Companies barely do “learning”

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I come across different business articles all the time, probably about 93.4% of which make me want to tear my hair from my scalp and scream like a banshee. This one, about onboarding processes, is largely the same. Everyone knows that onboarding is a complete disaster at most companies, and a raging tire fire at a lot of them. Heck, 22% of companies don’t do anything that could even be called onboarding, which is the adult equivalent of a kid being dropped at a new school for third grade and no one telling him where his classroom is. Oh, and PS I think you could get sued for that, so more companies should get sued for how little they even think about the experience of starting work there.

Anyway, within this broadly generic article, you do have one thing of semi-relevance, that being this section →

To accelerate the learning process, managers must first focus on what focus on what they need to learn in three areas. Technical learning is insight into the fundamentals of the business, such as products, customers, technologies, and systems. Cultural learning is about the attitudes, behavioral norms, and values that contribute to the unique character of the organization. Political learning focuses on understanding how decisions are made, how power and influence work, and figuring out whose support they will need most.

OK, now let’s have some fun with math.

What’s the percentage breakdown of those three in terms of being seen as a good employee?

Varies by joint, obviously. A functional organization, I’d guess:

  • Technical 50
  • Cultural 25
  • Political 25

Most organizations?

  • Technical 10
  • Cultural 30
  • Political 60

The sad fact at a lot of businesses is that no one really gives a shit if you can do your job. To most managers, you are a warm body and you’ll be doing whatever busy or urgent project they have to deal with (read: get off their plate) at that current moment.

This has a lot of different implications for learning.

The tea on learning

You absolutely have to remember that, for now at least, work is made up of human beings. Human beings are not logical creatures per se; if anything, they lead with emotion in terms of decision-making.

Once you realize that, it’s a quick jump to this: Learning is a threat.

Most LMS — learning software — brands around the idea of “unleashing learning” or “getting knowledge to everyone.” Great. Here’s the problem. If Steve and Tom have stuff in their email that no one else has, that makes Steve and Tom relevant. When that information becomes free, now Steve and Tom are less relevant. Steve and Tom have mortgages. They have children. The last time either had sex with their spouse was 2007. Do you think Steve and Tom want their specific elements of knowledge to suddenly be free to Joey and Phoebe, those bastard millenials?

Absolutely not.

Learning is a threat because it means (a) someone else might have the knowledge to topple your perch someday and (b) it reduces the general notion of self-worth and relevance, which are honestly two of the major reasons any of us trudge into an office every day.

We paint learning as this beautiful, broadly-desired, lift-em-all-up thing. It is not that even remotely. It is a terrifying weapon of reduced self-esteem to many, especially in the environments above where political learning is 80% of the game.

FYI, I wrote about all this in November 2017 too.

Didn’t you want to do this once, Ted?

Indeed. I thought it would be very cool. It is not.

In Houston in 2013, I went to a happy hour with some learning folks. Every single one of them — I shit you not — told me “Don’t do this because if you have a job and revenue erodes, learning is the first thing to go.” So that was great. I was 32, thinking this arc might carry me to 40, and I’m getting told that over Miller Lites. Sweet.

What did carry me to 40 as a result → professional awkwardness, some ability to write, divorce, a lot of tears, some profound transparency about failure, divorcees, lawyers, and maybe throwing grenades on LinkedIn.

I went from “Oooh, I shall find stability in a learning role!” to being eight beers deep and counseling a 54 year-old who just lost his job of 12 years in a four-minute HR session, which by the way happened about three months ago. Look at my LinkedIn and you’d know, damn it!

So maybe I have a little resentment of the learning space as a result, but … I still do think it can work effectively.

What’s the biggest issue, then?

Honestly it’s the stuff above. The people vs. processes stuff. What we try to do with “learning” often in a company is hand it to a software suite, LMS, CMS, whatever. We totally absolve the managerial class, who makes more money largely because they manage others — and ironically who believes of themselves that they make more money because of their learning and knowledge of the biz — of any responsibility.

In other words: it’s perfectly fine and normative to be an absentee manager, but an absentee employee will get shit on for weeks and months and years. Riddle me that one.

Learning dies in the flood right there. There’s no learning if the whole shit show is outsourced to some tech suite. Learning comes from people and interacting and figuring out where the real power lies and how stuff gets done. It comes from knowing that Steve and Tom have a deep desire to feel relevant. It has literally nothing to do with anything that we seem to think it has to do with. Alas.

When I started doing stuff with Starr…

Starr Conspiracy is an agency I do some work with. I knew them from afar via the HCM space and via having applied there in 2016 and being rejected. (I’ve posted on LinkedIn about that too.)

When I started doing work there, I’d say all three things above were a ball drop. I didn’t learn the technical specs of the gig (i.e. the PM tool), having to figure that out myself. I didn’t learn the cultural specs of the gig, i.e. who does what. And aside from knowing there were 4–5 partners, I didn’t know any of the political specs of the gig either.

Now look, we are all capable human beings and we figure it out. But that takes time, and productivity is sacrificed within that taking of time. Learning should matter because we’re human beings (nice baseline), but it should also matter because it’s the fastest way to scale productivity.

The problem, of course, is that no one cares about productivity nearly as much as they care about control and relevance, and therein work becomes a challenge for many …

What’s your take?

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