Content is everywhere. In just the past week, a few quick searches online and a few minutes of work has resulted in me learning about half a dozen new things. I picked up a few tricks to better use some software that I’m not super familiar with, consulted several reference materials to determine correct usage for a tricky grammar problem, and learned that a group of butterflies is called a kaleidoscope (ok that last one isn’t exactly useful, but it was delightful to learn). For just about anything you care to learn, there’s a YouTube tutorial, an expert blogger willing to share their insights, or a podcast that can teach you everything you need to know.
The challenge is no longer about accessing content—it’s about figuring out what you need to learn to solve a particular challenge, and then working to curate learning to meet that demand.
But how do you figure out what you don’t know? In a moment of need—like a sudden urge to know the name of a group of butterflies—it’s a bit easier to figure out what is lacking, and where to go for information. A complex problem won’t be so clear cut. Things get even more complicated when you layer in the challenges you experience as a team or organization. Learning the skills required to generate more leads into the pipeline, improve employee engagement, or create exceptional customer service experiences, isn’t quite as simple as a quick online search.
Furthermore, doing the work to effectively design and curate learning is also critical for engaging and retaining a workforce that is increasingly concerned with career development. Gone are the days when a traditional education lasted a whole career, as are the days when employees stayed at the same company, steadfastly climbing a corporate hierarchy in progressive roles for decades. Between the realities of the gig economy, the rate at which skills become obsolete, and increasingly flat corporate structures, employees are concerned with professional development more than ever before.
So how do you curate learning to effectively solve challenges for your team? And more importantly, how do you apply that learning consistently?
For leaders and L&D professionals, it can be tempting to push learning onto teams. Mandatory training events, online learning systems, or keynote speakers at the annual retreat are all viewed as sufficient to arm teams with the learning they need to succeed. When a challenge arises—slumping sales figures, poor communication interfering with collaboration, or a new start-up eating your market share—it can be tempting to book a half-day training session, or require all staff to complete an online module. However, this push model rarely creates real change. The learning is something that the team has to get through in order to get back to work, where they will continue doing the same things they’ve always done.
Instead, think of learning as something that is pulled in at the moment of need. For leaders and L&D, this means creating the conditions required for people to pursue learning in the context of their work activities, at the moment they need it.
Earlier this week, when I was struggling with a piece of software, that was the perfect time for me to seek out resources to help me figure out the problem. Luckily, I work from home, and know that my team has a high degree of trust in me to get my work done—in previous work environments, a manager walking by my desk to “catch” me on YouTube would have raised some red flags, despite the fact that I was using a tutorial to solve a problem. Alternatively, my team leader could have asked me to spend a few hours reviewing training materials for the software before I needed to start using it—but without the context of solving a real problem that I was facing, all that theoretical work would have largely been a waste of time. The learning wasn’t pushed onto me, instead, I was able to pull learning in at the time of need, apply what I learned in the moment, and solidify the learning through action so that I don’t need to look it up next time.
You can also work to leverage the diversity of experiences that exist on your team, in order to promote effective knowledge transfer among team members, and benefit from the intersection of radically different ideas and perspectives.
A lot has been written about the emergence of the gig economy, as well as about the prevalence of side hustles (full disclosure, I wrote recently about why embracing side hustles is important for teams) in recent months and years. These realities are not going away anytime soon. Fortunately, if leveraged carefully, they can become an organizational strength. Being able to draw on the skills that your team is developing outside of the workplace, can help you to create the kind of breakthrough thinking that often occurs when completely different streams of thought intersect.
Lastly, leaders need to be thinking about the systems that make up their organization, and create learning experiences that take a holistic view of those systems. If one member of your team learns how to revamp a process to make it faster and more efficient, will it create a bottleneck for another member of the team? What about the dangers of having only one person in your office who knows how to run a particular piece of software? If they come down with the flu, who will backfill for them?
As you work to enable learning on your team, it’s important for leaders to keep the high-level view in mind, in order to keep things running smoothly.
Take the time to do a skills gap analysis as a team. Where are there gaps? How can you best leverage your strengths? Sit down with each individual for a conversation about their professional development goals, figure out how those goals align with your objectives as an organization or team, and then curate some resources to help address those needs. Build time into your calendar to apply what you’ve learned—remember that things will take a bit longer as you’re learning and applying something new. You might need a few tries to get things right. Don’t think of these as failures—these false starts and missteps will help you and your team to solidify the learning, and get better for next time.
As the world of work becomes increasingly complex and uncertain, teams and leaders need to be creating the conditions that allow learning to occur at the time of need, and within the context of daily work activities. We all have access to an incredible amount of content—but without the lens of context, it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of online searches, learning interesting but ultimately unhelpful facts that won’t help get the work done.