What is the purpose of learning in the enterprise?

by Paul Matthews, Managing Director People Alchemy Ltd

That title sounds like one of the big existential questions, so let’s consider what response we would get if we asked people what they think.


When I have done this the answers can be summed up as “To enable people to do what we ask them to do” with a subtext of “To solve problems, either current or anticipated” or “To fix something not good enough, so it is better”. Learning is largely seen as a solution, as a response to a problem.

How would you answer that question?

Another question I often ask people in an organisational context is “When did you last do some learning?”

Most people refer back to their last formal learning event such as a training day. If the responses I have been getting to these questions are typical, then we have a situation where in most organisations the majority of people think that learning is something that takes time, and is done away from the workflow. It is also seen as something that is, more often than not, remedial. It is something that is required in response to a performance problem to try and fix the problem.

As soon as we start talking about performance, we run into another very common issue. Few people in organisations really understand the feeders and enablers of good performance, because they don’t think of performance as the output of a system, and so they don’t know where to find the levers to pull in order to change that system, and its output.

If people are not performing, or to say it a different way, they are not operationally effective at their point of work, then something does indeed need to be done. The first step is to figure out why they are not operationally effective, and that means looking at the entire performance system that includes them, and surrounds them. Each performer is performing on a stage. That stage, their environment, can be friendly and helpful, or the opposite. Typically, the environment that surrounds us when we are trying to do a job is a complex mixture of things that restrain us from doing that job, and things that help us to do the job.

For a moment, think back over the last month. How many times were you unable to do a task satisfactorily and on time that was delegated to you by yourself or others? Of those failures, what proportion was due to you not knowing what to do, and what proportion was due to some limiting factor in your environment, whether it was within your control or not?

The answer I typically get back from people when asked this question is that well over half, and often as high as 90% of task failures are due to external factors, and not due to lack of knowledge or skill. As an aside, another interesting factor is that where knowledge or skill was missing, the failure could have been avoided if that knowledge or skill was immediately available within the environment from an online or offline resource, or a colleague.

Unfortunately, it is a very seductive proposition for the manager to simply say that the poor performer is not competent, and therefore needs development. And it is seductive simply because the alternative is to blame themselves for not managing the performer or their environment well enough to enable operational effectiveness. As a manager, why would I blame myself when I can blame somebody else, particularly when blaming the poor performer is the way I have been taught, either explicitly or culturally, to handle poor performance.

Another factor is the illusion of competence created by high performers. Imagine a team of people, all doing essentially the same job. One person on the team, let’s call her Sally, can do the job well and consistently exceeds the set performance criteria. Others on the team struggle to meet those criteria. There is an automatic, and natural assumption, that Sally has some kind of Mojo that the others are missing. She has what it takes to do the job, and they don’t. So clearly everyone else needs development in order to raise them to Sally’s level of competence.

Not so fast! This could be correct as an assumption, but often it is not. A proper diagnostics of the performance system will often show that the rest of the team are hampered by barriers within the system that stop them performing adequately. In some way, perhaps from long experience, Sally has figured out how to deal with those barriers on a day-to-day basis, and so can overcome them and meet the performance criteria. If the environment was friendly, and the barriers were not present, all of the team could perform well. In actual fact they are all at threshold competency, but some are rendered incapable at their point of work because of the barriers in their environment.

This example shows that there is a fundamental difference between competence and capability. These two terms are often confused. A competent individual is someone who has the knowledge, skills, motivation, understanding, and in some cases physical attributes to do a job. Until you put them into a specific job, you cannot talk about their capability. A person can be capable of doing a job in one team, but be incapable of doing the same job in a different team. Capability, and therefore operational effectiveness, is dependent on both the competence of the individual, and the ‘competence’ of the environment that surrounds that individual at their point of work.

To look at the larger picture, if you want operational effectiveness you need to be looking at how people are performing. In order to consider performance, you need to be thinking about whether people are capable at the point of work. In order to consider capability, you need to be looking at the entire performance system which has two major components. One is the performer, and the other is the stage on which they are performing.

If we go back to our original question, “What is the purpose of learning in the enterprise?”, we can now see that it is only one of a potentially large number of levers we can pull within the greater performance system. Learning does NOT equal performance, and yet we often act as though it does, then wonder why we don’t get the results we want. If we have a performance problem, the first step is to do some diagnostics on the performance system to discover if learning is in reality one of the levers worth pulling to fix the performance issue.

There are some simple tools, models and processes to use to find the barriers in a performance system, and therefore make visible the levers you can pull in order to change the performance system and its outputs .

Paul Matthews is the key speaker at Dossier Forum on October 18th, and will be giving away the ‘secrets’ to performance system diagnostics. Click her to learn more and to reserve your seat


Paul Matthews is the founder and managing director of People Alchemy. Paul’s key skill is in making the ideas come alive with stories, and making sure his listeners receive practical tools and tips to take away and implement. He excels at reducing complex theory down to simple concepts and then articulating these in a way that everyone can understand, and more importantly, use to get better results for themselves and their organisations.