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How to do ‘learning’ in practice


In July the Prime Minister confirmed that there is to be an independent inquiry into the UK’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, just not quite yet.

Health and care organisations too are starting to turn to what can be learned from their experiences over the past few months. The prospect of a ‘learning’ process can sometimes fill us with dread: there is the looming threat of blame or punishment (whether formal or otherwise); or the more demotivating experience of an after-the-fact account of what could have been done better with the benefit of hindsight.

But learning at its best can support groups and communities to begin to collectively process and recover from traumatic events, and provides a way of working that can motivate and guide our activities in response to whatever may come next. Research has shown that ‘learning’ is not just about formal moments of inquiry where we gather information and generate solutions to problems. Learning is an ongoing social process that is at work all the time in conversations between people. Who we’re speaking to and how we speak can have an impact on the quality of that learning.

Here are four things to pay attention to in order to cultivate a productive learning environment and point teams and systems in a positive direction for the future. (Boris, take note.)

Bear witness to people’s experiences

People need time to understand and process their own experiences of the pandemic so far, and to hear the experiences of others. People may have been facing a common set of challenges, but their experiences of those challenges will have been very different. Start out by just listening. Without judgement, without blame, or even coming up with ideas of how things might have been better. This requires leaders to create spaces that are safe enough for people to share their experiences and make themselves vulnerable without feeling at risk of negative consequences (however informal).

Pay attention to who you should be learning from and with, and how

Consider the mission or underlying purpose of your work. What does that mean for who you need to learn from? And for how you should be connecting with those people? The way that you organise your learning will affect the nature of your relationships, which will in turn influence what it is possible to achieve in the future. How might conversations and subsequent relationship be different if you start by sharing your own purpose and interest in learning, enquire about what will help others, and mutually agree a way of connecting?

Capitalise on the learning that is already happening in practice

A lot of the real learning that happens in teams and organisations, which enables them to adapt to changing contexts, happens through everyday work practices. People notice that what they’re doing no longer seems to generate the desired impact, and start to adjust what they do in response, sometimes without even being aware of it.

You don’t always need special sessions to share experiences. It can be more helpful to allocate space during a meeting to reflect how people are working together. This needs to be part of the routine and discipline of how people work together and make adjustments in real time.

Be seriously curious about the positives

It’s easy to focus in on what went wrong, and to pass over what went right, on the basis that it doesn’t need ‘fixing’. And yet it’s essential that you give full energy and attention to the positives in experiences. Not only because you need to understand how and why something went right to inform the next steps, but also because focusing on these areas will generate energy and motivation in yourself and colleagues. Ask: What went well? Why? When did you feel proud?

At a time when the only real certainty is uncertainty, attention and energy need to go into how to approach learning on an ongoing basis and embed it into ways of working. Learning cannot be something that happens only periodically when things go wrong. It is an essential technique for adapting to a continually shifting environment. It needs to become a part of the routine of normal ways of working. Learning needs to become a new way of being.

This article draws on insights from the literature on organisational learning, in particular the work of Donald Schon, Chris Argyris, Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger, Peter Senge and Amy Edmondson.

Leading through Covid-19

Short resources and shared experiences to offer some help in supporting leaders working in the NHS, social care, public health, local authorities and the voluntary and independent sector.

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