:

I found a critical review of “How Google works” in the NY Times, the source of the ‘learning animals’ phrase. It’s useful to see what others think are weaknesses in the argument. When I start finding people who disagree with what I’m looking for, hopefully I have escaped the notorious echo chamber (i.e. the way Google and Facebook present you with things that match your existing point of view).

WebAnywhere on learning animals and staff retention. “the traditional approach to recruitment is to see if the candidate has excelled previously in a similar role. Google mentions that hiring on specialism over intelligence is wrong. Take the internet industry, with the dynamic rate of change, a specialist can be dangerous as they focus too much on ‘what they know today, and, in a previous life’. You need what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

The Harvard Business Review quotes the learning animals concept and says: Select for it, Nurture it, Reward it. Here’s a quote I liked about nurturing it:

Managers who want their employees to learn new things will encourage that behaviour by doing it themselves. We are all time-deprived, but high learnability people make the time to learn new things.

  • What is the last book you read that opened your mind? (Simply reading the articles your Facebook friends share doesn’t count.)
  • When did you last devote time to study another industry?
  • When was the last time you spoke to someone about stuff outside your area of expertise?
  • How hard do you try to break up your default routine at work?
  • How often do you ask “why”?

Paradoxically, instant access to information may suppress our natural curiosity and appetite for knowledge. It is to our learnability what fast food is to our diet: a ubiquitous vice with no nutritional value and the potential to make healthy food tasteless. High learnability enables people to dive deeper to translate information into actual expertise. It is the key intellectual differentiator between those who can go online and those who become smarter in the process.

Your thoughts

As always, I would love your thoughts in response. I hope I have provoked you to think.

  • How do we build skills and appetite for learning?
  • How can our learning resource become more like Jamie’s 15-min meal recipes than Big Macs?


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