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Reviews & Reflections

Learning How to Learn

About 36 years ago, I was hired by Eli Lilly and Company, fresh out of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.  They hired me as an ‘Industrial Hygienist’, a type of public health worker who focuses on the prevention of disease and injury arising from the workplace.  I was only the 6th Industrial Hygienist hired by the company in its history and we were a fledgling group. My boss was at another site and had never done this work. My orientation consisted of a series of “meet-and-greets” with technicians and engineers; management; and nurses and doctors; who would be my clients and partners. After the orientation, my work began…except that, it didn’t.  I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t know how to get started. We had no way of doing things, no processes; none of that had yet been built. My boss, though very supportive, did not give me specific direction. My colleagues were at other sites. So I did what I learned in school, all the way from first grade to graduate school: I sat at my desk, studied books, OSHA regulations, technical journals, and waited for someone to give me direction, or the phone to ring,… for days on end.  After a couple of weeks of that routine, Brenda, an administrative assistant in Employee Health Services, two years out of high school, and wise beyond her years, made a powerful observation, “My, you sure do read a lot!” That was just her nice way of saying, “Why do you sit at that desk all day, rather than be out helping people?” It was just the kick-in-the-pants I needed. I put on a white physician’s coat, and made my rounds of the plant, being visible, meeting people, and asking questions.  I started learning how to do my job. A steady stream of work soon followed. Since then I have questioned my slow start. Was it just me? Was I not a self-starter? I’ll accept some of the blame; but others have not said that about me in the 36 years since. I am coming to realize that my initial approach to professional work was formed from how I learned in school. The academic model: be passive, while teachers and professors fling content at you. Give it back to them, albeit in a slightly altered form, and get graded on ‘correctness’.  I was waiting for someone to tell me what to do. 

I am not the only one discovering that the academic model falls short on learning. A recent Gallup News report is titled Colleges: Learning Organizations That Aren't Learning. Lest we point the blame away from ourselves, we need to realize that many of us are still plagued with this ‘academic disease’.  Here’s an example: I often receive requests from busy, experienced leaders. They go something like this: “I want my management team to be more effective. Can you come to our next team meeting and give us a no-more-than-30 minute presentation?”. Their assumption, based on an academic paradigm, is that their passive and quick consumption of content will enable them to become a better team.   And yet, in their heart of hearts, they really do know how to learn.  When I ask these same leaders, “How is it you know how to do what you do now?”, they will start telling stories of insights and skills gained from a good coach, a bad boss, and/or a challenging experience.  They rarely mention their formal education.

Learning is active.  It involves inquiry and action. MIstakes are necessary.  Deep learning requires failure. Have you ever met someone who learned how to ski and who never fell?  Learning requires coaches and mentors who both challenge and support us. Learning is a social activity. The disease has also infected corporate universities, where exists the underlying assumption that content is all you need. In this world-view, corporate learning strategies simply are the implementation of a learning management system, full of content, that will somehow make employees capable.  Content is useful, but knowledge is not the same thing as capability. Organizations do not need employees who know, they need employees who know-how.

So we all have grown up in a system of schooling that is ‘baked’ into us.  Regulatory agencies require all kinds of employee training with the assumption that knowledge alone builds capability or changes behavior.  Chief Learning Officers try to please their senior leaders with just-in-time content for employees via state-of-the-art learning management systems. Our systems seem to be stacked against real learning.  

Where do we start? It’s not like we have a choice.  All sectors in society are going through disruptive and continuous change.  Much of what we learned early in our careers is irrelevant to our future. It’s ‘learn or die’ time.  What we don’t need is someone else’s training plan containing a litany of academic courses. We do need is to own our careers, chart our own paths, and use a development plan, with some study and training (It’s still necessary, but not adequate). But mostly we need challenging experiences, coaches to help make us better, and mentors to guide us.