Learning Culture & Compliance – Blog 1

I spoke to a group of Compliance Officers, Managing Partners and Finance Directors from the legal sector yesterday on the topic of “how a learning culture supports compliance”.  My talk was about the legal sector, but the issues raised are relevant to any business which needs to preserve a technical edge and also move with the times.  I have captured my thoughts in a series of short blogs.

Blog 1

Learning is not merely a matter of compliance, but it helps!

Making a business case for learning at work brings us up against some fundamental questions:  Why learn?  Is it merely to satisfy a regulatory requirement?  Is learning solely to support expertise or is it for something else?  Do wider business skills require development?

Establishing purpose

All of these questions lead back to one thing, business purpose.  Being clear about what the business is trying to achieve is a pre-requisite to developing strategic plans of any kind, including learning strategy.  Once you have clarity about purpose then it is possible to make an assessment of the knowledge & skills people will demonstrate when that purpose is realised.  Are they the same as the ones they have now?   It is unlikely that they will be purely based on technical expertise; expertise is “a given”.

Muddling through

In professional service firms it can be fairly easy to establish wide-ranging learning needs, because historically there has been a tendency to promote people to managerial and leadership roles on the basis of technical expertise or even time-served.  Often those promotions have been made without preparation or development support.  And that approach has, broadly speaking,  been adequate to-date, but the gaps and tensions it creates are becoming increasingly obvious.

Expecting people to muddle through their responsibilities as leaders and managers in a business is possible when there is plenty of work about and plenty of people to do the work.  However, when there is less work, or when that work needs to be done more efficiently by fewer people, the system, and the people within it, becomes strained.  Add to that dynamic a demand to deliver big intangibles such as “client-focussed service”, issues of “retention” or “succession planning” and the old approach is found wanting.

Using compliance to get “buy-in”

So we do not need to rely on compliance to make a compelling business case for investment in learning, but considering the barriers that exist, it gives the argument leverage.  The truth is that a lot of firms want the benefits of great knowledge and skills – in terms of delivering things like client service standards, efficiency and profitability and retaining staff – but when push comes to shove, the organisation really values and recognises fee-earning.  When making the case for investing time and money in learning, compliance provides a regulatory rationale for a change in approach.  It can be the foundation on which the steps towards effective learning strategy and business transformation can be made.

The horizon and the here & now

In recent months I have been reading, thinking and speaking about the future of work, more specifically, the future of learning at work.  At the same time, I work with professional people on basic skills, like the ability to have a structured conversation, to listen, and to allow a colleague to explore their ideas for themselves.  In other words, how to get to grips with the messy and difficult bits of working with people.

Horizon-scanning and working with people on practical skills form two strands of my work activity which are challenging in different ways.  Some of the time I am diving in, searching out ideas, identifying what matters and trying to create some understanding, for example, what does Artificial Intelligence mean for learning?  Are jobs for “newbies” going to exist in the future?  If not, how will people gain experience and practise skills?  These issues are intriguing.  Being informed about them allows me to present a rounded view to clients.

All the time, I’m doing my day job as a Learning & Development consultant too; talking with people about learning strategy, designing learning activities (online and experiential) and delivering face-to-face learning.  I also coach individuals, so I come close to what makes a fellow human-being tick, what troubles them and what makes them laugh.

Each day and each week I move back and forth from horizon-scanning, through to thinking about the particulars of a client organisation, to group dynamics, and individual, immediate human needs.  I try to help people make sense of one aspect or another as I go.

I read, see and hear a lot of things about how people work within organisations and how organisations view people.  I have a lot of ideas about the flow between the two.  I have been educated to think that I ought to come up with something original and brilliant to say before I publish my thoughts, but here and now I am going to just offer what I’m thinking, rather than some perfectly expressed solution.

What is emerging for me at the moment is the idea that our notion of “managers” is probably unhelpful.  Among professional people, informed self-management is eminently possible.  Note please the word “informed”.  I need to write about that more on another occasion, for now let me say I think that begins with first understanding yourself and your impact on others, as well as having clarity about your purpose at work.

Another thought that I am living with just now is that everything depends on context.  Our current world context is remarkable; I am writing at the time of a General Election, just after a major terrorist attack in Manchester, and as war and famine rage in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.  My life spans the certainties of the Cold War and the current time, when old social and political fractures have opened up, and new ones created by the digital age have emerged to generate a cocktail of expectation and possibility hither-to unknown to humanity.

In a challenging and often frightening world we look for people who make sense of things for us, and this brings me back to the two strands of my working life.

As I stand at the front of the training room, Heads of Department, architects, solicitors and sales managers look to me and seem to say, “Make this easier for me!”  I share with them my enthusiasm and knowledge and help them to learn about their own abilities by getting them doing things which are slightly outside their comfort-zone.  That’s what I do; I try and make sense of some things for them and I set them going on a task which will help them realise that they are already capable of helping others to work effectively in many ways.

I want those people to know that they often don’t have to try as hard as they think they do.  Offering guidance and support, or even holding a colleague to account, is perhaps easier than they imagine.  They do not need to learn to be “other” or different.  In fact, they probably need to be more themselves.  A manager is not someone who makes other people do things; they are the person who makes it possible for other people to do things.  By thinking of the manager’s role as being a facilitator or enabler, the idea becomes less onerous.  It requires skill and that’s ok, because we are all more capable than we think and we can all learn.

Can we become facilitators and enablers now?  I think it would be a good time to try.  Just around the corner is a world of data analytics which will enable us all to see at a glance how colleagues are performing; how much time they spent on a project, or working in a team activity or communicating with a customer or client.  Perhaps you have that information already.  If not, it won’t be too long before we are all informed by more metrics than we can shake a stick at.  But there is more to working with people than that; now would be a good time to make sure we can still all be human too.