Learning to Learn: The First Lesson

We can say that Muad’Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It is shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult.

ó Frank Herbert, Dune

This quote from the well-known science fiction novel Dune underscores the difficulty anyone in the recruiting, human resources, corporate university, education, or training fields has to face. Very few of us have ever learned to learn, and most of us live in fear of learning. This fear has roots in embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of ridicule, our society’s worship of “book” learning over experiential learning, and many other fears. Children have the wonderful gift of total trust that they can, through interaction with their environment, learn. They experiment, test, challenge, and in the process, learn. Their natural curiosity and excitement over piecing together the world as they discover it is a wonderful thing to witness. But somehow, as we go through our formal schooling, that innate belief in our own ability to learn, and most of our curiosity, is taken from us. Trainers and recruiters seem to be particularly vulnerable to resisting change and to refusing to learn new approaches and ways of thinking. Our organizations reflect us as well. Only a few are true learning organizations ó organizations that can invent the future and do so regularly. Learning individuals and organizations are open to the future; they explore and experiment with new approaches; and they integrate brand, rewards, people attraction, and people development. They usually have strong brands (personal or organizational). Tom Peters has published a book on developing a personal brand called, The Brand You 50 that explores how you can move from “employee” to “a brand.” He shows how you can create a personal brand by exploring your strengths and learning how to re-think assumptions we make about ourselves. Learning individuals also explore new opportunities and keep open minds. Some organizations excel at dealing with change and make a virtue of constant experimentation and exploration. These organizations create product brands and then use that brand to leverage recruiting, development, and retention. One that comes to mind is Apple. It remains youthful and exciting, attracting and keeping great people, even now that it is into middle age. It has programmed into itself the ability to take risks, be bold, and go where others are afraid to go. It has built a strong recruiting brand, generated from a powerful product brand that sings youth, innovation and “cool.” I was in a very ordinary small Starbucks store a few days ago, thinking about this article and sipping a coffee. As I watched the store in operation I was impressed by three things:

  1. The employees seemed to have above-average education levels for the frontline sales positions they held.
  2. They knew the products and sales of each product and were able to influence customer’s buying decisions based on that knowledge.
  3. They were really, really happy.

In talking with them, I saw the power of a strong brand tied to recruiting and development. The Starbucks brand attracts the kind of employee that is knowledgeable and motivated. They have developed a reward structure that is appropriate, and a recruiting structure that selects people who fit their brand. They encourage experimentation, and a number of their most popular beverages were suggested and invented by employees. They promote people to store managers based on their fit, performance, and innovation. Enterprise Rent-a-Car and Ikea are also organizations that exhibit this ability to intertwine brand, experimentation, and exploration with good people selection and development. They are constantly adapting to and inventing the future, which is the definition of a learning organization. I have just published a book on corporate universities called The Corporate University Workbook: Launching the 21st Century Learning Organization. In this book and in its associated blog, I continue to explore how we as recruiters, educators, or HR professionals can help turn our organizations into learning organizations and make a real difference in how our organizations attract, hire, and develop the right kinds of people. I encourage you to read the blog and add your comments. But at the same time I am encouraging all of us ó whether we are recruiters, organizational development professionals, or corporate university and education leaders ó to try and better understand why some firms become learning organizations and why others don’t. Until we have a very good understanding of how to teach a person (or an organization) to learn ó which is, as Herbert says, the first lesson of all ó we will not be able to forge ahead as quickly as I think we need to.

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Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.

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2 Comments on “Learning to Learn: The First Lesson

  1. Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily. ~Thomas Szasz

    The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ~Alvin Toffler

    That’s what they said on the subject..

  2. Some firms are learning organizations because they are targeting employees who have continuous learning as a competency. It’s in their background somewhere, maybe they taught themselves how to crotchet, fly fish, cook, play a musical instrument….it’s in their background if you look hard enough for it.

    These same firms will then take the very key step of nurturing continuous learning as a behavior. When the employee learns something new it is reinforced through celebration, a verbal ‘good job that’s what we are looking for’ and even failed attempts to learn if a sincere effort has been made are praised. This leads to those who display the behavior repeating it and those who are on the fence seeing the benefit or ‘What in it for me.’ value proposition.

    Best regards,

    Russ Moon,CIR,CDR

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