Uncovering the learning habits of leaders and managers

Find out more about our latest research into the learning habits of managers.

Written by Owen Ferguson
Published 24 September 2015
Uncovering the learning habits of leaders and managers

When were you last faced with an unfamiliar challenge? What did you do?

Those are different questions to "How do you like to learn?" or "How do you learn most effectively?" Far more practical, focused on in-the-moment, driven by what actually happens rather than what would be ideal.

And they formed the basis of our latest research into the learning habits of managers. Previously, we commissioned a survey by ComRes that resulted in the report 'How Managers Learn'. That was a piece of quantitative research which resulted in some interesting questions and challenges for L&D professionals.

This time around, we were keen on doing a more in-depth, qualitative piece of research that would help our product development, but also explore some of the same issues in more detail. In particular, we wanted to delve into:

  • the main challenges managers face in the course of their jobs, and

  • where managers go for support when faced with unfamiliar challenges

Along the way, we uncovered how organisational intranets, formal courses and external resources are used and perceived, and learned some useful lessons that internal L&D departments can apply to their learning needs analyses.

These are not the opinions you are looking for

One thing we are not short of in the L&D profession is surveys. Probably the most familiar of these is the 'Learning and Talent Development Survey' from the CIPD. In the most recent CIPD survey, 766 learning and talent development specialists responded to questions like "Which three learning and development practices do you believe are most effective?". There are many other surveys of a similar nature and they provide some useful background information.

However, if we look at the survey questions in a bit more detail, we can see some problems with relying on them to make decisions.

"Which three learning and development practices do you believe are most effective?"

The "you" in the question is the learning professional. Most of whom will have a background of delivering face-to-face learning interventions. Given that information, which practice would you guess came out top? If you guessed "in-house development programmes", then you'd be correct. This isn't any fault of the respondents - it's a natural, human instinct to attribute our own actions with more significance than perhaps they are due.

There is a plethora of surveys asking and showing the same thing. What we felt was missing was something that focused on the learners - the people doing their jobs, facing challenges and needing to learn how to handle them.

The second problem with that question is the word 'believe' It strikes to the heart of why the learning profession needs to go through a similar transformation to that which medicine went through in the 70s. If it's important, we should be relying on evidence, not belief.

So, we constructed the research process to focus on the learners and remove bias as much as possible. We didn't ask leading questions, interviews were transcripted and two people independently coded the statements made by the participants. Details of the research methodology are included as part of the report.

The findings

The report was written by Stef Scott, one of our editors, and she has done a wonderful job of picking out the key findings of the research and presenting them in an easy-to-read format, without skimping on the detail.

In very broad terms, managers indicated a strong preference for informal learning methods, with support from peers, senior managers and internal experts cited particularly strongly.

The top five most frequently mentioned management challenges were having difficult conversations, managing performance, coaching/training, dealing with resistance to change and the management of remote teams.

However, the findings were more nuanced than they appear when presented in such stark terms. For example, although not mentioned as frequently as informal methods, managers still had positive things to say about the usefulness of formal learning interventions. The report highlights that it is not a case of either/or but what balance of focus is needed from the learning function.

A caveat

This report is the result of our desire to carry out a more qualitative piece of research to augment information from our previous research and regular user data. However, a qualitative approach with a relatively small sample size can only indicate areas that are worthy of further investigation. The findings of the GoodPractice Insights report should be taken alongside the findings from the 'How Managers Learn' and 'The Challenges of Being a Manager' reports to get a more balanced picture of managers learning needs and habits.

Taking it into your own organisation

The methodology we used to produce the GoodPractice Insights report is one that can be used by any internal L&D department. It is a powerful technique that helps learning professionals get closer to their learners and uncover potential issues that often get missed when using other needs analysis approaches.

Our strong advice would be that those working in L&D functions use similar structured interviews as part of a broad, systematic learning needs analysis. The interviews can, and should, be used to inform follow up quantitative analysis.

We're always happy to discuss our experience with fellow learning professionals, so if you're interested in what we did please don't hesitate to get in touch.

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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