Suicide Helpline Counsellors, the Army & Formula One: Helping L&D & other professionals learn by seeing with new eyes.

It is very difficult for those inside a box to think outside of it

–      Russell Ackoff

When we want people in our organization to ‘expand’ their learning horizon, we face a standard challenge. Get people from our own industry to train and those with experience believe there is nothing new to learn. They are too familiar with their own industry and organizational challenges. Get people from outside the industry and people ask, “What do they know of our industry? How will they relate to our company challenges?”

As a learning & development (L&D) practitioner, I believe the greatest contribution L&D professionals can make is in equipping people to learn how to learn. When they learn how to learn it is equivalent to learning how to catch fish & feed themselves.

To help people how to learn, we have to start with ourselves. How do we respond to the standard challenge I referred to earlier? Have we ourselves learnt how to learn about expanding people’s horizon? What experiences can trigger that kind of learning? What beliefs and assumptions hold us back?

Let me give two specific examples.

The Telephone & the Suicide Helpline Counsellor

Let’s say, as a training head in my company, I am considering a unit that uses the telephone to get organizational work done. I have done many training programs to make this unit effective over the telephone. Roped in external trainers. Streamlined process year after year.

If I examine my own assumptions, I believe I should call ‘helping professionals’ already well-versed with corporate life. I take it for granted that these guys are ‘acceptable’ for the job.

If I cast aside my assumptions of corporate readiness & acceptability, what possibilities open up? Who else uses the telephone in this wide world out there? And it hits me! The professionals who do the most responsible job over the telephone are counsellors attending calls on suicide helplines. The telephone is the only thing they have, the stakes are high and the situation is delicate. These counsellors have to understand what is going on inside the other person through the telephone. They are practitioners of human psychology.

If my unit gets work done by ‘connecting’ with customers over the phone, can these telephone counsellors help with their insights? How they identify in what shape the caller is in, what conversational patterns signify, how they maintain verbal connect, on what basis do they predict what the caller can ‘really’ do – all these responses can yield penetrating insights into the psychology of the caller & the art of tailoring your response.

The way forward is to design a learning experience around this opportunity. In getting ready-fits, we never force ourselves to learn the art of learning design. When we design learning, we create a way to apply the learning. Much of the challenge of transfer of learning on the job is the lack of good learning design.

We already do something along these lines without the learning design. Companies pay astronomical sums to former world leaders & sports icons for a speech at company forums.

Do we ask about ‘industry relevance’ at such times? How long-lasting is the adrenalin surge post these events? How impactful a Return-on-Investment (ROI) is this? Can we determine the ROI?

The Logistics of an Army Movement or Formula One.

As a training manager looking at my company’s logistics division, I face the standard challenge: how to help them learn something new.

The divisional head and employees are already well-versed with their industry practises and mode of functioning. We have studied competitive practises, roped in consultants, been there done that.

On seeing a news item related to United States troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, I realize that these guys have to take out army personnel and super expensive hardware out of a hostile territory. The task presents treacherous challenges and operational difficulties.

Can I get a serving or ex-army logistical specialist to give us an insight into how they handle logistics and operations management in the army? Whether it is Operation Parakram or Siachen Glacier? Whatever they can share with due considerations of security and army intelligence.

Similarly, I learn that the Formula-One events across the world present an extraordinary logistical challenge. These teams dis-assemble, pack, and transport super-specialized equipments across continents through the year. A million little components taken apart & put together. Can I get somebody associated with the recent Indian grand prix to give an insight on this?

For the logistics function as a whole, they will be able to see their core function with a new pair of eyes. How invaluable is that?! This is the trigger for innovation- to make settled things in the mind strange or new again.

The invaluable contribution of L&D is to design and facilitate the learning experience. To channelize the outcomes into whatever the opened up minds and hearts of learners can absorb. And then to help them apply the learning in a way that benefits the organization.

To sum up, as L&D professionals, we have to learn how to learn about expanding other people’s horizon. And we start by expanding our own. We come out of the box we live in. We do not buy-in to the prevailing perspective of sticking to the tried & the tested. We experiment with the unfamiliar. We move out of our comfort zone, our industry and build bridges of knowledge and understanding. We explore what other fields and professions can teach us.

If this unsettles all those among us, consider this. Do we know where management as a practise has come from? From the army. It was the army that first needed to organize people and resources in a systematic and organized way.

Human beings have always learnt & applied insights from varied fields. Our professional excellence depends on the same openness to learning that we expect from others.

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