To personalise, collectivise or both?

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Written by Rob McWilliam on 15 October 2014

In this month’s article I’m focusing on how we can meet the need for an appropriate level of personalisation in learning programmes for senior and middle managers while still ensuring that the content meets the ‘prescribed’ organisational learning and development requirements.

The principles of ‘personalised learning’ are well-established among us. The UK Department for Education describes personalised learning as  “a highly structured and responsive approach to learning for each individual... “ The aim of personalising learning is allow learners to find their own approaches, methodologies and sources of information to meet identified outcomes.  In this way they learn how to learn and embed the knowledge and skills in a more powerful way. It is a key element of our children’s education.

At the more senior levels of leadership – and of course we’re working with adult learners as well here – allowing the personalisation of learning recognises the competence (or ‘maturity’) of the learners and can avoid patronising them.

And yet, there are times when we need groups of managers at all levels in our organisations to adopt the same processes, to implement new policies, to achieve new standards and to perform as a cohesive collective.  Sometimes we have to inform and educate large cohorts of managers.

I really dislike the phrase “sheep dip” when applied to learning (although it is well understood in our world of L&D).  It gives the impression of being forced into something, or blindly following and having no individual will.  We’re well beyond that in the world of organised human performance!  So I prefer to use the phrase ‘collectivised learning’ rather than sheep dip.  This transmits an image of synergy between participants, collaboration and working for a shared goal.

So, in my view, designing learning events for senior managers that include the principles of personalisation and collectivism is key.

A recent example of this was a project to re-energise - and bring a higher level of rigor to - an organisation’s objective setting process.  The HR director had worked hard to create the will to improve, to engage the MD and to gain the support of the fellow executives.  We worked to build a session aimed at the senior and middle managers.  It included:

  • statements of the standards to achieve
  • elements of drawing out and demonstrating prior knowledge
  • collective critique of the first draft organisational objectives
  • personalised time to refine their own objectives
  • peer coaching to support and challenge each other and to cement learning
  • tutorial support as required

Informally, the managers who report into the Board, told me that they appreciated being ‘treated as adults’ – being asked for their feedback contributing their knowledge and suggestions for improvement.  Often in organisational life, those in the most senior positions are not the ‘top of the class’ in terms of their knowledge and competence in all parts of their role.  Allowing a collective approach while including the principles of personalisation can create a collaborative, safe and effective way to develop your managers.


About the author
Rob McWilliam is executive development director at Change Formation. He can be contacted via



Submitted on 23 November, 2014 - 17:30
Hi Rob, I enjoyed your insight on working and educating "adult learners." Additionally, I was not familiar with the phrase "sheep dip." You also mentioned " most senior positions are not necessarily at the ‘top of the class’ in terms of their knowledge and competence in all parts of their role." I think sometimes we take for granted or assume that seniors are at the top since they are in a management positions. Thanks for shedding some light on that and pointing out that a collective approach can create a collaborative, safe and effective way to develop your managers. I am sharing this post with my classmates at Roosevelt University where I am a graduate student in the Training and Development program. Please feel free to check out our blog at: Thank you, Kim

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