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No time for training and development at work? Try learning on the job

Many employees reach a point in their jobs where they feel they can’t grow and learn any more. This often motivates employees to quit.

At investment management firm Bridgewater, learning from one’s mistakes is a job requirement.

At investment management firm Bridgewater, learning from one’s mistakes is a job requirement.

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Many employees reach a point in their jobs where they feel they can’t grow and learn any more. This often motivates employees to quit.

In fact, a LinkedIn survey released in June found that more than two in five employees in Singapore have left a company because they felt it did not provide enough learning and development (L&D) opportunities.

The reason cited by the 1,000-odd surveyed: they did not have time to take up such opportunities. In addition, only 17 per cent of employees are satisfied with their company’s L&D programmes.

So what can companies and employees do? How about promoting learning while employees are doing their daily work? Informal learning may be the way to go.

Informal learning refers to learning that occurs away from structured, formal classroom environments or courses.

It  includes coaching and mentoring, getting apt and timely feedback on one’s performance and being put on assignments that stretch employees.

In contrast, traditional L&D practices focus more heavily on training courses or creating programmes.

While companies may spend extensive resources on traditional L&D, employees may find attending courses and programmes to be time-consuming and stressful due to their heavy workload.

They may also feel lost trying to translate what they have learned in the training courses back to their daily work.  

Moreover, research by IT research and advisory firm CEB in 2014  has found that this type of L&D accounts for only 21 per cent of learning at work, while more informal means of learning accounts for the rest.

This calls for a more time and cost-effective way of managing learning in the workplace.

One such way may be to put employees in job roles that require them to stretch beyond their current capabilities while providing mentoring, feedback and support.

In the book “An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization” the e-commerce firm Next Jump is featured.

At Next Jump, an e-commerce firm that is dedicated to changing workplace culture, we can see how the company puts employees into work contexts which they may not be prepared for to “stretch” them and allow them to learn while on the job.

Busa, a 28-year-old relatively inexperienced Cornell IT masters graduate, is one such example.

While his friends at Amazon, Google and Bloomberg have been doing the same type of coding for the past five years, Next Jump puts him in front of the management board to talk about strategy.

This gives Busa the opportunity to try something out of his comfort zone, thus providing him with a great learning and development opportunity.

This is much more effective than having Busa take courses on strategy. While Busa may have been put in a seemingly daunting situation, Next Jump provides the psychological safety net for Busa to fail and make mistakes.

Busa is assured this is part of his learning journey and he won’t be penalised for his mistakes.

After all, Charlie Kim, the founder and co-chief executive officer of Next Jump, is famous for saying: “There is no way to 'get better' other than to first do it, however poorly you do. So get started; go out and fail. We have become good at getting better because we are so good at failing.”

Busa also received timely and invaluable feedback from senior management to accelerate his growth and development.

While one may wonder when senior management has the time to devote to developing younger employees, the culture of seeking and giving feedback is ingrained in the DNA of a deliberately developmental organisation such as Next Jump.

Drawing from the example above, we can see how Busa is learning on the job. This type of  informal learning can only truly take place when people feel safe to experiment, make mistakes, and ask questions.

This brings to mind the case of Bridgewater, another highly developmental company. At the investment management firm, learning from one’s mistakes is a job requirement.

The company’s culture supports treating errors as opportunities for growth through a variety of tools and practices, such as having employees keep a log of problems and issues.

In fact, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater, even challenged his employees near the end of a companywide email whose subject line read “I constantly fail”.

The question is: “Do you worry more about how good you are or how fast you are learning?”

In the research and development field, a focus on learning, especially from failures, rather than performance can lead to informal, accidental or incidental learning that becomes ground-breaking innovation.  

At 3M, a scientist was trying to create a strong adhesive, but ended up with a weak one. This can easily be dismissed as a failure.

However, it led to the creation of Post-it Notes, which don’t stick that strongly and can be easily removed. This incidental, informal learning actually provided the springboard for a new invention that has fundamentally affected our daily work lives.

Learning while one is engaged in one’s daily workflow requires a change in mindset and approach. It requires one to be open to experimentation, ambiguity, and learning. How can employees adopt such a mindset?

Interestingly, many lessons on the process of informal learning can be found in a totally different field. I am referring to jazz music.

Playing jazz is about learning while doing, rejecting habitual behaviour and a predictable outcome in favour of experimentation and progress.

In the book “Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz”, Frank J. Barrett writes: “Jazz improvisation is an emergent, elusive, vital process. At any moment, a player can take the music in a new direction, defying expectations and triggering others to reinterpret what they have just heard.”

Given the above, what are the implications for L&D and informal learning? Perhaps we can take some cues from jazz in the following ways:

  1. Be spontaneous
  2. Try, trial and learn from errors in the process of creation
  3. It is okay to make mistakes
  4. Collaborate by listening, responding and taking turns

Learning can be a messy business. We will need to remain open and be comfortable with dealing with ambiguity, missteps and mistakes.

However, may we be encouraged by the motto of jazz: “Say yes to the mess!”



Dr Wang Jiunwen is Head of the Human Resource Management Programme at S R Nathan School of Human Development, Singapore University of Social Sciences.

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