There’s certainly no disputing that 2020 was a disruptive year – and not in the good, ‘groundbreaking-innovation-that-adds-value’ kind of way. More in the ‘turbulent, disorderly, uncertain’ meaning of the overused word:
- Sudden pandemic-induced restrictions sparked existential fear and economic confusion
- Mother Nature’s righteous fury showcased herself with a record-shattering hurricane season, raging wildfires, major earthquakes, widespread drought and flooding events
- Political, racial and social justice upheavals heightened needed awareness, yet also stirred controversies and fueled division
- On the best of days, we were meeting by screen instead of face-to-face and glued to the news, and; on the worst, doom-scrolling on our devices – sadness, anxiety and overload piled atop loneliness and isolation
It was a year when the earth shifted underneath our feet – when our everyday routines were upended, professionally, personally, socially and physically – with no end in sight.
Had we been warned we were facing so many stark, simultaneous changes, most of us might have pushed back, freaked out or panicked, swearing that it couldn’t be done.
So, with so many obstacles thrown our way, how did we ever make it through?
Here’s my theory:
At a time when all the conditions were wrong, all the conditions were right, for learning.
Because the changes were sudden, immediate and universal. We were, unavoidably, all in it together. We supported and accommodated each other because, really, what other choice did we have? We found and experimented with new tools, figured out how to use them collaboratively, and learned and adapted as we went along. Teams became stronger and more focused. Everything was different, but we made it work.
As it turns out, humans are designed for learning, even (and sometimes especially) under less-than-ideal conditions.
Our brains are programmed to learn new information, determine its usefulness, and integrate it into our plans and actions. We love to learn! Not just at work, or when we’re being “taught,” but always and at every age.
That’s how babies come to identify objects, acquire language, and develop social skills. It’s why we take up new hobbies or converse with interesting people or travel to new destinations. Humans hunger to learn, and we profit from our experiences.
Too often, though, learning tools don’t seem to be designed for humans, at least not the way humans naturally learn.
Traditionally, we associate learning with prescribed instruction and focused study. In the workplace, we offer (or mandate) classes, courses, seminars and think tanks. We track and test progress. We measure speed and productivity. We assess and analyze and review and reward…
In other words, we take all the initiative and enjoyment out of learning and turn it into an intimidating chore. This stresses and distresses humans. And it impedes actual learning.
So, what’s a better approach?
We can begin by taking a few lessons from the practice of mindfulness.
Mindful.org defines mindfulness as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” According to psychologist, author, educator and researcher Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D, writing in Psychology Today, the operational and scientific definition of mindfulness is “the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.”
What does mindfulness have to do with workplace learning? As it turns out, just about everything.
Humans, of all learning styles, learn by discovering and taking in chunks of knowledge that are applicable to the task at hand. Instead of force-feeding training to workers, it’s more effective to give them the right tools to find and absorb the information they need, when, how and where it’s needed. Learning comes in so many different forms – formal and informal, planned and spontaneous = coaching, mentoring, assignments, as well as traditional coursework.
Well-designed learning technologies ensure that the tools employees need to be successful are always appropriate, accessible and retrievable in the moment.
Employees given the agency to reach out in real time for relevant information are free to activate their natural curiosity. The discovery pathway builds interest and enhances concentration, the reveal provides validation, and implementing the solution successfully boosts confidence and builds pride and pleasure in the achievement.
When learning becomes rewarding, motivation and satisfaction increase. When newly acquired skills are put into immediate practice, retention improves.
The need for agency and access is at the core of a strategic partnership between SAP and Microsoft, which just announced plans to integrate Teams with a range of SAP applications, including S/4HANA enterprise resource planning, SuccessFactors HXM and Sales Cloud. As many of our customers now rely on Microsoft solutions to support collaboration across the business, we offer two new integrations that bring together SAP SuccessFactors Learning and Microsoft technologies that will make learning accessible when, where and how individuals prefer. As the workplace becomes increasingly virtual, the two companies in a joint statement say they are “determining the future of work and enabling the frictionless enterprise.” The integrations are set to be delivered in mid-2021.
In ComputerWorld, Gartner Research Director Larry Cannell called the planned collaborative interface “the next level of maturity for Teams,” and “enables workgroups to interact with the applications together; they can discuss, respond and learn from each other within a group context.”
Soaking up knowledge is naturally fun and fulfilling. That’s just how humans are built. In this particular moment, intelligent enterprises would be wise to take note, eliminate the obstacles, and go with the flow.
Previously published on forbes.com, February 2021.