A Message About Learning from the Shop Floor

I know I don't really need to say this, but I should emphasize here that the letter that follows is a fictional account, intended only as a response to a magazine article, and not a real letter I'm sending to my employer. It's true that I do draw from my own experience for some examples and touchpoints, but this article should not be interpreted as a representation of actual conditions in my own workplace.

Dear Boss,

Thank you for your email about e-learning, titled 'A message about learning from the C-suite' which was reprinted in Chief Learning Officer.  You asked some questions and made some comments, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to reply.

Thanks for asking how I'm keeping up my skills and knowledge. You don't need to tell me that "continuous learning will be a key survival meta-skill for all of us!" When the day comes that you lay me off - and it will come, we're all sure of it! - I'm going to need to be prepared to look for work.

But as I'm sure you know, it's difficult to find time for learning. We don't exactly get learning breaks. We have to log our time and assign it to different projects, but there's no time code for 'learning'. So we do what we can, but it's not always the thing that "consciously guides every day, moment to moment".

In fact, it's pretty hard for me to see this as a priority at work when you tell me in the very same breath that "we will only be able to formally support a small part of what you will need and want." When you say something like that, and then say "we care about your learning and development, that we will do our best to support it, but that 95 percent of your learning is in your hands," it feels like you're sending a very mixed message.

And when you send a note from the head office asking me to "think about your learning and development mindset and practices today and to look ahead to your lifelong learning role in your life and in our company," it just sounds to me that you're asking me to work for free, on my own time. And if that's the case - well it should really be up to me what and whether I learn, right?

But I appreciate your concern about my learning tactics and study skills. This would be something worth spending some company resources and time developing, I think. I know it's a 'soft skill' and doesn't really fit into any of my work objectives, but I still think it might be useful for a lot of people.

That said, I'm not sure I appreciate your tone. You're making it sound like I'm doing it all wrong. Maybe read this back to yourself: "is your view of learning and are your learning practices adequate for the pace and thrust of change we face today? Do you feel powerful and capable of keeping up and guiding your own development through all the twists and turns that lie ahead?"

I just spent the last ten minutes trying to fix the sound on Zoom for the weekly call-in. I'm not really concerned about 'feeling powerful'. What I really need are come clear instructions and some practice time with these new tools we're using. I would ask for them - in the spirit of 'guiding my own development' - but we don't really have any internal process for that.

It also sounds like you're saying that if I lose my job it's my fault. It's not hard for me to notice that "more than 50 percent of today’s jobs will probably disappear or change radically within 10 years." They had to close down the break room and cafe because there aren't enough staff to keep it going any more. That's a lot of layoffs.

But because of this, if I'm going to do any learning on my own (which as you say is 90 percent of it) I'm not going to be doing any learning for this job. I'm getting ready for my next job. 

I mean, after all, you're telling me that companies like yours "need more agility, innovation and self-management from everyone" and that my "responsibilities shift as you move into and out of teams and as we call on you to support new strategies, customer groups and priorities." That's easy to say, but from my perspective, it's not like I can suddenly reinvent myself on a dime, you know. 

You hired me as an e-learning specialist, and over the years I've learned a lot more, but I'm not going to suddenly start doing medical research or developing alternative energy systems. It takes years to acquire these skills, and even to apply what I already have to these new domains is going to take some time. A company can 'pivot' but people can't, because we can't replace brain cells as rapidly as a company replaces employees.

And you're also going to have to accept the fact that as time goes by, my area of specialization will actually narrow. You said it yourself: "while in 1900 it took a century for human knowledge to double, today it takes about 2.5 years for engineering knowledge to double." But my personal knowledge is not going to double that quickly. 

It's like, when I started, I could develop entire websites, but then I have to leave Java websites to others, and now the best I can do is back-end development in Node. I still know a lot more than I did, but our field got so complex I can only manage a small part of it. You're going to have to adapt to that by hiring more people, but the message always seems to be 'do more with less'. But you can't run the corporate web site with the two-person team you had in 2010. 

Now you're telling me "IBM estimates that human knowledge will soon double every 12 hours" and that "the pressure is on for us to become ever more capable learners with increasing intelligence so we can use all this information-rich capability to make decisions about what to do now and in the future." My response is: come up with a better plan

After all, your work may be all about making decisions, but my work actually involves producing stuff. If you want me to keep up, you'll have to provide the tools and resources. Being a part of the VR team is great (and also mandatory, since there are no other funded projects) but it's not exactly like I can buy my own thousand-dollar Hololens and train myself. 

And - by the way - what happened to the whole idea of "guiding your own development" in all of this?  Most of what I'm learning seems to be focused on what the company needs to do to adapt and pivot. When we all need to get onboard and upskilled for the new design project, this is not exactly a case of self-directed learning (even if we do have to do it on our own time).

From where I sit, this whole discussion about learning reads to me like a one-sided conversation where you get more and more out of me, while at the same time giving me less and less. 

We know the job market has changed, and that we don't get to learn, then work, then retire. We know that "you have to keep learning just to keep up" and "jobs change as new information infiltrates work and customer needs evolve." We wish our pay and benefits would keep up to match these increasing requirements, but as you know, pay hasn't really progressed since the 1980s.

And we can't depend on being promoted. That doesn't happen any more. As you say, "your career doesn’t generally progress up the organization chart — for the chart is changing, replaced by a shifting array of teams and projects that are increasingly supported by technology platforms."

If anything, we can plan on our working conditions and pay packages getting worse. I mean, here you are, my employer, telling me that "you may be a contractor, self-employed, part of a service group that serves many organizations, a full or part-time producer, work for pay and as a volunteer," etc. etc. You sure make it hard to be loyal. Especially when - as you say - you're doing almost nothing to help me prepare for this.

