Are You Creating an Environment in Which Learning Can Thrive?

This past weekend I spent an evening making Smores with my kids in the backyard. My son enjoys this and loves helping his dad build the campfire. Here are some of the fire-building ‘tips’ I shared with my son.

  • 108794903_63c369c3d9“We want to make sure we build a strong foundation so that it can support everything we add to it.”
  • “We’ve got to allow space between the wood so that the fire can breathe and grow on it’s own.”
  • “Balancing out the wood is important; you don’t want the whole thing to collapse just because one block of wood is removed.”
  • “A campfire takes a lot of attention to get started, but we do less and less with it as time goes on.”
  • “We can’t just keep throwing wood on the fire; we need to monitor it and recognize where we need to add more wood, and when.”

In hindsight, these tips weren’t just about “building” a fire; they were also about creating an environment in which a campfire can thrive. After all, fire is extremely organic. It grows and spreads to it’s own will, and our job minding the fire was to help get it started, and then to step back, monitor it’s progress, and provide support as needed.

The job of the learning professional is really not that different. Our job is to provide help onboarding a skill set and then to step back, monitor progress, and provide support when and where it is needed.

When building a campfire, most of the work is in creating the right environment in which a fire can thrive. As a learning professional, are you creating an environment in which learning can thrive?

Let’s look at the campfire tips again and re-position each as questions about learning.

“We want to make sure we build a strong foundation so that it can support everything we add to it.”

What is the foundation of learning? For me, the foundation of learning consists of a few major components: Content, Processes, Tools, Technologies, and People. Are you providing enough focus on each of these areas? If not, it will be challenging to have learning thrive.

“We’ve got to allow space between the wood so that the fire can breathe and grow on it’s own.”

A properly built campfire allows for space between the blocks of wood. Fire requires oxygen in order for it to breathe and spread.

Is there ‘oxygen’ in your organization? Is there a structure in place that allows information to easily spread once there’s a spark of innovation, or is information locked behind technical or cultural silos?

“Balancing out the wood is important; you don’t want the whole thing to collapse just because one block of wood is removed.”

In a properly built campfire, each piece of wood is connected to others, sharing the weight of the overall structure. Is learning ‘balanced’ in your organization? Do the various technologies used to support learning compliment each other to form a stronger overall structure, or are they completely disconnected from each other? Is there too much dependency on any one piece of technology, placing the entire system at risk?

“We can’t just keep throwing wood on the fire; we need to monitor it and recognize where we need to add more wood, and when.”

My son wanted to keep adding wood to the fire, even when it was growing or thriving. I put a few extra logs on the top of the fire at his request and, as expected, the fire slowed a bit. We had closed off the top of the stack, reducing the amount of oxygen available. Adding more wood smothered the flames; we had added the wood to the wrong spot, at the wrong time.

How many times do training organizations throw content at learners without regard to their availability to consume it, or introduce a new technology related to learning without giving workers the support needed to use it? We need to be aware of what workers are currently engaged in before dumping more content on them.

With all the technologies and resources being used in organizations, it’s becoming increasingly challenging for those managing learning functions to balance the various projects and technologies used to support learning.

“A campfire takes a lot of attention to get started, but we do less and less with it as time goes on.”

Getting a campfire started takes some effort. Once you get a small flame started though, you gradually step away from the process. The more the fire spreads, the less you support it. You let the fire grow and spread on it’s own. You always monitor the fire, but you only step in when there’s a need to fan the flames to shift the direction of the burn or to add more wood.

In reality, that’s how it should be with learning. We’ll always need to supply content that workers can consume in some manner. More importantly, we need to create an environment that supports learning in all it’s forms, and allows it to thrive.

The Learning and Performance Ecosystem

When we talk about creating an environment in which learning can thrive, we’re talking about more than just a physical environment. The environment in which learning takes place includes not only the physical environment, but also:

  • The organization’s strategy as it applies to learning and performance
  • The technologies workers use to support their learning and work.
  • The culture of the organization as it applies to professional development

It all comes back to the foundational component I mentioned earlier: Content, Processes, Tools, Technologies, and People. These are the three primary components that create the environment in which people learn and receive performance support. Those leading the learning functions for organizations need to build a strategy that addresses all pieces of the ecosystem puzzle if they want to be successful in the future.

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