Going digital, but keeping learning human

Looking back to the shift to online working life

The transition to remote working has been the biggest working change in many people’s lifetimes, exacerbated somewhat by the fact that it happened almost overnight.

Learning initiatives were paused, training courses were cancelled, and mentoring sessions were forgotten about. McKinsey observations show that by early March, almost 100% of in-person learning programmes scheduled before July had been postponed or cancelled in many parts of Europe. In these unique circumstances, anxiety runs high and the instinct to survive takes over. But, almost ironically, learning will actually be the foundation of survival.

There are many reasons as to why this is. Perhaps most obviously, the world is changing rapidly, and we need to learn how to change with it.

New challenges in business

As the world of business has moved online, many are struggling with an identity crisis. Put simply, businesses need to learn what kinds of new products and services will fit the newfound demands of this world, and also how to create and develop these new products. Meanwhile, leaders must learn how to keep a distributed workforce focused, energised, and attuned to customers’ changing needs. All of these challenges involve constant learning.

Admittedly, finding ways to prioritise learning is difficult. Firstly, leaders must focus on the principles of it. Rather than seeing the current landscape as an opportunity to establish new ways of working, people are hastily setting up virtual platforms and treating them like another tool to keep the old work going. Here, there are two barriers that hold back learning – we become fixated on the tools themselves rather than the purpose of learning, and we also become fixated on content alone, rather than considering how to relate and be with each other in this strange new world.

“Businesses should think critically about what each learning initiative aims to do, and they must discern what type of learning is most valuable for this”

Types of learning

So, how can digital learning be done well? Firstly, we must go back to the principles. Businesses should think critically about what each learning initiative aims to do, and they must discern what type of learning is most valuable for this. There are two broad types:

Cognitive learning: focusing on information and skills. We might get this factual information from a class, an article we read, or a colleague teaching us a new procedure.

Social-emotional learning: focusing on people and experiences. We take in this information through how we feel and think about the situations we’re in, and how to manage those thoughts and feelings.

Many workplaces focus on the former, whereas social-emotional learning is often vital to focus on beforehand, to set up a successful context for effective cognitive learning.

A new approach fit for a new world

A recent study in Harvard Business Review examined these different types of learning and how effective they are inside a class that featured both. One teacher opened a class with a short meditation, whilst another opened their class by inviting the students to share what it felt like connecting remotely in a live document that everyone could see. When surveyed afterwards, students said that those were the most useful moments of the class, even compared to all of the cognitive work that was more pragmatic and perhaps with a more obvious tangible benefit.

You need one to build the other, and many simply ignore this type of learning in a workplace context.

It’s the combination that makes us competent and, above all else, keeps us human. There are many ways you can foster this at work. For example, if you’re learning about a new process, ask people to consider how they feel about their current skill set and why they might benefit from expanding this, both in and out of work. The goal is to promote self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationship and decision-making skills.

By improving people’s attitudes and encouraging self-belief, you provide a better foundation for learning.

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