Prioritising and empowering lifelong learning

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In a world where doing business and career choices are ever evolving, 2MPy’s Clare B Marshall considers why investment in learning and development should take priority for both individuals and businesses.

Collaboration and creativity can go a long way, whether in business, college or life in general. But how does this translate to people performance in the workplace and the ability of individuals and teams, and therefore business, to thrive and develop? Should it involve business-wide investment, or simply rely on an individual’s desire for growth?

Nature versus nurture

The motivation for learning and personal development often derives from the individual – their technical qualifications, their own career ambitions, their curiosity and appetite for learning.
In some countries, regulations exist to make provision for employees to ensure investment in learning and development. This includes comprehensive training options and rigorous appraisal frameworks to ensure continuous professional development, technical proficiency and, where appropriate, compliance in specialist fields of work. These mandatory tools enable learning, but they do not exist everywhere.

With or without a regulatory stick (or carrot), many organisations wish to make the right choices about investment in learning and development. Increasingly, funds are ring-fenced, enabling targeted investment in development programmes across all grades and levels of seniority.

We are all familiar with the adage, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. Some people are naturally more inclined than others to be proactive about learning and will take their ideas to their employer and steer their own progression. Some may sit on the fence. Others may need access to tools to help craft their learning journey.

A lifetime of learning

Many professionals recognise that their path to learning must be lifelong and involve a variety of skills and experience. Much of this learning and knowledge will come from formal ‘classroom-based’ teaching or ‘in work’ training programmes. Whilst these provide objective-led, tailored opportunities, conventional training can sometimes be counter-productive, restrictive or present challenges (where neurodevelopmental needs and learning preferences exist).

Much like running a business, routes to learning need to be fluid, diverse and dynamic, and move with the times.

In a period where artificial intelligence is (rapidly) competing with human intelligence, we need to accelerate and adapt our response. This includes in the approach to learning and development – where we already see the polarising impacts of AI.

The practicalities of learning

I’m a firm believer that you don’t have to be sat behind a desk all day, or in a classroom, to learn new things. A quick conversation in a lift with a colleague, observing the body language of a peer in a difficult meeting or engaging with a team on a new project to listen and share ideas. All these examples bring new experiences, keep us alert and provide value and opportunity for personal growth.

Learning which involves – indeed relies on – the two-way power of human dynamics rather than machine, slide deck or textbook.

As the recently appointed discipline head for risk at the FIDIC Academy, this has presented an opportunity to consider a balance between curriculum-based, structured learning and collaborative knowledge sharing, industry know-how and best practice. By combining these elements, the training materials and a more rounded curriculum can evolve.

Coaching and mentoring programmes also offer professional, technical and strategic enrichment. Far-reaching and diverse, mentors can range from those providing on-the-job technical guidance, to others asking challenging questions about future career aspirations. And mentoring shouldn’t always be seen as ‘top down’. Equally effective is where senior management are the recipients of mentoring from more junior staff.

Whilst some such programmes are formalised, there are also more organic routes. A coffee with a likeminded colleague or role model can naturally evolve into a regular opportunity to discuss and share new ideas, challenges, professional obstacles or development objectives. But it’s important to set some ground rules and parameters at the outset, no matter how formal or informal the arrangement. For example, are certain topics ‘off-limits’ and how much challenge do you wish to receive? For the coach or mentor, strong listening skills, along with empathy and the ability to constructively challenge, are a prerequisite. A healthy degree of two-way push and challenge for all parties is essential to gain the most from the experience. The same can be true of more formal, class-room style learning.

Whatever the method of learning and development, understanding the impacts of cause and effect provides lasting lessons, with hands-on experience one of the best ways of achieving this. Setting at least one target or focus; something to put into practice – whether writing a list of key achievements and unique offerings to help identify the next stage of career, to practising a technique to be adopted in a challenging negotiation, can see immediate benefits.

Dovetailing human and machine learning

Engineering is a sector which has spearheaded hands-on training with lifelong learning – and investment in technology. Some of the world’s largest infrastructure projects are years in the making with project team members’ skills and experience growing, and technology advancing, throughout the lifecycle of the project.

Major projects continue to present a rich learning environment, both for individual and team.
Whether or not with a ‘mega’ project as a backdrop, this is more important than ever in a period where human resources are stretched and technology continues to advance at pace. The ability to transfer or acquire new skills, supported by technology, is essential when looking to spread skill and resource in response to demand, industry growth and new market opportunities.

Learning new skills as a team can be a highly effective approach. Ranging from reflective conversations where important insights are shared and learnings discussed (on-the-hoof), to ‘lunch and learn’ and team learning and development sessions open to all.

Activities such as these enable cross-fertilisation of ideas and new perspectives, whether in-person or on video across multi-office, remote and hybrid teams.

Inspired people sustain business

Whatever the working environment or level of seniority, nurturing high-performing teams and individuals requires a clear framework. A balance is needed between personal challenge and self-sufficiency on the one hand and concrete support on the other.

This requires investment in all its forms. Provisioning for learning is not only good risk management. By doing so, businesses help to reward, rejuvenate and encourage highly motivated individuals and teams. And by empowering life-long learning, a dynamic and buoyant approach to continuing development can thrive in the workplace.

Clare B Marshall is a partner at business consultancy 2MPy (www.2mpy.com) and discipline head for risk at the FIDIC Academy.