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Work time is valuable learning time

Real workplace projects offer a high-value, high-impact learning strategy

How many times have you sent staff on, or have been sent on, training courses? How many times did the learning last beyond the initial “enthusiastic implementation” period — and make a direct contribution back in the workplace? Experience tells us that this is hugely variable and that training remains a big part of training budgets globally. Yet there are real alternatives that can deepen learning insights for long-lasting behaviors — and that can make an immediate and direct impact in the workplace.

Using real work-based projects as a learning strategy means clearly outlining a focus of learning, creating a plan for that learning using best or innovative practices or ideas, and then enacting it. Sounds simple. The value of the strategy lies in its reality and relevance to the individual and his or her workplace.

•  It is real in the sense that it is based on real work activity that needs to be done, and/or is part of an activity that has an impact on business operations or outcomes

•  It is real in the sense of being experienced first-hand or experientially

•  It is real in the sense of being framed and constrained by the pressures and interruptions of real work

In these ways, learning through doing cannot be matched by other learning and development interventions for the authenticity of the learning, and hence it can potentially have high and deep impact for the learner, with immediate and direct impact on business operations and outcomes. For example, developing empathy behaviors in the context of sales contexts could involve a work-based project on:

•  The learner becoming much more aware of his or her approach

•  Planning a new approach

•  Planning how to measure the changes as a result of that new approach

•  Measuring what happens

Although this in itself can be a major source of insight, it is also the richness of the reality of the situation that can provide prompts for discovery through reflection and critique on what happened — what Schon (1992) refers to as reflection in action (during the project), and on action (after the project).

Davachi et al (2010) say that the AGES model, which is based on neuroscience, tells us the factors that create an optimal environment for learning (and also, by implication, what can create a sub-optimal environment).

Attention: Workplace projects encourage learners to get and keep a clear focus on the learning outcomes of a project, which makes it easier to learn.

Generation of ownership: Workplace projects encourage learners to reflect on their experience and learning from a project, which can make it easier to learn and make
it last longer.

Emotions: Workplace projects live in the tensions of real emotions and politics – this is a valuable benefit to direct what is realistic in practice, but it is also something to be managed by a skilled facilitator.

Spacing: Workplace projects can be spaced to the actual pace of work tasks, which can make the learning stick better and longer, rather than short, intensive blocks of learning.  

Excerpted with permission from “Leadership Assessment for Talent Development” (Kogan Page, 2013) edited by Tony Wall and John Knights.