Learning, like water, is unstoppable

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Written by Peter Honey on 19 February 2014

As I write, numerous flood warnings have been issued and it is pouring with rain again outside my window. Apparently, there has been so much rain that the water table has risen to the surface and water can bubble up through floor boards even when a property is not surrounded by visible surface water.  

Apart from water making the headlines at present (and possibly for many more months), I'm referring to it because, in better times when water wasn't being so troublesome, I have often draw parallels between water and learning. My claim is that learning, like water, is unstoppable; it will always find a way.  

When I speak at conferences where learning is on the agenda, I ask participants whether they think learning in organisations is doomed if it isn't seen to be practised by senior management. Often people wince at the inclusion of the word 'doomed' arguing that it is too extreme. Objectors would prefer a gentler word such as compromised. But I like doomed (anyway, the word doooomed has a lovely ring to it!) and include it, of course, to be deliberately provocative. The other objection I quite often encounter is the phrase 'seen to be practised by'.  People wonder if it would be sufficient for senior managers to support learning. But once again I'm stubborn. I insist that being seen to practise learning goes way beyond merely supporting it. Learning could be 'supported' with something as feeble as hypocritical lip service. By contrast, I want senior managers to be seen to be doing learning themselves, to openly share what they have learnt from mistakes, from successes, from events.......and all the rest of it.

Anyway, once we have established what is meant by the words in the question (this can take some time!), answers tend to fall into two distinct camps.

Firstly, some people say yes, without the active engagement of senior managers, learning is indeed doomed. They argue that senior managers are vital role models and that, without their active participation, learning for other people in the organisation is well and truly stymied.  In such circumstances, anyone who wanted to learn would be on a hiding to nothing. It would be best to find a job in a more enlightened organisation where learning was on the conscious agenda.  

Secondly, some people take the contrary view.  They say no, even (regrettably) without the active engagement of senior managers, other people in the organisation have access to plenty of learning opportunities that no one, not even senior managers, can prevent.  They claim that every day, in the normal course of events, numerous things happen from which people can and do learn.  They argue that most learning is informal, not dependent on special, organised events with a budget and all the rest of it, and that there is absolutely nothing senior managers can do to stop it. Informal learning, just like water, will always find a way. 

I, of course, am much happier with views of the second camp than the first.  I fully accept that it would be much better if senior managers were seen to be practising learning themselves. This would give learning a tremendous boost and make it more likely that others in the organisation would learn and help colleagues to learn.  Why, it could even result in the creation of a learning organisation (a rare achievement!). However, whilst in a perfect world everyone would be unashamedly learning and blowing the learning trumpet, this isn't likely to happen in many organisations.  

It makes me cross when people think that unenlightened senior managers have the power to bring learning to a halt. This is as foolish as King Canute thinking he could stop the tide coming in. Tides are as inevitable as learning. I once had a colleague who used to get senior managers who were doubtful about embracing learning to estimate how long their organisation could survive without it. They, of course, assumed that learning equalled training so their estimates were way off the mark. My colleague would then remind his audience that if they wanted to stop learning in their organisations they would have to ban all talking (no meetings!), all reading, all thinking, all activities (no work!), in  fact, all of everything. This would bring their organisations to an immediate halt.

So, when you encounter 'water, water everywhere', just imagine 'learning, learning everywhere' and you'll feel more cheerful.       

About the author
Peter Honey FRSA, FCIPD, FIMC is a chartered psychologist and founder of Peter Honey Publications. He can be contacted at peterhoney1@btinternet.com or via www.peterhoney.org

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