I appreciate that you have offered some tips that will help me manage my own learning in the future, but in the spirit of honesty, given all the things you've just told me, you should know what I'm actually going to do. Because if there's any lesson I've learned about being a 21st century learner, it's to take care of myself before I take care of the company.

Seize daily learning opportunities. I know you're asking me to be on the lookout for ways to learn, including "with family and friends at home," and to "be curious before you take a stand," but what I'm actually do is carving out time from every work day,every project, in order to learn. When I tell you something will take ten hours to complete, what I actually mean is that I'm spending five hours reading websites on this and other stuff, a couple hours chatting with people, and maybe an hour or two actually working on the project. You seize opportunities your way, I seize my way.

Learn from the past. I know what what you're trying to say here is that I should be able to learn from failure, but I also know that you haven't exactly built a failure-tolerant organization. For important things - like leading a program, say - you get exactly one opportunity, and if you fail, that's it. We all know this, which is why we rarely take risks on our own projects. No, we look for opportunities to use other people's projects to try things that might not work out. And that's where we get our great stories about learning from.

Be the learning force in teams. Here's your advice: "at the launch of any team, ask everyone to share a learning goal and to commit to helping each other achieve these goals." Here's what happens: at the launch of the team, each person tries to get the team to do something different. We eventually split off, each of us doing our own thing, contributing (maybe) a little so we don't get kicked off the team.

I know, there are some people who really work hard contributing to teams, and who put the team's goals ahead of their own. I like and admire those people, and sometimes aspire to be one. But I've also noticed that they rarely get credit for their efforts, they tend to be passed over for more important work, and they certainly don't get elevated into higher-paying positions (if for no other reason that that their managers can't afford to lose them).

Have a SMART development plan for yourself as part of a society of learners. Actually, I've learned that the best way for me to learn is to help and teach others. Which is great! But I've also found that I need to share this well beyond the team or even the company. Not because I'm afraid other people will have the same skills I do, but because people outside the company are more likely to need useful skills. It's like, if I'm the only one in-house developing on the Electron platform, then I'm not going to improve my skills in Electron by teaching in-house, because nobody in-house wants to learn that.

What we in the company really need is more access to places where people from other companies are teaching people, but those are considered 'conferences' and thought of as non-productive work or vacations (even when we're taking them online at home!). Or 'special interest groups', which are treated as though they were our personal hobbies.

Develop your learning mindset and capabilities. I've read a lot about things like the 'growth mindset' and similar things over the years, but to me they're just fancy ways of blaming the individual if they're not able to learn on the job. My mindset has always been this: "One hand for the ship, one hand for the sailor." Yes, I'm willing "to experiment, to learn, to self-transform, to make real change happen in yourself and your environment," but not at the expense of my own safety and security.

I've learned how to learn over my career because I've had to. As you've said many times, my future with this company and other companies probably depends on it. And I've done it mostly on my own, since as you said you're not supporting 90 percent of my needs. But this also means that you don't own it, and that you as my employer don't automatically get to benefit from it (even though you obviously do).

In general, as an employee, it's hard for me to think of any of your advice about learning as anything but self-serving. You're not giving me this advice for my benefit, but for yours. You know that your company is more likely to flourish if its employees develop a strong learning culture. That's why it's so important to you to convince us to do that.

But because I'm an employee, I'm not in the business of doing charity work for you. If you believe you will benefit from our learning culture, you should be doing everything you can in a concrete and tangible way to support that, and not just prattling on about how important it is for us employees to prepare for a harsh and unfair future.

And by "a concrete and tangible way to support that" I don't just mean throwing mandatory training courses at us. That's just a way of avoiding taking any real responsibility for supporting learning. Concrete and tangible support actually does mean allowing us to manage our own learning, and also paying for the time and resources needed to support that. What does that mean? Well this will vary from person to person, workplace to workplace, but here's what it means to me:

- tools that support learning, even if they're not part of a current project. Right now I have to buy my own computer and my own unapproved software in order to develop my skills beyond what I can study in our locked-down software-limited computing environment. I also bought some translation software and paid my own conference registration because you "don't have the budget" to support this. Most people can't even afford to do this (and then you fire them, and blame it on them because they didn't keep up, and still expect loyalty from the rest of us).

- time to learn on my own. This varies depending on the industry, but in high-tech, where I work, I need to spend something half of each working day keeping up. Yes, you read that correctly; it is not a typo. And by 'time' what I mean is properly-coded time that is recognized as productive time, not time what will be scheduled 'if the workload allows' and will be grudgingly recognized as B-class time.

- connections inside and outside the organization. I'm not sure how common it is, but in our organization there's no way to send an all-staff message or communication of any kind. So how easy is it to ask for help or even to find out what's going on? Meanwhile, things like conferences, memberships, or special-interest groups are considered C-class time, because there's an actual non-program cost the company might have to pay.

- actions by the company that demonstrate this support. Like the way Shopify used to host community seminars and meetups open to the general public on topics like graph data analysis - stuff you won't find at the local night school but which is capturing the interests of those who earn their bread and butter developing things like this. Like the way some companies support local colleges and universities with panels, contests, internships, and other ventures. Or like the way some companies openly lobby for government-supported university education and adult learning programs.

A lot of people criticize Amazon, often fairly, but I also see them running online advertisements calling for a $15 minimum wage. That goes a long way with me.

Anyhow, as you say, "these and more are the practices that will help you learn whenever, wherever and with any resource. And they will ensure that you get the most out of the programs the company provides." Not simple because I'm "a conscious, competent and self-transforming learning partner at work." But because you get what you pay for.

Oh... I have to go - I'm getting a nasty look from the supervisor for reading email on the job. Thanks for listening.


   -- Stephen


Photo: Wipfli


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