At the heart of learning

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Written by Preethi Anand on 1 April 2014 in Features

Preethi Anand describes the values thatdrive her learning organisation forward

I have always believed that Zen stories have an unparalleled sense of simplicity and clarity. One such story made me re-imagine my learning function. This is the story of a Zen monk who, after years of trying, could not attain enlightenment.

He says to his master: “I have tried everything. I have followed all your instructions and yet I am still not enlightened! Master, I am desperate, please help me.” So the master asks him to go to the market and buy a pound of the best meat. The monk goes to the first butcher’s shop he can find and asks the butcher to give him the best meat he has. The butcher, smiling, replies: “Everything in my shop is the best. You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”

It is said that these words made the monk enlightened. We can look at this story from various angles and derive a number of lessons from each one. But what stands out is the butcher’s outlook on work; his unique set of values that drive his everyday work and its quality.

Values, we all agree, are very important. We all have them; some of us even have values defined for our functions. But often, values are considered as just another component in our learning framework, when they are at the heart of our learning function; they influence our strategy, drive results and keep us on track with our diversified learning efforts.

This article discusses the significance of values in the big picture for learning and development initiatives, drawing parallels from value-based learning initiatives at Polaris.

When learning has values

Let us, for a moment, consider what values mean. The Oxford English Dictionary defines values as “principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgment of what is important in life”. In other words, values are what we would not compromise on, no matter what the situation demands, because they define who we are. For an L&D function, values are that which define our purpose. It could be our commitment to always raise the bar for our initiatives, our drive to learn from different fields to provide an unparalleled learning experience, our focus on measuring and improving our efficiency, on alignment with the business’s direction etc.

If we focus on this definition of values, we realise that there are a few facts around values for a learning function that we often misinterpret:

  • every learning function has values Organisations or L&D functions that do not state their values run the risk of being seen as ones that do not have any values. But no organisation, function or person can go on without values. It may be commonly understood but never stated. The danger with not stating our function’s values is that each person in it might imagine a value of their own and, as a result, we will see little consistency in our initiative, and the chaos will be felt by our learners as well
  • values have a purpose We have all met pretentious people, like the ones who are responsible for office politics, the ones who would do anything to save themselves and the like. If you have ever heard them talk of values, you will have noticed them use words like ‘honesty’, ‘punctuality’ and ‘compassion’. We know they don’t mean it, not only because we haven’t seen them walk the talk but also because they wouldn’t be able to explain why it is their value. Each value serves a purpose; for example, if one of my learning function’s core values is to always allow learners to contribute to the design of learning initiatives, I would practice it because it opens them up to the learning experience, giving them a sense of ownership and having a tremendous impact on the initiative’s effectiveness
  • there is a value-exchange in learning The growing focus on learning design is, to me, a tremendous step forward in our field. Because, when we start looking at our initiatives from the learners’ point of view and our own, and find a common ground to have both our objectives met, we are actually allowing for value exchange. When a learning function is great at what it does, it answers the organisation’s need to maximise performance and allows the employee to develop expertise in his line of work, which would propel his career. In other words, when there is a value-exchange, it is always a win-win.

Values and L&D strategy

About 40 years ago, when our field was just emerging, we were probably the only group of professionals who worked on adult education. We discussed what would drive operational efficiency, on how to schedule and conduct training programmes. We have come light years from that time. Today, a leader in the L&D field has to understand educational psychology; keep up with the latest trends in technology that could better the learning experience; adapt to the needs of Generation Y while keeping Generation X engaged as well; learn from best practices in the field, while constantly trying to align efforts to the dynamic organisation of today. Leaders and L&D strategists need to work on a foolproof strategy to be effective and focused, and values can light the way in our journey towards this strategy.

Consider the role of values in setting a sound learning strategy:

  • clear values can make strategies simple When we know exactly what is important to us, our strategies become not only easy to design but also easy to understand. A brilliantly simple strategy will get the buy-in of our team and would help them translate it with more ease
  • values can help us make quicker decisions on crucial strategic issues When we know what is important, the clarity can help us determine what factors matter when considering a decision
  • with a well-defined value system, our strategy becomes flexible and adaptive Leaders look at their strategy regularly but, when unforeseen changes have an impact on the organisation, our learning strategy needs to adapt to it. A clear value system will help us focus on the essentials and realign our efforts during times of change.

Cases in point

In our efforts to make learning more relevant to the employee and the business, we came up with a list of values that resonated with the culture of the organisation and that helped employees learn more, learn better and faster. I describe a few L&D initiatives below that were designed with one or two values in focus.

Curiosity drives video learning Curiosity is the very basis of education and, if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly.”  Arnold Edinborough

About a year ago, the popular TED website added a small component in its homepage that we found extremely intriguing. It was a “surprise me” widget, where you could choose a TED topic like ‘imaginative’ or ‘jaw-dropping’ and the desired duration of the video, and the system would show a list of videos matching your search. A simple concept, it thrives on an individual’s curiosity to view what is in store for him.

Inspired by this concept, we redesigned our video learning portal a year ago, incorporating the element of curiosity in the design of the portal as well as the video format. The focus on curiosity for the asynchronous learning platform was to promote continuous learning among employees, not limiting their learning experience with structured lists of videos. The following were our efforts to achieve that:

  • the video learning portal, which was originally a vast repository of content, was re-imagined as a platform for employees to connect with each other and know what is trending in the organisation
  • the portal was made to look and feel like an exciting platform that employees visited to learn and sometimes just for fun. It included social features such as the ‘like’ button and comments
  • employees, at any time, could see what videos are trending in the organisation: which are most viewed and most liked.

Interestingly, the video learning portal had 1.5m hits last year, with all employees of the organisation having learned from it at least once; an approximate 70 per cent increase in access compared to the year before.

Reducing complexity drives learning design “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  Albert Einstein

The interest in education and learning has been increasing tremendously in the last few years, and so have new trends in the field. The L&D professional of today can leverage many of these trends for more efficient, cost-effective and high-quality learning programmes, if he can keep pace with the changes. The same is true for the learner. With the number of learning options increasing, the employee of today often finds it difficult to wade through all the complexity to learn the courses of his choice.

The learning design function set out with the motto of reducing complexity in learning, with the intention of making access to learning as simple as possible but not simpler. The function set out to accomplish this by re-imagining the strategy for learning delivery, making minor changes in programmes and by leveraging technology. Efforts to reduce complexity were expected to help employees understand their learning options more quickly, make learning decisions with greater ease and, thereby, encourage them to learn more. 

I have detailed below just some of the many actions taken to achieve this objective:

  • an all-in-one learning portal. A simple yet exhaustive website was designed that acted as a common platform for all other online and classroom learning. Employees can learn about, and get access to, various learning arenas from the portal, view a consolidated calendar of all learning events, nominate for programmes, provide feedback and connect with the training team. They can even learn from self-study materials for certifications
  • we decided that all learning-related communications would be made on the enterprise business collaboration platform, targeting programme-specific interest groups, establishing project collaboration spaces and sending messages to individuals with role-specific programme communications. L&D communications were thus integrated into everyday work for the employee.

In the words of Elvis Presley, “values are like fingerprints. Nobody’s are the same but you leave them all over everything you do”. In our practice as L&D professionals, may values guide us in all our efforts, empowering us to design resolute, sustainable learning solutions, creating a lasting impression on the learner and making a positive impact on the organisation at large.

About the author

Preethi Anand is head of learning design at Polaris Financial Technology's Nalanda Corporate University. She can be contacted via



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