How managers learn: If you don't believe the 'experts', listen to your managers

This article was originally published in the July 2010 edition of Training Journal.

Written by Owen Ferguson
Published 24 September 2015
How managers learn: If you don't believe the 'experts', listen to your managers
One of the key trends over the couple of decades has been for learning professionals to get closer to their customers. So when we ask learning professionals and then managers about the most significant challenges those managers face and how they best learn to overcome them, we should get similar answers. Right? Maybe not.

According to two pieces of research conducted in the first quarter of this year highlighted an interesting disconnect between what learning professionals believed were effective ways of learning and what managers said were effective.

The CIPD's 2010 Learning and Talent Development survey polled 724 learning and development professionals about a range of subjects including which practices they believed were most effective, and where their organisational gaps were in leadership skills.

GoodPractice, meanwhile, commissioned ComRes to contact 200 managers and identify how they learn to do their job, and what they see as their major challenges. There were some areas of overlap between the two, but the most interesting aspects were the differences between the perceptions of managers and those of learning professionals.

What's effective?

Learning professionals reported in the CIPD survey that the most effective learning and talent development practices were in-house development programmes. Managers, on the other hand, said in the GoodPractice survey that the most effective development activities were informal chats with colleagues and on-the-job instruction. What accounts for this difference in perception? A simplistic interpretation would be to resort to cliche and claim that learning professionals were inward looking and obsessed with traditional learning methods.

However, the truth is that a more complex and interesting story lies behind the the findings of the two surveys. In addition, it highlights the opportunity for learning departments to exert more influence on the performance of individuals in their organisation. While similar, the two surveys asked slightly different kinds of questions. Managers were asked what they did when faced with an unfamiliar challenge. Learning professionals, on the other hand, were simply asked which approaches were more effective. Indeed, the CIPD survey doesn't offer informal conversations as an option as a response for its question. Even the concept of on-demand, or 'fingertip' learning isn't really on the agenda of most learning professionals.

The financial crisis means having to do more with less. Specifically, most learning departments are looking to spend less on expensive external programmes and replace them with more cost-effective internal programmes. It's little wonder that the focus of learning professionals is on their internally developed interventions. As it stands at the moment, informal learning is still a buzz word; a fad. It gets mentioned at conferences and in the blogs and articles of people working at the forefront of learning and development practice, but the truth is that it has yet to really find a place in the mainstream consciousness of the learning profession.

However, therein lies the danger. Managers are saying that they find informal methods more convenient and, crucially, often more useful than traditional learning methods. Organizations are always stressing the importance of listening to their customers. The same should also be true of the learning profession. Instead of asking ourselves what we think are more effective, we should be finding out from our customers what they think.

What are the challenges?

Another disconnect uncovered by these two surveys between the perceptions of learning professionals and managers is where the challenges facing the managers lie. The CIPD survey asked learning professionals where they had identified gaps in leadership skills. The top four skills where there were identified gaps in were:
  1. Performance management (71%)
  2. Leading and managing change (68%)
  3. Coaching/mentoring/developing staff (66%)
  4. Leading people and people management (64%)
The GoodPractice survey asked managers to rate a series of activities as very challenging, fairly challenging, straightforward, or easy. The activities rated as most challenging in this survey were.
  1. Managing change
  2. Maintaining work-life balance
  3. Influencing my peers and senior managers
  4. Managing projects
Just about the only skill/challenge that matches up here is change management. We're constantly bombarded with the message that the pace of change is the biggest challenge in today's workplace so this is hardly surprising.

What is surprising is that the biggest skills gap as far as learning professionals are concerned, performance management, only ranks is only number five on the list of managers' concerns. Developing people, the third most important skills gap identified by learning professionals, is seen as a distant eighth most pressing by managers.

There are a number of different explanations for this disconnect but there are two that seem most likely. The learning professionals are focusing on skills gaps based on a long term vision of where the organization is going while managers are focused on the challenges of here and now. This is definitely a possibility and the skill sets that are needed at any one point in time may not match up to the skill sets that are needed in the future. It's fine for learning professionals to be future-focused as long as they are giving managers the support they need in the present as well.

The managers aren't aware of their skills gaps because they're not being highlighted to them by their managers or anyone else. It's simply not possible for someone to work on improving an aspect of their performance if they're not aware that there is a gap there in the first place. So, 71% of learning professionals are saying there is an identified skills gap in how performance is managed in their organization but managers don't see that part of their job as a particular challenge. This might be because at a one-to-one level, between a manager and his or her line manager this isn't being discussed as a skills gap (ironically highlighting the problem still further). Learning professionals, along with their HR colleagues, are in a unique position to be able to see this issue objectively and highlight it to senior management. Whether this is being done, is in doubt because the perception of most managers is that this isn't a particular challenge at the moment.

The age thing

Much has been made recently of the differences between the most recent generation to come into the workforce, the Millennials, and those of older generations, Generation X and the Baby Boomers. A great deal being discussed in the pages of the newspapers and at conferences is hyperbole and exaggeration. The newest generation to come to work aren't cyborgs, living in symbiosis with their Facebook profiles. They're just a bit more savvy with the technologies they grew up with and exhibit exactly the same learning needs as any previous generation new to work.

