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Taking responsibility for our own learning.

By Sally Fagan
of JS Training.

Anyone remember the days when people had a job for life? The company you were with was relied upon to give regular promotions, regular salary increases, regular bonuses and any training that you required.

Whatever happened to these 'good old days'? Certainly for those that craved security, this was a good life and had a lot going for it. The world of work has now changed beyond recognition. Losing your job for example, no longer carries the same social stigma, even though some find it a worrying time. Some recruitment agencies now even regard it as a 'positive' on your CV rather than a negative. Nowadays companies, when squeezed, will often cut down on training and marketing, because these are frequently the areas that soak up money without showing an immediate return. Even as far back as the eighties, I worked for a company that was happy to fund any vocational training for me, but when management courses came up at their training college, it was always 'next time it will be your turn' and, guess what, the next time never came. After nearly six years with them as a graduate, I never once made it to their management training college.

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I was not happy with this situation and changed jobs to get the management training I wanted. Guess what? The new company promised much and delivered nothing. If only I knew then what I know now. The truth is that I actually received a great deal of management training, I just didn't recognise it at the time. What is more, I probably had so many opportunities, which I failed to capitalise on. Why? Because I hadn't taken responsibility for my own learning. I blamed circumstances, I blamed the company I worked for, but I didn't stop to think about what I was learning, and how I could learn more.

Taking responsibility for our own learning, does not mean that the company that we work for can abdicate from any responsibility. It does mean that the company has shifted its role from one of provider of training to facilitator of learning and development. One of the first things that we have to realise is that learning and development are not necessarily the same thing as training. You might like to think of development as a six stage process.

  1. Unaware: At this stage you know that a skill might be of use to you but you don't know anything about it.
  2. Aware: At this point you are learning the theory of the skill, perhaps going on a training course or reading a book on it.
  3. Informed: Now you are ready to look for suitable opportunities to put this into practice, but it will take conscious effort to use the new skill.
  4. Capable: You are now using the new skill routinely, and are consciously aiming to improve by other methods such as role modelling others.
  5. Recognised: The people around you recognise the change in skill level and you are now so practised that the skill has moved from your conscious level to the subconscious.
  6. Guru: Your skill is now so well known that others hail you as the expert.

(© Fagan & Bint 1995)

There are three specific points that I would like to draw out of this model. Firstly, when we go on a training course, we are only on level 2 and that's not where most of us want to stay with our skill levels. At level 2 we are really still only at the start of our journey. Secondly, we don't need to be gurus in everything we need to do. As a sales manager for example, you might only need to be at level four in understanding finance - the Finance Manager is the one that needs to be at guru level. Finally it is the practice that makes perfect, not the training course.

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By recognising these stages of development, we can see how both the individual and the company can play its part. Going back to my frustrations after leaving university, I still regarded going on training courses as the 'be all and end all' of my development. Looking back on what I learned, I gained valuable knowledge from the colleagues around me. I was subconsciously role modelling my sales manager, who was coaching me all the time to be better, although we never put that label on it. Through the company, I became an adviser for the Young Enterprise scheme. It cost the company nothing, it cost me some time in the evenings, but the learning was invaluable, although I regarded it as a pastime rather than a development opportunity. The company also allowed me time out to become an adviser and then a Chairman for the Challenge of Industry seminars run in school sixth forms by the Industrial Society. I probably learned as much about motivation, leadership, teambuilding, communication skills, presentation skills and trade unions as ever I would have done in a course at the company training college - and it cost nothing apart from my time. If someone had sat down with me at the beginning of my career, and we had mapped out what I wanted to learn and how I was going to learn it, I believe I would have viewed these learning experiences entirely differently. Learning encompasses training courses, yes, but also aspects such as coaching, mentoring, role-modelling, experimenting and most importantly, conscious practising. Taking those first steps to putting new skills into practice are vital, as well as working out ways in which to work on those skills to get them to higher levels of excellence.

The retention of knowledge after a training course is notoriously low, so that a month afterwards the most that many people can recall is whether or not the lunch was good. Line managers can play a vital role here in improving these statistics, discussing what learning took place, what skills were learned and how they can be practised. Most importantly, they need to make space and opportunities for practice to happen. The responsibility of the employee, at any level, would be to make sure they find the opportunities to practise their skills. If the company can't (or won't) allow them to attend the training that they have planned for themselves, then they may have to be more creative in obtaining it for themselves.

There are many types of learning opportunities in the wider community that we are just not recognising. If you want to learn how to chair meetings for example, then join a local society or professional institute and look to becoming the President or Chairman. This will not only give you opportunities in a safe environment (they can't sack you!) but will give you practice in a wide range of skills, not only chairing meeting, but also leadership, teambuilding, project management, motivating others, to name a few. Treat it like a challenge to your learning, not as a time-consuming matter that you took on because no-one else wanted to do it. If you want to improve your communication skills, then your own family may be an excellent place to start, experiment, reflect and improve.

Reflection on learning experiences is also crucial to taking responsibility for our own learning so that we have a basis for planned improvement. A good Personal Development Plan will provide for not only the plan itself but also a 'learning log' whereby reflection can take place and form the basis to update the plan. Again, Sales Managers can play a crucial role here in regularly reflecting on learning experiences with those that report into them.

The responsibilities of the employee and the company can therefore be summarised as:

Employee's responsibilities
  • Have a career goal and work out what your needs are to reach that goal.
  • Have an up-to-date development plan that covers both your personal and company objectives.
  • Only request relevant training and development opportunities from your company.
  • Look for development opportunities outside the company.
  • Positive attitude.
  • Put aside time for own development and reflection on learning experiences.
Manager's responsibilities
  • Open mind.
  • Willingness to delegate tasks (including the interesting ones!) to provide learning opportunities.
  • Time for coaching, mentoring and reflecting on learning experiences.
  • Knowledge of career opportunities for those who report to you (nationally and internationally).
  • Budget / Support for training and development in appropriate skills.
  • Genuine concern for employee's development.
  • Support for relevant voluntary work.

A Sales Manager is of course both an employee and a manager and should therefore be looking to take on both sets of responsibilities. A Personal Development Plan does involve a certain amount of discipline and paperwork, but as the role model for your team you will reap dividends by setting the example of taking responsibility for your learning. Frank discussions with each of your team on their individual plans, what and how they need to learn and what their best career route might be, should give you individuals on your team who are happy with where they are now, where they can go and the stages to get there.

As Winston Churchill once said "The price of greatness is responsibility."

For more details of how to develop responsibility for your own learning and to encourage it in your team, contact Sally Fagan of JS Training.

About the author

Sally Fagan has over 20 years professional experience in Culture and Language, Export Sales Management and Consultancy Training, and has trained executives in Australasia, Europe and the USA. She now specialises in interpersonal skills and is a certified user of personality profiling.

Whilst living in Singapore, Sally became a recognised consultant for the national People Developer Award and back in the UK, has trained in the Investor in People scheme. Some of her major clients are pharmaceutical companies. Sally is a fellow of the Institute of Administrative Management and a founder member of the Institute of Leadership.

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