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Finding the human connection between learning and performance

Finding the human connection between learning and performance
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This piece forms part of our human-centred series, which explores the need to change how we think about our organisations, putting the human back into the heart of everything we do. 

‘In order to live the good life people must work in good organisations’ – Gavin and Mason [1]

One of the most revealing things to emerge from our response to the pandemic is how important we are to each other. The central theme from our experience of the past year is that relationships matter most. Being separated from others helped us to see clearly that it is other people who make our lives meaningful and provide us with purpose.  

In the teeth of the pandemic, we avoided millions and millions more people dying because we reached for our particularly human gifts. We built a global community on a foundation of compassion, connection, collaboration and learning. We applied our humanity to work for each other, to care for each other, to save each other.  

We all became the meaning and the purpose. 

Resetting our organisations 

This insight needs to catalyse a reset in how our society works. And in particular we need to reset how our organisations work. Why? For two reasons, one push, one pull.  

The push is that the majority of our organisations fall short of being the best examples of human endeavour and enterprise. Look at engagement scores, productivity rates, trust benchmarks, happiness surveys and more; too many of our organisations limit or even crush our humanity. 

The pull is that we depend on our organisations both to provide employment and to be the vehicle through which change happens; they are the engine rooms of socio-economic change and progress. If our organisations aren’t working, then the consequences run deep. 

The launching point for a reset in our thinking about organisations must be to put humanity back into the heart of what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. It is about acknowledging that organisations are simply groups of people working in service to other groups of people.  

It is the human-to-human transactions that matter above all else. 

But we have some way to go in our organisations if they are to be places built for humans. Currently, we have organisations designed to serve much narrower purposes: the singular, even aggressive pursuit of profit, the need to feed the ego of the powerful, this year’s targets, growth at any cost, constantly having to do more with less in the name of efficiency. Our humanity, our human purposes, our relationships, our compassion, our love, our hopes and dreams are all too often left at the door as we enter our workplaces.  

What does a human-centred organisation look like? 

One of the most important features of a human-centred organisation is that it is a place where we can learn and grow; a place where we are regularly achieving far more than we ever thought possible for ourselves, our colleagues, our communities, and those we serve. 

The connection between the growth of employees and that of an organisation seems obvious. If people are the organisation and they are not growing or developing, then where is the organisational growth going to come from? But we seem to spend more time trying to control people in organisations in ways that squeeze the humanity out, replacing it with a compliance machine. This produces stagnant, inflexible, stuck organisations full of unhappy, disengaged, unproductive people. This is exactly the opposite of what we say we want for our companies, but when we don’t get the performance we demand, we double down on control and bureaucracy, even mandating values and behaviours in the hope that telling people how to feel and behave at work will mean that we will comply. We don’t; we never have, we never will.  

What can be done to create more human-centred organisations? 

A good place to start would be the emancipation of learning; this means putting learning and development at the heart of what an organisation does as an end in itself. This would be emancipatory in that we would abandon the dominant instrumentalised approach, which sucks the life out of learning (one of the fundamental joys of being a human being), replacing it with valuing learning for its own sake.  

A new human-centred approach to learning would put the person at the heart of the learning goals, not the job they do. This would help us to stop defining people simply as their job, their position in a hierarchy, or their salary cost. We are all so much more than that.  

Such an approach would be revolutionary. It would rekindle the idea that every organisation could be a learning organisation (a term coined 30 years ago by the great Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline), a place where humans go not just to work, but to learn and grow. 

Connecting learning with organisational performance  

If we were able to transform the everyday experience of individuals at work through the challenge of constantly learning, the impact on our organisations would be profound. We would be reconnecting learning and organisational performance, because no organisation can grow if its people are not growing, no organisation can learn if its people are not learning, and no organisation can change if it can’t learn. 

Currently, learning in organisations can seem disappointingly disconnected from people performance. Our L&D and HR departments know deeply the problem of measuring learning transfer, evaluating ROI on learning and development programmes, and understanding what works. This is partly because we are in vicious circle: the more elusive the impact of traditional job-based learning seems, the more we tighten our approach, trying to find the silver bullet that works. The result of this approach is ‘just-in-time micro-learning’, where learning systems are reduced to ‘bite-sized’ morsels of knowledge that should only be accessed ‘at the point of need’. This is fine for robots, but not much use to a human being trying to do complex, knowledge-based, relationship-based, emergent, creative, human work. 

If our approach to learning and development can seem disconnected from organisational performance, then our approach to designing performance management systems isn’t helping much either. A quick look at the research on approaches to performance management suggests we are facing a crisis of failure. Gartner research [2] finds that 82% of HR leaders surveyed felt that their organisation’s performance management system was not achieving its primary objective. And 62% felt that their approach to performance management was not keeping pace with business needs. The general view was that performance management approaches were high on effort and low on usefulness. Here’s a quote from the report. 

“Many times, I have wondered, if we just eliminated the entire formal performance management system, would we see any impact on the business?” 

This is the paradox we confront: we are dehumanising our learning and performance management systems in order to try to support human beings to be more effective in the delivery of their work.  

Creating learning organisations  

If we can’t successfully connect learning and development to improve individual and collective performance, then at best we are simply wasting our time and resources, and at worst we are making our organisations less human-centred, when everything we have learned over the past year tells us that we need to do the opposite. 

One of the lessons from the performance management research is that a system works better if employees design it themselves. But they must also learn how to design it and how to adapt and improve it as the organisation evolves. Achieving this requires that the organisation moves beyond limiting learning to how to do a specific job, and instead create a learning organisation which helps employees to grow as fully functioning human beings.  

We all want to learn; we all need to have that sense of achievement that comes from continuously improving performance. And we all want to contribute in ways that deepen a sense of belonging and commitment to our organisations and to our collective future. In talking to experts, academics and practitioners about these issues, my inbox has quickly filled with detailed and heartfelt frustrations at the way in which our organisations continue to struggle with releasing the latent talent that sits unused, unseen and underappreciated. One comment summarises these feelings perfectly: 
“I think misery describes the situation perfectly. I have seen it all my life and desperately wanted to bring about change in the various organisations I have worked within, but what I see as the blocker is that organisations cannot make the connection between employee fulfilment and engagement and company earnings. At the very top of most organisations, there is no visibility or empathy for how disenfranchised people really feel but also how those very same people desperately want to give more and have more to give, but have no leverage or structural currency to make that happen.” 

Hope for a future of learning 

In a world that has been changed so much by Covid, we must seize the opportunity emerging from tragedy and reimagine our organisations. Human-centred organisations are places that are deliberately designed so that humanity is seen as a strength, not a weakness. We are not our jobs. We are not our positions in a hierarchy or a point on a salary scale. We are all so much more than that. 

L&D and HR professionals need to lead the way in building more human-centred organisations by promoting the idea that learning is an end in itself. If all our organisations were committed to that idea, if all employees could begin to design how learning could work for them, then engagement and performance would surely follow. 

Let’s stop treating people as assets, units of production, target-hitting machines, or costs. Instead let’s treat them as fully functioning human beings and commit to supporting their learning and development. 

Learning organisations grow their people first, knowing that organisational growth will follow. Let’s start a revolution in organisational learning; it’s the human thing to do. 

Grahame Broadbelt is a communications and R&D expert. 

[1] Gavin, J.H. and Mason, R.O. (2004). The virtuous organization: the value of happiness in the workplace. Organizational Dynamics, 33, pp. 387