Learning to Learn at Work

As I reflect back on my childhood through my late 20's, I realize that I was living a lie. I grew up thinking there are two worlds: a world where you learn and a world where you do.

This lie came from my reality growing up. My mother was a teacher: to me she represented learning: the books that surrounded her, the desks, the students listening, and her teaching. My father worked in an office: secretaries typing, men in offices talking, my father traveling, people "doing."

In fact, I lived this "lie" through my late 20's, even pursuing a PhD because I thought in order to continue learning, I must continue going to school. Until one day, when I woke up eager to start "doing." So naturally, I thought I had to enter into the business world.

The Puzzle of Learning at Work

But this is where I became very puzzled. I looked around the office in which I was working and saw so many opportunities to learn: internal training, tuition assistance, an annual performance review where I could speak with my manager about my own professional development. However, I found it difficult to actually take advantage of those opportunities because I had so much to "do."

I thought I was alone ; until I arrived at EdAssist. EdAssist has learned through our research that the average employee spends 1.5 hours planning his or her career annually, compared to 22 hours planning vacations. We see among our clients that only 5% of employees eligible for tuition assistance actually use it. And we know that employees, employers and universities are all unsure as to who actually owns career development.

Watch my 2014 Solutions at Work LIVE presentation: Learning While Doing.

Effective Professional Development: The Office as a Classroom

So how can we actually support our employees and our own professional development by learning while we work? One idea is to look at the office as a classroom. If we incorporated some of the norms of the classroom into our day-to-day at work, what would we do differently?

Use 1:1's to Document Learning

In school, we would never tolerate a professor introducing a class at the beginning of the semester, only to reappear at the end of the semester to give us a grade with no feedback or direction along the way. Yet, at work, we often only meet with our managers about our performance once a year during reviews.

Back in April, I had the opportunity to speak at the Solutions at Work LIVE Conference. When I asked the audience how many people have individual meetings with their managers or direct reports, every single person raised a hand.

We know people hate their annual performance reviews. So, what if we were to use our frequent check-in meetings to record learning accomplishments and learning opportunities instead? For example, we could add a standing agenda item to our 1:1's with three questions: What did I learn this week? What did I want to know more of? Who could I learn from? Open up a word document, have your employee record their answers and then move on to the week's updates, etc.

Then every 2-3 months, the employee could look for trends within the document. Maybe he finds a frequent need for public speaking, but also that he admires a particular colleague for her skills. In turn, a real-time learning goal and opportunity to connect with fellow employees emerges.

Learn from Colleagues

In elementary school, we have 5th graders read to 2nd graders and both benefit. I know that as a manager, sometimes it's hard to find tools to help employees learn. How about putting the onus on the employee to learn from colleagues? What about creating a goal for an employee to identify 2-3 people to learn from that year? The employee could then connect with those colleagues to find out how they developed a particular skill set or to shadow their work on a particular project. Not only does this create learning opportunities on the job, but helps us to shrink the knowledge-sharing gap we expect to see as the baby boomer generation retires.

Schedule Time to Debrief

In high school, after every game, the coach sits with the team to watch the footage from the game to debrief and learn from what was done. Yet, I know I go from project to project without ever debriefing even asking the simple questions like "What did we learn? What did we do well? How can we improve moving forward?"

We all use Outlook or e-calendars. What if we were to add just one extra meeting after a project ends to debrief on what worked and what didn't? We could assign one person to be responsible for taking notes and then invite that person to the kick-off meeting of any similar projects to share those lessons learned.

The Choice is Ours

So, the choice is ours. We can have two worlds where learning happens separate from doing and where the gap between what we do and what we need to learn grows. Or, we can challenge ourselves to be both educators and managers, individual contributors and students.

We can use our standing meetings, leverage Outlook to build in an hour to debrief, and connect with our colleagues to not only identify what we need to learn, but how to actually go about doing it. And from there, we can better use the tools available to us like internal training, tuition assistance, credit for prior learning, and partnerships with universities, to effectively grow and develop inside and outside of the office.

What choice will you make?

Written by: Jessica Kaplan

About the Author

Jessica Kaplan at Bright Horizons

As Director, Talent Management, Jessica is responsible for connecting employees and management to the most effective learning and development opportunities offered by Bright Horizons. She also helps facilitate internal collaboration for organizational success. Jessica brings nearly 20 years of experience in professional development and higher education administration to her role. Prior to this role she held key roles in the Client Relations and Academic Partnerships teams. Jessica holds a Bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Tufts University, a Master’s degree in International Communication from American University and has completed PhD coursework in International Higher Education Policy at the University of Maryland.