Are You Creating the Right Social Conditions for Learning?

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Your company spends thousands of dollars a year paying for professional development for your employees. Your managers spend countless hours coaching and creating mentoring relationships within the workforce. Each project has a particular folder in which to store ‘lessons learned’ and ‘evaluations.’

Yet for all of these activities, are your employees actually learning?

Learning is a change in behaviors and skills that reflects better practices. It’s incorporating and using knowledge in a situation or for a problem. Learning is knowing something, applying it, and extrapolating the results to improve on the next request. It’s as much of an iterative process as a try/fail process, and it’s certainly about exploiting those a-ha moments where creativity strikes out of the blue.

However, there are several significant obstacles to learning:

  • The false belief that data collection alone is learning
  • Over reliance on technology
  • Team members aren’t motivated to apply new learning
  • Team members suffer from change fatigue
  • Conflict
  • Lack of support from company leadership

Data collection alone is not learning

Many companies and teams have systems in place to collect information, and they think these mechanisms equal learning. They do not.

Data collection is an integral part of gathering intelligence and getting baseline results. However, if the data is not analyzed, put into context, challenged, interpreted, and discussed, employees consuming the data likely will not derive any higher meaning. Without context, information is merely a spreadsheet, a questionnaire or a log.

For learning to take place the framework and impact of the interactions must be placed into a bigger picture. Why would an employee make the effort to improve their abilities if they don’t see how sharpening those skills can be applied to work? Context is king.

Companies can over rely on technology

Now, we absolutely need technology. I’m not suggesting we go back to using typewriters. Nor am I suggesting that companies not explore new technology solutions. But many companies fall into the trap of depending on technology to solve their problems when in fact it’s employees that solve problems. Technology contributes to the solution, but ultimately it comes down to how employees use, develop, and adapt the technology to meet company-specific issues.

No technology purchase will be 100% tailored to your company. If you tackle a problem thinking that a box or a gadget will solve everything, you’re neglecting the human side of the employees interaction with technology.

Technology is a tool. Employees are the solution. Therefore, employees need to learn how to use and adapt the tools at their disposal to create a solution.

Team members have no opportunity to apply what they’ve learned

The following scenarios may be familiar: Well-meaning managers bring in experts to teach something. Or, companies pay for their employees to attend a particularly well-known or reputable course. The employees apply themselves and want to practice their new skills, but once they go back to work, there are few if any opportunities for them to do so. If there are opportunities, there is little to no support as they try out their new skills and strategies.

Almost all employees are willing to learn if they can see the direct benefit of the knowledge, have opportunities to apply it, and are supported to change their behaviors. In fact, people learn best when they can directly apply the knowledge.

Team members aren’t motivated because of change fatigue

Let’s face it, change isn’t always easy. If you’ve been doing something for 10 years and a three-hour seminar tells you to do it in a completely different way that goes against your experience and understanding of your job, you’re not likely to change.

But if as the employee you understand how the change will improve things for you, make your job more interesting, give you options for pay increases and perks, that motivates. If the new method helps the company, creates a more exciting product, reduces your stress, that encourages you even more. If sharper skills will make work more rewarding because you can pour more of yourself into it, that really motivates.

Essentially, help employees understand why they’re learning something. Likewise, understand what motivates each employee to learn at a particular stage in their career. Help them understand how applying their new skills will feed into their incentives, and make sure to create a system and a culture that encourages personal and professional development.


It’s hard to learn when people are at each other’s throats. Information sharing? Not likely. Cooperation? Nope. Probably not going to happen. After all, where’s the incentive? In a conflict-ridden environment employees likely will spend more time surviving the day than engaging and learning.

Conflicts can happen between individuals, within a team, between teams, between departments and in some extreme cases, the entire organization can’t seem to behave in spite of itself. Address the conflicts first to create space for communication and civil interactions because conflict drains enthusiasm for learning.

Company leadership inadvertently becomes a barrier

Employees won’t want to learn and apply what they’ve learned if they receive social cues from leaders that learning isn’t necessary. If organizational leadership – from the shop floor to the C-suite – views the company as static and there’s no interest in education, few if any employees will bother to sharpen their skills, share information, or apply lessons learned. Learning is as much a corporate responsibility as it is an individual one.

While there are many learning habits for individuals, we cannot forget that learning occurs in an environment that promotes and nurtures it. Yes, individuals need to take responsibility for their careers and work on their own professional development. But the same must be said for companies. Businesses must remove any significant barriers to learning to create environments in which their employees thrive.