In organisations world-wide, the notion of learning and development is evolving from event-based, episodic interventions to a learning environment that transcends the boundaries of the classroom, re-thinking the role of learning and development professionals as enablers and connectors to facilitate a climate of continuous learning, driven by employees and managers themselves. The term continuous or informal learning encompasses a wider definition of learning by recognising the social significance of learning from others. For example, providing training to sales professionals today increasingly takes the form of sales coaching, mobile applications, action learning projects and peer best practice sharing sessions.
How does this notion of lifelong learning play out in Asia? According to Tao et al (2009), because of the emphasis on education rather than learning in Asian countries, the learner tends to be seen as the passive receiver instead of the driver of learning, and what is learnt is determined by his/her organisation or provided by the government. Such a system is not uncommon in many countries across Asia, including Hong Kong, China, Malaysia and Indonesia where learning and development takes a high degree of structure and expert-led interventions, to enable to program to be replicated quickly to multiple contexts. Therefore, the focus in Asia still is on formal learning, with less awareness or confidence in informal learning initiatives, which poses a challenge for development of sustainment initiatives.
The training landscape in Asia has predominantly followed a linear process that is centred on the structure, moving forward in a straight line rather than out as a circle. Every aspect of development moves ahead by timing and checkpoints. However, in today’s context where not all information is available readily, employees interact more laterally and they need interactions to form the basis of their decisions. Employees today will find the linear model going against them, in their natural way of processing information because they are going forward before they have all the information, and need to make sense of the information they have through generative conversations.
In starting to think about continuous learning, it is necessary to know that initiatives can fall along a continuum from highly interventionist and structured to highly self-evolutionary. As seen in the figure below (adapted from Willis, 2004), sustainment initiatives on the left-hand of the continuum tend to demonstrate a planned component, well-defined procedures to control the process, with a relatively heavy emphasis on programmed knowledge or expert instruction. A high degree of structured initiatives are often adopted by organisations that still rely primarily on formal training programs, and are new to the concept of continuous learning. Organisations that are entrenched in continuous learning efforts tend to enable sustainment and foster a climate where individuals, with their peers and managers, drive their own learning. This is reflected in the activities that fall on the right-hand of the continuum.
As the awareness and significance of learning sustainment in Asia is still in early stages, it is impossible for organisations to readily take a giant leap from the left-hand, “3P” end to the “Self-evolutionary.” Employees will need time to adjust and drive their own learning, without sole reliance on experts. Managers will need to be guided to learn how to coach by way of inquiry instead of “telling.” In-house trainers and L&D professionals will need to assume the role of advisors and see the greater value behind empowering learners to learn by themselves, rather than perceive this shift to be a loss of control or fear that they will become redundant in the process.
In order to cultivate a “learning organisation” culture, organisations can start by adopting a combination of 2 or 3 initiatives that range in terms of their structure and degree of intervention, so that employees feel comfortable to take on aspects that are more self-directed. For example, an organisation may select a combination of action learning projects and facilitated structured reconnect sessions to provide a balance of structure and empowerment. Such an approach can prove to be more practical and gain greater traction in promoting a continuous learning climate, versus jumping from “3P” sustainment activities directly into “self-evolutionary” initiatives, which may not take off if participants do not have sufficient ownership to drive their own professional development.