Mark Pearl

I’m passionate about learning. It’s something that part of my day to day activities. Many years ago I watched a talk (I can’t remember which one) that spoke about the need for software organisations to be learning organisations. The premise was that as knowledge workers, actively increasing knowledge was essential to staying ahead of the curve. It resonated with me. Since then, I’ve always strived to create teams and a culture that actively supports learning. Over time, I’ve realised a that focussing on learning is the wrong approach. Let me explain…

With one team I lead we set one day a week aside to focus on learning. On that day we had a combination of team led and individual led learning activities. For individual learning time each person had the freedom to pick what they wanted. As time passed I would touch base with each person to find out what they were learning. In general people focussed on things they were passionate or interested in. These things covered a broad range of topics. Some used the time to learn new programming languages, others spent time learning new technologies, others processes or methodologies and so on. At the time I thought mission accomplished, we are a learning driven team!

Unfortunately looking back I got it wrong. I had not yet fully realised my purpose. As I’ve gained a deeper understanding of my purpose as the team lead I’ve realised that it was to increase the sustainable output of that team. While creating a learning environment could have lead to increased output, it doesn’t always. In fact it definitely didn’t for that team.

While people were learning and getting knowledge the learning was not leading to increased output. For example, one junior developer who had still not mastered their core development skills was spending his learning time on a framework/library we rarely if ever used. Very little value. Others were doing similar things.

Going forward I’ve moved the focus. I no longer focus on “learning”. Instead the focus is on improvement. Let me explain.

Improvement depends on two factors. What people are learning, and if they are able to apply what they are learning to their immediate world to make things better.

With the “what”, start by focussing on what is foundational for someone to perform their current role. What do they need to do to be effective.

In addition to the what, it’s important to focus on application. Being driven to learn or accumulate knowledge that does not lead to increased performance is learning for the sake of learning. It’s a trap. Have you ever worked with someone who was extremely knowledgable about a topic but when given an opportunity to apply that knowledge they could not do it effectively. That knowledge waste.

Instead, value knowledge accumulation that is demonstrated by application. I call that improvement. So, in a nutshell. Instead of focussing on creating a learning driven team, focus on an improvement driven team. Instead of having learning time, have improvement time. If you get that right the magic starts to happen.

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