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Let's Talk About What Learning Is Really Like: Messy, Emotional and Challenging (Like Most Other Human Experiences)

Nihal Salah
Jun 11 2020

There’s been a lot of talk about how learning is changing since the pandemic started. Agile L&D and the digital transformation of corporate learning are hugely topical at the moment. And they’re important to talk about. 

But in this post, I’d like to talk about L&D’s customers. The people. The employees. The learners. 

As learning goes through one of the biggest transformations, this is a huge opportunity for us to rethink our beliefs about and approach to learning💡

It's also an opportunity for us all to help each other and those we work with discover and tap into that innate curiosity we all have. 

Because learning shouldn’t be about how many CPD hours ⌛ you’ve logged. Or how many learning plans you’ve completed to 100%. 

Learning should be about growth. Its purpose is to help us unleash the curiosity that lies within every one of us. So that we can explore and reach our fullest potential. 

So we can progress - as individuals and as professionals. 

Why? Because progress is what makes us happy 😃.

But don’t take my word for it. 

Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer are two researchers who studied the diaries of knowledge workers and discovered the Progress Principle. In their research which was published in Harvard Business Review, this is how they explain the Progress Principle: 

Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.

We can only progress when we learn. But it’s not the type of learning that you can fit nicely into a box 📦


Curiosity Drives Learning 

A few months ago, Ade joined our marketing team. 

Ade is a brilliant content marketer and an excellent writer ✍🏽 

He’s what we call a ‘conversational marketer’. He’s part of a movement of marketers who think that you should write the way you speak, be bold with how you engage with your audience and not to be afraid of being human 🙋🏽‍♀️ 

To be honest, before Ade joined my team, I hadn’t even heard of conversational marketing. It was a new and unexplored territory that I was very curious about. 

My curiosity was driven mostly by the fact that his writing was performing far better than mine. I could see the value of his approach. He had higher open rates on his emails and more engagement with his content 📈 

I had to learn how to be a conversational marketer. 

Learning Is Fluid...and It Can't Flow (or Fit) in a Box

I asked Ade to help me learn how to become a conversational marketer. As someone who loves learning and teaching, he didn’t hesitate to take on the challenge. 

He shared books, blogs, podcasts and videos. So I spent hours and hours: 

  • Reading books 📖 about conversational marketing 
  • Working through Hubspot and Drift 🖥️ content about content marketing
  • Watching Masterclasses 👩‍💻 on becoming a great communicator
  • Listening to podcasts 🎧 about storytelling
  • Joining online forums where I could ask questions 💬
  • Studying blogs of great conversational marketers
  • Asking for feedback on my work 
  • And practising (a lot!)

My learning wasn’t structured. It was very messy! But it worked for me.

I didn't need to do a course. My completion rate for a lot of the content I consumed was below 100%. I didn’t need to ‘finish’ any of the content. That wasn’t the objective. 

The objective was to learn enough so I could go off and do a better job at a task than my previous attempt. 

If my learning was judged by engagement with learning content or completion rate, my little learning project would have been deemed a failure 😟  

Learning Can Be Joyful. But It's Also Painful and Sometimes Even Scary

I was working on launching a new product feature that I needed to tell our customers about. It was a very important release and had to be a success. 

As part of this launch, I would be sending an email 📤 to our customers telling them about the new feature. 

It was a great opportunity to test my conversational skills. I wrote a very different email than I would've if I had not met Ade. It was short, choppy and bold. And it was really damn hard to write! 🥴 

It was time to send the email. I stood there in front of my standing desk staring at my screen hesitating to click the send button. 

I was deeply uncomfortable. And if I'm honest, I was actually scared.  

I looked over to Ade’s desk and asked him to come have a final look at my email. He’d already seen it and given me feedback so he was confused that I was asking for yet another round of feedback.

So I confessed and told him I was scared 😨

What if my audience hated it? What if my open rates went down 📉?! 

Ade gave me some much needed encouragement and I clicked the send button. 

The results? It was the best performing email I'd sent. Ever.  

The stress, discomfort and fear turned into excitement and an insatiable hunger to learn more. 

It Takes Courage to Learn and Encouragement to Engage 

So I’m calling it! Learning is scary. It makes me feel insecure. Practising something I’m not good at (yet), is uncomfortable. 

I think it takes courage to learn because you’re allowing yourself to be vulnerable. 

But learners can only thrive in environments where they are encouraged and supported to learn. Where mistakes are accepted as part of the journey. 

And I think this is where we get engagement wrong. 

Let’s go back to when I was learning to become a conversational marketer. Had Ade not encouraged me and had my manager not supported me, I don’t think I would’ve experimented with the approach. 

If the environment I worked in wasn’t supportive of making mistakes, then I’d play it safe and continue to write the way I always have. I wouldn't have progressed as quickly and I'd likely end up feeling disengaged and unhappy.  

So the next time you look at those engagement figures on your analytics dashboards and reports, think about the people 💁 behind the screens, the people you’re trying to reach.

If they’re not engaging, is it because they need some encouragement? Could they be struggling with fear? 

If so, how can you support them? 

Learning Happens Despite the Technology and High Quality Content

As I mentioned, many of the resources I used to learn were podcasts, books, videos, and blogs. These were mostly recommended to me by colleagues, through the content I was consuming or I stumbled across during a Google search.

We’re a team of agile learners and we know that the only way to succeed as a team is to support and elevate one another. So when I’d come across a piece of content or a tool that I thought would be useful for my team, I’d share it with them and they’d do the same. 

Sometimes that content was a picture of a paragraph from a book and sometimes it was a snippet from a podcast.

We’d share the content via Whatsapp 📱, sometimes via Slack, other times via Fuse (our own learning platform).

My point is neither the format of the content nor the technology mattered. The value was in learning the lesson and applying it. 

There’s so much fuss about polished content and choosing the right learning technology to deliver the best learning experience to learners. And yes, they are important. But the truth is that we will learn despite the technology. 

The most value my L&D team can provide is to facilitate the learning process so we can become better learners. 

Inspire Learning. Don’t Enforce it. 

You can bring out the best in people if you give them the opportunity to discover and explore the ways in which they learn best. 

In a world where the only constant is change, I'd argue that the most powerful skill you can nurture in your people, is the skill of learning and adapting. 

Let’s take advantage of the opportunity this pandemic has presented us with - to rethink learning. But let’s not make the mistake of focusing solely on changing how learning is delivered. Let’s rethink the purpose of learning. As a way to support people to grow. To reach their fullest potential. To find meaning and purpose. 

And I understand that the role of learning professionals is to drive business value.

But as business becomes more challenging, the only way your people will give more, is if they have more to give. 

And the key to that is learning. 

I’ll leave you with one my favourite quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson who says it so much more eloquently.

That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do; not that the nature of the thing itself is changed, but that our power to do is increased.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on learning. Leave me a comment below 👇🏼

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