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Four Keys to More Effective On-The-Job Learning

As an IT knowledge worker, you must continually develop and employ new skills. Developing an explicit strategy that incorporates learning into your day-to-day job can bring big benefits.

by Jim McGee


It’s a cliché that organizations must become learning organizations and that, as individual knowledge workers, we must constantly learn as well. Few of us have the luxury or inclination to go back to school, so learning needs to take place within the context of our day jobs. While formal training may be part of the answer, the more important element is to do a better job of learning on the job.

Most of our notions about how learning works involve incomplete and inaccurate memories of what happened inside classrooms. While we might acknowledge that real learning takes place on the job, we haven’t thought much about what that means or what we might do to make it more effective.

What we do know about learning is that we generally learn best by doing. Practice, rehearsal, and performance is where real lessons are learned. We learn near the edges of what we already know. Moreover, we learn more from failure than from success. Furthermore, access to someone with more knowledge helps, especially in keeping us safe from dangerous experiments and errors.

Given these characteristics of learning and the nature of our knowledge-work jobs, what can we do to craft a learning strategy that integrates the two and lets us perform effectively today and in the future? Mindfulness, time for active reflection, mapping your ignorance, and enlisting the social environment constitute the core elements.

Be Mindful

When we are expert at something, we have gone beyond the need to think about what we are doing. Practice and rehearsal let us perform without conscious thought. Learning requires a different mode of thought: one of mindfulness. When we are mindful, we are performing and paying attention to how we are performing at the same time. We need to learn how to cultivate mindfulness and develop perspective on when best to employ it.

Ellen Langer of Harvard University identifies three characteristics of mindfulness and mindful learning: "the continuous creation of new categories, openness to new information, and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective." Another way to think of learning mindfully is to view it as putting the basics of scientific method—hypotheses, experiment, data collection, and interpretation—into action.

Take Time to Reflect

The late Donald Schon of MIT was one of the earliest to study organizational learning. His work focused on the role of reflection in knowledge work which, in many ways, is a synonym for mindfulness. Schon identified how effective knowledge workers, from architects to executives, used reflection to build better "theories of action." Reflection is a key tool for examining links between actions and outcomes, particularly when those outcomes are either better or worse than expected.

The U.S. Army has innovated in this arena by creating techniques and cultural norms of conducting After Action Reviews (AAR). An AAR is a "time out" from the action to ask three key questions:

  • What just happened?
  • How did that differ from what we were expecting?
  • What does that suggest we do differently next time?

An AAR can take five minutes as a "process check" at the end of a meeting or a day-long workshop after a major project milestone or event. The key is to take the time as an investment in ongoing performance improvement.

Map Your Ignorance

New learning always connects to something we already know. Much like building a brick wall, new learning needs to connect to what we already know. It is nearly impossible to learn something totally new to us. Trying to keep track of everything you know isn’t very helpful, but developing a sense for the edges of your knowledge will highlight the places where you can get the greatest return on your learning time.

This can be as simple as a running list of open questions and stuff to read or as complex as a personal curriculum map of developmental areas you are working on. Whatever approach you choose, focus on areas where you know just enough to be uncomfortable.

Enlist Your Social Environment

For all the limits of conventional schools, they have one important characteristic worth emulating; they are social environments where learning is valued. They are places where it is safe to not know; where you can seek help from those who know more than you and from those who are working through similar learning struggles.

If you hope to succeed in learning within your work environment, you need to find or create a similar environment. How hard that will be depends on the culture of the organization, but informal efforts to assemble a small group of like-minded learners should succeed anywhere.

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