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Making the Shift From Courses to Continuous Learning - a Conversation With Andy Lancaster

Tamara Burgess
Jul 07 2020

What will people be saying about your company in five years’ time? Will 2020 be framed as a cautionary tale of how not to behave amidst uncertainty? Or will people celebrate how employees embraced the unknown, banded together and defied the challenges of the new economy? 

Today’s economy is digital, agile and constantly evolving. Over the last few years, we’ve seen the tech giants prosper while more “experienced” companies have struggled to stay relevant. What is it about the tech giants – and industry leaders in general – that enables them to set the pace? How do they quickly identify and address new areas of opportunity? 

We recently caught up with Andy Lancaster – author of Driving Performance Through Learning and the CIPD's head of learning – to discuss the role that L&D must play to drive business performance. He joined our chief storyteller, Steve Dineen, on a webinar to talk about:

  • L&D’s addiction to training courses and why it needs to stop 
  • How the learner’s voice ties into performance consulting 
  • Why social learning is necessary to create a culture of continuous learning 
  • Why the support of content creation, community building and performance consulting will become key skill sets in your L&D team  

Listen to the full conversation here👇  or read on for the best bits.

What's with L&D's Addiction to Courses?

At some point in our lives, we started to associate “learning” with a classroom or a training course. Perhaps it was the formal environment of school that resurrected these walls around our learning, or perhaps this association developed later. Either way, Andy says he has “no doubt” in his mind that L&D continues to be obsessed with prearranged learning, usually in the form of a training course. 

For clarity, Andy isn’t saying that the course isn’t relevant. He thinks that “when we need to be physically together it's absolutely right.” It's just that “we so often don't use the physical time together for the most important things, when we could be doing learning in the flow of work.”

Andy proposes that in the new world of L&D, “we need to move from formal courses to flexible, accessible, collaborative, tailored learning”. Andy has found that creating a culture conducive to social learning in the flow of work can allow an organisation to be “twice as likely to have learning flexibility” and “four times as likely to facilitate continuous learning.” 

To Learn is to Overcome a Problem 

Whether the problem is finding a new way to broach a sensitive topic with a colleague, playing The 1975’s latest song on the bass or running an inventory report on SAP. The best solution to a problem depends upon what the problem is.

For some reason, L&D has long thought of the course as the best solution, regardless of what the problem was. As Steve Dineen said during his chat with Andy, “in the old way [in L&D], whatever the problem was, you’d start thinking about the course first.” 

Would you teach a new colleague how to use the coffee machine by sending her on a training course in Edinburgh? Even if it included a free lunch? I mean, Edinburgh is beautiful and all, but a course is not the most effective solution to the problem here. 

Steve says, “The course is no longer the centerpiece of learning design.” And rightfully so. Doesn’t it feel pretty backwards to choose how to do something, before determining what that something is?

But to understand the what, we really need to tune into the learner’s voice...

The Learner’s Voice: Do We Hear But Not Listen? 

One way that we’ve historically tried to identify learning opportunities in a company is via the Learning Needs Analysis (LNA).

Though the LNA might masquerade as being fit for purpose (à la its name), Andy thinks that there are some fundamental issues with the LNA. For instance, “there are often fragmented views of defining what performance or learning need is” within an organisation. 

The LNA is a worrying starting point for two major reasons:

  1. It starts with a “learning lens” – i.e. whatever the problem is, we’ve already decided that we already need to solve it by training someone. Andy says that most companies have an “incredibly complex ecosystem” so what might look like a knowledge gap on the surface level could be something else entirely.
  2. The learner's voice is very weak. We often get “second hand information from managers” or the problem is identified via guesswork. The LNA doesn’t allow us to “have the conversation in the right place, which means we end up relying on subjective secondary sources." 

According to Andy, the only way we can really tune into the learner’s voice is “by having really targeted performance consulting conversations.” The essence of performance consulting is getting to the right people in the ecosystem and asking “probing diagnostic questions”. These conversations help you to “really understand what the issue is” so you can “think more systemically”. 

If you’re interested in finding out more about performance consulting, Andy has distilled different performance consulting models in his most recent book

Continuous Learning Is Social in Nature 

When it comes to creating a culture of continuous learning, Andy says that “social collaboration is at the heart of learning in the flow of work.” As the father of social learning, Albert Bandura, said, “most human behaviour is learned observationally”. We instinctively learn from each other.

“If you want flexible continuous learning then grasping the whole thing around socialised shared peer environments is absolutely vital, and it is happening right now,” Andy says. “There is always a go-to person in most organisations who will be sharing the knowledge and you just know you need to go and talk to them.” 

While Andy was writing his book, he asked himself: “what are the transformational things in my life which are really making a difference?” And one of his answers was Spotify

“It is incredibly accessible. I just love the way that it drives such an easy interface to use. It's collaborative, I can look at what my friends have on their lists, and share other people's downloads and other people’s playlists. It is tailored, it even comes up with brilliant recommendations for me. It created a massive step change for someone who travels a lot in the way that I consume music in the flow of life.” 

Andy proposes that in the new world of L&D, we can learn a lot from Spotify. But instead of evolving from CDs to portable audio-streaming, we evolve from courses to social, accessible learning.

The Changing Faces of L&D 

For the shift from courses to continuous learning to be possible, we need the right people on hand: people who can support content creation, community building, and performance consulting. 

So, what kind of job roles are we talking about here? Well, you’re probably already familiar with L&D positions like head of learning, learning manager and instructional designers. 

These positions still play an important part. But to get your employees learning in the flow of work, you’ll need people who can design a social learning culture then continually improve it. “What we’re seeing now is organisations who are really on the front edge of this [social learning], noticing other roles like data analysts, performance consultants and digital asset creators,” says Andy. 

These are the people who are leading targeted employee conversations and then using the data to invoke meaningful change. 

Unsure where to start with all of this? Speak to one of our learning experts about how to promote continuous learning in your organisation. 

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