Friday, May 25, 2012

Learning plans are a crutch and I'd rather learn without one

First let me start by saying that the line of reasoning I am about to present to you may go somewhat against the grain; feel free to take issue or prove me wrong, as you will see below, its been done before.

I am not a fan of learning plans

My main contention is that organizations that are serious about learning don't have learning plans they have learning cultures. They don't have forms that need to be filled out, justifications that need writing, and approvals that need approving. Rather they position learning a cultural cornerstone of everyday activity, encourage inquisitive minds and guard against permission based barriers.

my crutches by dimtri_66

Learning plans are inherently antagonistic

I also think that learning plans reinforce organizational power differentials by reducing employees to applicants and managers to approvers.  This leads to skirmishes over justifications and shrinking resource pools.

Learning plans are biased towards a particular model of learning

In general, organizational training authorizations forms (the one's I have seen) are biased towards classroom or conference (learning event) based training. Where, for example, is the box on the form that allows me to express my desire for a more nuanced approach to learning?

They are also biased towards the here and now, I was recently asked to complete a 3-year training plan. How can I honestly complete it when the things I want to learn - the prescient things in my field - haven't even been invented yet?

Let me tell you a little story about learning plans

A few years ago, my boss at the time informed me that I needed to fill out a learning plan. We had an excellent relationship and while we agreed that we didn't really need a learning plan that is was mandatory.

So, I decided to have a bit of fun.

I took out a stamp my wife got me when I was a teacher's assistant and stamped the learning plan with it; the stamp read "Complete and Utter Bullshit". Signed it, turned it in, cajoled the admin into giving it to my Director General (DG), knowing full well it would get a good laugh but wind up back on my desk.

We were a small team (about 7 in total) so it didn't take long (I literally split a single office with the admin and our DG sat in the office next to ours).  A few hours later the learning plan was on my desk with a little note asking me to redo it. This time I decided to write a single line on the training form:
"All I want is the flexibility to discuss reasonable learning opportunities as they arise."
Again, I signed it and sent it up the pipe. Again it came down with a redo post it affixed to it. Finally I acquiesced. I wrote down a conference that was a few weeks away knowing full well that it would be near impossible to get it through the approval chain given that it was in DC (technically an international conference and thus subject to greater approvals).

Long story short, I submitted the form trying to prove that learning plans don't actually work and my DG proved me wrong.

She approved my training plan, and personally shepherded the request through the system and wound up in DC attending an O'Reilly Media Government 2.0 conference.  That woman went to the wall to get me to that conference. But I doubt proving me wrong was her motivation, she just wanted to honour her commitment because that's the type of person she was (and probably still is - we no longer work together).

I suppose in retrospect that learning plan did teach me something: that a learning plan is less important than the relationship between the people negotiating it.

That the former is only as strong as the latter.

That I ought invest more time in building relationships than filling out forms.

That a learning plan is a kind of crutch, and I'd rather learn without one.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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