This is especially true of those moving into management. If anything, the GoodPractice survey highlighted more similarities than differences and the areas where differences did exist can be explained by the natural need of those with less experience for more support as they start on their chosen career path. Just as junior doctors require more support than experienced consultants, less experienced managers are more likely to need support as they work to overcome challenges they haven't faced before.

According to the survey's results, less experienced managers participated in learning activities more frequently than experienced managers. This makes sense since they are more likely to come across unfamiliar challenges more frequently than experienced mangers. One area of difference that will not surprise many is the use of technology to help with workplace problems. Younger managers (in the 18-34 years age bracket) are more than twice as likely than older managers to use external or internal web resources to help them in their work. This trend is going to become more and more important as the demographic make up of the management population shifts.

The need for a more nuanced approach

The apparent discord between managers and learning professionals does not indicate that one group is right and the other group is wrong. Managers are likely to underestimate the impact of a course that they attended several months ago compared to a just-in-time intervention. Equally, learning professionals are likely to overestimate the impact of a course that they designed and possibly delivered, pouring weeks of their working life into.

However, it is clear that overall the two viewpoints are not aligned and this is something that should be addressed. The question is, what can be done to close the perception gap between the two groups in a way that balances their understandable biases? A first step towards a better shared understanding is for learning professionals to simply work hard at getting to really know the managers in their organization better.

The survey conducted by ComRes on behalf of GoodPractice wasn't difficult to construct and would be much easier to carry out within an organisation than it was externally. At the same time as this broader, more quantitative approach, a more traditional method is to work closely with senior managers to gain insights into the organization's key priorities and where they see the gaps.

A key caveat to doing this with senior management is to establish with them what their evidence is for highlighting those skills gaps and how well communicated what excellence looks like in that specific skill. A second approach is to embrace informal learning, since it clearly works for managers, and help it to flourish. One of the difficulties about this approach for many learning professionals is the very nature of informal learning. There is no course, no pre-determined learning outcome and there is no way of controlling or quality assuring the activity. These elements have been the cornerstone of what learning professionals have done for decades so breaking out of that habit calls for a real and significant change.

However, a growing body of evidence shows that people learn how to do their jobs mostly through informal means. It therefore becomes important that learning professionals start to understand this emerging trend so they can best help their customer base by influencing it in a way that makes informal activities easier and more likely to be successful.

Accept the reality and make it work for you

On an intellectual level, it may be a cause for concern that managers are getting most of their know-how of how to do their job through informal methods. After all, what if those who are being sought out for their knowledge, whether in person or over the internet, aren't necessarily the best people to be getting advice from?

In many ways, this doesn't matter. First of all, let's examine a scenario to identify the potential positive and negative outcomes of a manager learning how to deal with a specific challenge through an informal chat with a colleague (the case equally applies to the manager using an online resource of some description). Imagine that Tim is a relatively inexperienced manager charged with implementing part of a large change initiative. Unsure of exactly how to put his theoretical knowledge into practice he goes to Alexandra, a more experienced manager, for advice on how best to proceed. Alexandra gives Tim advice. So far, so straight forward. Here are the potential outcomes:

Outcome 1: Alexandra's advice is good and Tim gets good results. 
Outcome 2: Alexandra's advice is bad and Tim gets bad results. 
(We will, for the sake of convenience and lack of space, not deal with the exceptions where the advice is good and Tim gets bad results, and vice versa. If you think it through though, you'll see that these cases are dealt with in the long run). 

Outcome 1 is obviously the optimum outcome, the very best of informal learning in action. What happens then in this scenario when Tim next has a problem? It's more likely than not he would go to Alexandra for advice. What's more, he becomes an advocate for Alexandra, suggesting her as a useful person to speak to when one of his peers has an issue they need help with.

What about Outcome 2? The next time Tim has an unfamiliar challenge he needs to deal with he's much less likely to go to Alexandra and unlikely to recommend her as someone worth speaking to. He'll seek out an alternative source of advice, likely on the back of a recommendation. In this way the informal network system is self sustaining and will tend towards more positive outcomes as time goes on. We've all worked in organizations where the question 'Who should I go to for help with this?' has cropped up. And nine times out of ten, there's someone who knows someone who's regarded as an expert in that area. This system operates completely without any intervention of a learning professional so it would be quite acceptable to ask 'what on earth has this got to do with us'?

That's a powerful question that gets to the heart of where the profession is at the moment. Are we purely responsible for facilitating the formal learning that occurs in an organization or do we have a bigger role to play? Different organizations may choose to answer that questions in different ways but there's no doubt that those learning departments that chose to play a bigger role will have more influence on the overall performance of the organization. Step one of getting ahead and making a bigger difference is realising that you are not in control, but you can have an influence.

Working with the grain

Not every survey tells the whole story. Indeed, not every survey is at all accurate. Several surveys saying the same thing, however, begin to paint an accurate picture and all the evidence of recent years tells us two things:

1) Managers, and other professionals, learn most of what they do on a day-to-day basis informally.
2) Learning functions are still mostly focused on delivering courses in classroom type environments.

That difference in viewpoints in itself is a signal that there's an opportunity for learning professionals to do something different. We've all known for many years that 'telling ain't training'. Encouraging and environment where informal learning can flourish is the ultimate expression of facilitation.

About the author

Owen Ferguson

Owen Ferguson

Product and Technology Director
A self-confessed nerd, Owen is passionate about taking an evidence-led approach to developing digital products that solve real-world problems. He is also a regular on our weekly podcast.

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