It’s not all about the courses

jackiecameron Lifelong learning – it’s not all about the courses

Question 1 – How do you decide what you want to learn?

Sometimes the decision is easy. You might have started a new job or taken on a new role and need to bring your skills up to date or gain some new ones. Or it might be that there is a change in the law or regulation in the sector you work in that means that you have to update your knowledge. You might even want to take up a new hobby or improve on your creative skills.

Sometimes it’s a bit harder. Maybe you feel that you could be doing something better but you are not sure how to make that happen. Or feedback in a performance appraisal meeting brings up something you thought you were doing well enough but now somebody tells you that you are not.

The first port of call for any learning for many people is to look for a course, get approval for the spend, attend and participate, bring back the manual/handbook, put it on the shelf ….and forget all about it.

If you think this doesn’t apply to you take a look at any “course material” you have lying about and be honest about when you last looked at it. Maybe it wasn’t actually that useful (and therein lies another potential post) and maybe you learned all you needed to know on the day.

That’s not really the point here though. The question I would ask is:

Question 2
– How do you recognise what you have learned?

As I write this students all over Scotland are graduating. There are lists of names printed in the local press and photos of proud offspring and even prouder family members all over social media. No matter how it looks from the outside (despairing parents – you know what I mean!) every one of those students has had to work hard to get there. In my opinion it is a crucial time to celebrate a significant stepping stone to the next step on the long journey which starts with learning to walk and talk.

This also seems to be the time for people to step up and rain on their parade. Some folk say that gaining a degree is more about learning how to pass exams than learning a subject. Others comment that some topics are not serious enough for academic study or too serious and distant from what employers need and want right now. Everybody has a view.
But regardless of the structure, or lack of it, learning goes on.

And this brings me to Question 3 – How do you know how to do what you do?

If you think that what you do is nothing special it might be because you have learned to do it well and you have stopped valuing your skill or knowledge. In an world where there is often a focus on continuous improvement we find it hard to stop, take stock and be satisfied with how good we really are. That’s a pity because doing more of what we are good at can be very satisfying and reap huge rewards.

It can be hard to do without support though which is why my colleagues and I have been developing the Effective Manager programme at the Edinburgh Institute of Leadership and Management Practice at Edinburgh Napier University. This programme consists of nine full day subject practitioner-led workshops over about 12 months and the students are assessed in two stages: firstly they submit a plan of how they intend to apply something they learn in each workshop back in the workplace, to a real life business issue and fecondly they write a report on what happened when they did.

Their reports are always very interesting. Clearly we want to learn what happened when they tried out something new but very often they discover that they were already doing what they applied quite well and the process of reflecting shows them what else they could do to be even better.

We are rarely learning something completely from scratch, every step we took or word we spoke as babies has been built on since. If you stop to think about it each brand new skill you have gained will have been built on something you already knew how to do.

So why not take some time out to think about that for yourself. What are you good at? How did you learn to do it? How could you develop it further? What else could you add?

And, if you think you need a course by all means look for one but really think about how you will apply the learning from it, before you do, so you can take maximum advantage.

If you would like to learn more about the Effective Manager programme we are about to launch a monthly newsletter which will give a taster of the content and the journey for organisations that might consider it as part of their management development structure. If you would like to be added to the mailing list please email me:

Jackie Cameron is a regular contributor to the3rdimagazine.

3 Comments on It’s not all about the courses

  1. Anne Casey // July 2, 2013 at 7:05 pm // Reply

    I think that the issue of applying learning is an important one. All to often people do specific training without it always being clear about why it is being done. Often there is not the opportunity to immediately put it into practice and thereby embed the learning. To do the kind of follow-up that you do in the Effective Manager programme Jackie, sounds extremely useful.

  2. Good article Jackie and I agree wholeheartedly with Anne that unless learning is acted upon fairly soon after training it has a danger of becoming less embedded. Good on you for developing the Effective Manager programme.

    Another point you make is when people undervalue their own skills because they do it so well. There is also the issue of making a complicated process look easy because you are confident and proficient at it; others don’t see the process they just see the end result and assume that it required little skill. In other words their skills are being undervalued by others – but I think that is yet another post for a later date.

  3. Anne and Margot – thanks for your comments.

    Anne – oh so often the chance to try out what we have learned does not come up for a while and therein is the challenge as to how to hold onto and nurture the new learning until it does.

    Margot – soooo true. Just because someone makes it look easy does not mean that it did not take a lot of work to get to that stage. This is where I advocate speaking up about what being ( or becoming ) proficient entails so that others don’t take it for granted. Thanks for the prompt!

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