Having founded a company in the employee-to-employee learning space, there is a thread about learning that is always running in my brain. Last week an incident at home triggered an interesting thought on this topic:
An Aha-moment about learning
Last Thursday evening I was catching up on office work at home on our dining table. My daughter was working on her physics homework sitting right across the table. She was complaining how tough a particular problem was and when I looked over, I knew exactly what she should do to solve the problem. Rather than just tell her how to solve it, I left her alone to think through the steps and figure out which formulae to use to find the solution. An hour later, she exclaimed in joy that she ‘figured out’ the process. Had I just given her the answer, she would not have learned anything, and also would not have a feeling of accomplishment.
That was that aha-moment, right there.
I thought about how learning fundamentally has a different purpose in college and in the workplace.
Learning in college
In college, a student’s primary purpose is to learn new concepts and master the art of learning i.e. learning how to learn, along the way. The professor is there to explain the concepts and assign practice problems to help the students learn by doing. Similar to the situation I was in, the professor also has the answers, but does not give them away. Even if the student were to approach the professor for help, a good teacher is likely to ask a few open-ended questions, and get the student to proceed in the right direction.
By letting the student struggle and ‘figure out’ the answer on their own, the professor is helping the student learn. There is another magic that happens in this process – the professor and the student strengthen their relationship, which remains long after the student graduates.
Learning in the workplace
Let us now look at learning in the workplace. The employee’s primary purpose is to get things done and move the company forward with stellar products, innovative ideas or by bringing in more revenue. Let us look at a situation where a co-worker has a problem in a particular area, and you happen to have prior demonstrated experience in exactly the same area. When the co-worker comes to you for help, do you let them ‘figure out’ the solution, or will you immediately share some insights and provide specific steps to solve the problem so the co-worker can make immediate progress?
Letting employees ‘figure out’ the solutions to their problems is a colossal waste of valuable time and productivity. The impact can be much worse if the employees do not even know who in the company has the knowledge to solve their problem, and as a result they end up spending hours ‘figuring out’ the answers on the internet or intranet.
Companies that do not empower its employees to learn from each other and to solve problems quickly, lose topline and bottomline from wasted time and lost productivity. When enabled, the ‘teacher employee’ earns recognition and feels more significant for sharing, and the ‘learner employee’ gains new insights and gets the job done faster. The company and the employees both benefit in the process.
Here is a side-by-side comparison of learning and its purpose, in college and in the workplace.
|Student is paying the institution to learn and be certified.||The company is paying the employee to learn and get things done quickly.|
|Letting the student ‘figure out’ answers is the right thing to do.||Letting the employee ‘figure out’ answers is the wrong thing to do.|
|Student earning less than an A-grade is okay as long as some learning is happening.||Employee earning less than an A-grade is not okay as it directly affects the company’s topline and bottomline.|
|All students, including A-graders need to graduate, to launch their careers and build a strong reputation for the college.||All employees, especially A-graders, should be retained for as long as possible for the company to remain competitive and to grow.|
|Learning should be made a bit difficult than usual so that learning actually happens.||Learning should be as fast and easy as possible so results are achieved in the shortest amount of time.|
A final note
Learning and Development executives in companies need to therefore re-imagine learning in their organizations, to achieve the learning’s true purpose, which is, getting things done quickly. This is good for the employees, and good for the business.