Catherine's Learning Journal

On customizing learning support

2017 11 30 Learning Advisor

As the year comes to a close, I am noodling on new commitments to my own learning for 2018 – specific topics and skills that I want to further develop. I’ll be drafting a syllabus of sorts for the few that are most important to me, and I’m confident and thankful that I have the know-how and time to put together something that is robust and workable for my own continuing development.

As I talk to learning leaders in various organizations, though, I have noted that many of them recognize that the people they want to support do not have the skill or the bandwidth to effectively manage their own learning projects. Many people have relied for so long on structured programs that they feel out of their element in trying to make a plan for themselves. They may be perfectly capable of a quick search when a need is acute, but making longer term personal development plans has always been a challenge. Some may simply feel they have little available time to dedicate to learning projects much less the head space to put together a plan that might work.

The promise of the internet – that we would have ready access to deep learning resources and networks – is thus hampered a bit by the sheer scope of what’s out there and the lack of skill in accessing the right materials at the point of need. The growth of curation tools alone is evidence of the need for some kind of support. But curation only addresses the need to identify the most effective and relevant resources, it doesn’t focus on helping people to learn more independently after they’ve spent the bulk of their school years learning to learn with highly structured guidance.

The Learning Advisor Solution

Jane Hart has noticed some of these issues as well, and she has long been talking about the role of Learning Advisor as an emerging responsibility for L&D practitioners.

“The role of the Modern Learning Advisor is about building and supporting self-reliant and self-sufficient modern professionals who make the most of, and learn from all kinds of experiences and opportunities to self-improve and self-develop.” ~ Jane Hart

Jane lays out this intriguing role in recent blog posts (here and here), as well as in her books and workshops on Modern Workplace Learning. For modern workplace learning to be as effective and efficient as possible, Jane recommends specific activities, culminating in providing “bespoke advice and support” (love that phrase!) to help individual learners address their learning needs and advance their development goals.

As an advocate for deep learning in organizations, I have to say I love, love, love that idea! Who among us has not provided “bespoke” advice? Learning professionals are often unable to address learning needs in their organizations because of higher priorities, and they might assuage their conscience by curating and sending along specific recommendations of resources and activities. In my experience, giving an individual or manager an hour of time to walk through curated options and discuss activities they can engage themselves in order to develop knowledge and skill constitutes timely and customized help. And it is surely welcomed by folks who are struggling without formal solutions.

The problem is trying to scale it. I venture to say that this is the same issue we have had historically with trying to scale career advising in organizations. I’m afraid that it is the rare organization that will staff up these dedicated roles. More often, we try to enable managers to take on this advising role which doesn’t work because they are also stretched for time. And it’s hard to be a good learning advisor if you, yourself, are not already skilled in self-development strategies.

Small steps in the right direction

A more efficient approach, in some ways, is to concentrate efforts on developing self-directed learning skills across the organization. Back in the day, I advocated for a “learning to learn” program. When internet access and social media was just getting going a decade ago, I found myself raising the concern that employees might need support in developing learning skills for the digital age.

It’s ridiculous, of course, to say that people don’t know how to learn – they do it all the time – but my experience (backed by research and the experience of other professionals) tells me that they are not quite ready or don’t have the concentrated time to do that efficiently with so many options available to them. Jane’s Modern Workplace Learning approach advocates for “get ready” activities that include preparing the organization, working with managers, and building learning skills.

In my learning environment design work, I reviewed research on self-directed learning and identified the “pillars” that need to be in place for that to work. These include skills in defining clear goals, exercising persistence and resourcefulness, self-assessing skill and progress, relationship-building (for establishing a network of mentors), and engaging reflective practice. (See my article on Scaffolding Self-Direction for details along with these tactics for supporting the development of self-directed learning skills.)

Scaffolding self-direction can be a part of every project we do in L&D, even those that include a fully developed formal course – and especially those where a curated list of resources is the solution (e.g. a learning environment, learning campaign, or microlearning strategy). And we can make it a point to provide customized advice to colleagues when a full scale L&D project may not be warranted. As we demonstrate the value of this kind of service, we may find that managers and employees clamor for it more. Of course, this assumes we ourselves have these skills, so it is always important to work to improve our own facility with the tools and techniques of learning in the digital age,

Of two minds

So I find myself of two minds about the possible emergence of a learning advisor role. I completely agree that many modern learners need more customized support, but I worry that organizations won’t see it as their role to provide expert support for their employees in this area. I can see that many people want to be told exactly how to learn the skills they require (that is, they demand structured solutions), but I believe they’ll be more satisfied and efficient if they can learn on their own as they need it. Despite the occasional “no more courses!” chants, we still have a ways to go before the promise of learning opportunity offered by the internet and strong interpersonal networks can come to fruition.

What do you think?

(BTW, if you are a learning professional and you need help with YOUR development planning, I invite you to contact me.)

 

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