Pardon the Interruption

Author: Ashley St. John
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Mike Prokopeak
Mike Prokopeak is vice president and editor in chief at Chief Learning Officer magazine.

Here’s a fun experiment. Pick someone at work — preferably a person with a looming deadline or even better someone heading up a big project. Ask if they’ve got a couple of hours for training.

If you’re lucky, you walk away with all your body parts intact. The reality is even people in less stressful positions wouldn’t look favorably on that same request.

As should be expected, learning professionals spend a lot of time on learning. They talk to people about it, research it, test it, implement it, measure the results of it, and then talk to people some more about it.

The average worker? Not so much. To them, learning is more often an inconvenience. Most simply struggle to find the time to get their job done any given day. Studies comparing workers to their counterparts a couple of decades ago find today’s worker bees putting in significantly more hours at the hive. It’s not lack of interest or desire to learn that’s the problem. There’s simply not enough time.

That’s one reason just-in-time learning and learning at the moment of need have become so popular. It’s why learning experience platforms have become the technology du jour. Few workers have time to cast about for the information they need to get the job done. They want their learning organizations and the technology they use to anticipate their needs, not just respond to them.

But despite that progress learning at work remains an imposition for too many, an interruption to the regular flow to be tolerated at best or mocked at worst. Learning professionals only have themselves to blame for this state of affairs.

Workers up and down the organization weigh the opportunity costs of their time constantly. Helping a co-worker with their project means less time to accomplish your own tasks. Attending that mandatory all-hands meeting subtracts a precious hour from a limited daily balance. Once an hour is gone, it doesn’t come back. That makes the opportunity cost for learning seem high. Time away is less time to plow through that ever-expanding to-do list.

The cost of learning may be high but the cost of not doing it is much higher. Think of a cohort of newly promoted leaders unprepared to take on the demands of managing a team. Think of the company that fails to anticipate the skills needed to compete in the future.

Whether they’re planned for or not, the lessons will come. Learning can be impolite that way. While you’re debating whether or not to open the door, it comes barging in. It’s inevitable. We can’t help but learn. The question is how uncomfortable the lesson will be.

Failing to invest in development — and a learning function to carry it out effectively — is a surefire way to make it as painful as possible. But having a learning function is no panacea either.

The challenge is to make learning a seamless part of the job. It’s hard work but it’s not complicated. After all, modern work is learning — collaborative, iterative and ever-changing. Technology can personalize learning and connect workers to each other.

But even with the best technology and experience, there’s still a time when you’re going to ask people to take time away from the job. It could be as headline-grabbing as Starbucks shuttering all its stores to deliver training on unconscious bias. Or it could be as quiet as asking a young employee to step back from a critical project for a couple days to develop their leadership philosophy so when they’re called to lead they’re ready for it.

Either way, when you make that call it requires credibility. The employee needs to know you’re not going to waste their time. Their boss needs to see that the benefits outweigh the cost of not having them there. If you’ve calculated right, they’ll willingly give the time. You can interrupt them, be inconvenient and even impolite and they’ll still listen. You have their confidence.

Think back to that earlier scenario. How would your co-worker react to a request for their time? Dismay? Curiosity? Excitement? If you’re in doubt, it’s a good time to reevaluate the opportunity cost of your learning programs.

It’s an inconvenient but essential interruption to your work.

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