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The future of learning at work, part 3 – personal learning support

The workplace is changing fast, and learning and development (L&D) needs to change to stay relevant at work. As described in part one, this series looks at four areas to ensure that it does stay relevant in the future:

  1. Capability building.
  2. Performance support.
  3. Personal learning support.
  4. Skills management.

Of these four terms, “personal learning support” is probably the least familiar. We know that capability building is about ensuring that individuals have the skills and knowledge they need for the future and that performance support is about helping people in their jobs here and now. Personal learning support is about something different, but fundamental, an area where the L&D function can add tremendous value to both employers and employees.

Getting us out of the picture

Personal learning support means helping people learn for themselves, rather than training them. As experts in learning and development, we may have a range of answers to the question, “How do you learn?” We argue over it and we discuss it in detail.

For most of the people we work with, however, there is a simple answer to that question. Most people will assume that they learn by being taught, usually in a formal, classroom-like environment. And that’s a reasonable answer – after all, this is how most people have spent their formative years. The power of an association built up over some 15 years of formal schooling cannot be underestimated

“By being aware of how they learn, the learner can learner faster and more effectively in the workplace.

Just a little reflection, however, will show learners that they do learn outside the classroom environment. People are natural learners, picking up information all the time, learning through reflecting on experience and synthesising new concepts. We learn in a range of places, including the classroom, but mostly outside it.

Raising the self-awareness of learners can make a huge difference to the effectiveness of workplace learning. The reason: while the trainer is not always there, the learner always is. By being aware of how they learn, the learner can learner faster and more effectively in the environment where what they are learning is perfectly in context – the workplace.

Methods in mind

Increasing the self-awareness of learners involves asking to consider a number of things, including – but not limited to:

  • The memory – what things do they remember easily, what do they have difficulty with, and how important is remembering things in their work?
  • Do they learn new things easily through conversation, reading or in other ways?
  • Have they ever realised something ‘out of the blue’ while in a quiet moment?
  • What is their emotional reaction to being in situations where they do not know something important for their job at work?

I am not proposing behind these questions any form of learning styles inventory, or a particular model of meta-learning. That is an area of debate for a different time. I am only trying to make the point that most people in their daily lives seldom stop to consider these points, and I suggest that if they do reflect on them, the effect can only be positive on their learning.

Of course each of the questions above (and the many that any reader of this article could add) could come with some suggested support from the L&D department in the form of useful input to help people understand, for example, the difference between episodic and semantic memory, or the power of emotion as a facilitator and blocker of learning.

And conversations around meta-learning do not have to be as rarefied as this. They can be as prosaic as ensuring that people consider the way they take notes during meetings – surely a crucial work-place skill. (And yes, methods of note-taking can be scientifically shown to be more or less effective, see:

Optimising the use of note-taking as an external cognitive aid for increasing learning Makany, Kemp and Dror.)

In the next article we consider the crucial area of performance support – what is the role of L&D in this, and who else needs to be involved?