Learning was once visualized as filling an empty vessel. A tidy image indeed - and a straightforward task to perform as well! But picture today's workplace, which is characterized by vessels that are anything but empty:
- Well-educated? Frequently.
- Experienced? In many cases.
- Knowledgeable about a wide and ever-expanding range of topics? You bet.
- Capable and self-reliant? Very often.
- Opinionated and willing to share? Uh-huh.
- Resourceful? Routinely.
- But empty? Rarely!
A new approach to employee learning
If we want to think of today's learners as vessels, we must imagine them as filled to the brim and, in some cases, overflowing. Even a drop of the most insightful corporate training wisdom might have nowhere to go... except to spill onto the floor and join the excess pools of wisdom that came before it.
So, before employees can absorb new learning, they may have to empty out some of what currently occupies their vessels. Before they can take in new information, processes, approaches or skills, they may need to shed others.
Out with the old
Learners carry around with them all of the knowledge and experience they've gathered to date. That's a given. But it's just part of it. Their minds and psyches are like an archeological dig - with layer upon layer of past training programs, corporate initiatives, skill models, priorities, values, imperatives and more.
Add to this the break-neck pace of business and discombobulating access to a nearly never-ending pool of information... and learners' cups runneth over before they ever walk into a workshop or log in to a class.
"We spend a lot of time helping leaders learn what to do. We don't spend enough time helping them learn what to stop." ~ Peter Drucker (as told to Marshall Goldsmith)
So when it comes to employee learning, the pressing challenge becomes helping learners shed what's not necessary and make room for what is.
A case in point:
A struggling professional services firm wanted (needed) its account executives to bring in more business. In a sincere effort to support these individuals to improve performance, a third sales training program was launched in as many years. The sales professionals had three competing sales models, well over 100 strategies and behaviors, and no chance of success.
Time for some mind-sweeping
Perhaps the greatest value (and first essential step required) of today's training and development professionals is to evaluate the mental landscape of learners and to help them determine what to release and remove so they have room to accommodate new learning. But this isn't the exclusive domain of the corporate training department.
Employee learning is an active not passive activity.
Managers and employees themselves can begin the mind-sweeping required to free up learning space. It all starts with questions like:
- What assumptions and beliefs are you bringing to this learning experience?
- What do you already know - or think you know - about this topic?
- How do you currently approach this skill or task?
Thoughtful consideration of what's currently filling the vessel is a critical first step. But, it must be followed up with an equally critical second step: granting express permission to pour something out.
The organization, manager or trainer must be overt and crystal clear about what is no longer necessary, what can be released, and what people are no longer held accountable for.
- Introducing a new skill model means telling people, "We are no longer doing it that way."
- Introducing a new task means telling people, "You can let go of that now."
- Introducing a new value or mission means telling people, "You should no longer concern yourself with that."
Only by helping others first remove from their vessels what's no longer needed or helpful can we create the space for new learning. Otherwise, new insights and performance improvements simply spill all over the floor and your best efforts leave little more than a learning mess.
Your Turn: When it comes to new learning, is your organization diligent at granting permission to "pour" something out