Organisational Development: Re-Learning How To Learn

Natasha Larkin is PPL’s Head of Organisational Development. She has over 15 years of experience in supporting individual, team and organisational learning and development across the public, private and voluntary sectors. Over the past few months, she has supported health and care organisations to translate their learning and engagement sessions online.

I recently read a Buzzfeed article which pitted Millennials against Baby Boomers.

Reading through it, I found that I could recognise some of the Millennial traits in myself, but not all of them. It turns out I am part of a “micro-generation” – known as Xennials – who sit on the cusp between Generation X and Millennials. If you were born in the late 70s to early 80s, you might belong to this generation too.

You might be wondering what this has to do with organisational learning during COVID-19.

Well, for me, the Xennial tagline “analogue childhood, digital adulthood” is a great starting point for understanding the journey I’ve been on as a learning professional during lockdown.

At the risk of over-generalising, Xennials tend to be very comfortable with technology but it’s not as second nature to us as it might be for those who grew up online. I’m on Instagram, but I have no idea what TikTok is, and no desire to find out. Similarly, professionally, I am no stranger to learning technologies, having designed e-learning games, but for the most part, my approach and preference when it comes to supporting learning is face-to-face.

Back in March, when lockdown went from “might happen” to “any day now”, my analogue past jumped up and shouted, “this will never work!”.

I vividly recall sitting in a meeting room (remember those?) with colleagues talking about using online platforms for training and meetings and breaking into a cold sweat.

When it comes to supporting learning, whether that’s through training, facilitated discussion or just learning day-to-day, there is something incredibly powerful about being in a room with other people. It’s about sensing the mood change, without anyone saying anything.

It’s about being able to use the physical space to connect with people, making eye contact, showing people that they’ve been heard and understood. It’s the ability to use movement and space to help people to maintain energy, work creatively and see their ideas develop around them.

It’s also about those informal conversations that generate learning and new thinking outside of the classroom or meeting room. And finally (but by no means least) it’s about post-it notes. Sorry planet.

I’ve never been afraid of a challenge, though, so I cast my fears and 15 years of preconceived ideas about training aside and threw myself into the virtual world of learning and organisational development.

Over the past few months through a variety of online formats – training, workshops, buddy lunches and coffee catch-ups – I discovered many benefits to working in this way.

1. Online sessions can lead to greater attendance.

When working with busy frontline clinicians, finding diary time can be an immense challenge. When you’re not having to contend with room bookings and travel time, it’s generally much easier to get people together and fit training and meetings in between other appointments.

2. Equity of participation.

It is the eternal challenge of the facilitator to find a way to make sure that everyone has a voice, particularly the quieter group members. One of the things I love about facilitating online is the ability for people to contribute in different ways. The chat functions are a great way for people to share their ideas when they might not feel confident or comfortable to vocalise their thoughts. The use of online polls is another great way to gauge the feelings in the room without everyone having to speak out.

3. Seeing humans as humans.

Seeing people working from their own homes – with kids and pets in the background, or deliveries arriving at the door – can be a great leveller. In a world still dominated by hierarchy and status, it can sometimes be a useful reminder to us all that the people we are learning with, and from, are just people too.

4. Technology can be really fun!

Just before writing this blog, I attended a meeting called “playing with postit notes”. We’ve just discovered a tool that enables collaboration using virtual post-its. Not only did we learn a new tool that we can use to enhance our training and meetings, but there was something about the process of experimentation that freed us up to be more playful in our approach. When you change the medium, you often change the mindset too.

Am I now a convert to online learning? Sort of.

Maintaining a learning environment and culture when you don’t see people every day isn’t easy, and it doesn’t just “happen”. It takes planning, creativity and a whole heap of trial and error.

So ultimately, I can’t wait to get back to working with people in 3D, but there are benefits to connecting with people virtually that I wouldn’t want to lose.

“In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.”

I’ll definitely be leaving some of my analogue habits in the past.