Like I Have Time To Learn at Work… Or For That Matter Teach You?

When I was in my early 20s, I got a summer job with a local community college in their administrative offices. The job itself was hellishly boring. I had no idea why they’d hired me; they clearly had nothing for me to do. What little I did do involved preparing documents, letters, and an endless flurry of truly bureaucratically inspired inter-office memos [1].

The thing is, I didn’t really know how to use a word-processor. Fortunately, I had time to learn, and was taken under the tutelage of a wily, seasoned senior secretary named Sheila. She probably had kids my age, and was, I recall, endlessly patient with my daily questions as I learned to manage the intricacies of WordPerfect, and began to venture into other office applications. Thanks to Sheila, I was a word processing pro by the time I finished this otherwise waste-of-time job. This knowledge and my improved keyboarding skills were gifts that kept on giving. I’ll bet Sheila has no idea how much the daily snippets of her time and know-how, generously given, continued to pay dividends in my work life and academic studies.

And Sheila was, indeed generous. She had time to teach me. I think of Sheila and that summer job often these days, because the experience stands in such stark contrast to the impoverished state of workplace learning we live with today. The environments I have worked in and studied these past years – education, health care, and higher education – are filled with busy, busy people who would care very much about what you need help with if only they could find the time.

Here’s an example: I’ve been working with early career teachers in Alberta for the past four years. This year has been pretty interesting so far, because the newbies, who desperately needed help in their first year, are now able to reflect on why that help wasn’t forthcoming. “It’s time,” is the refrain.  “I want to help new teachers, but I can barely stay afloat myself.” They have, it turns out, become their more senior colleagues who, like their own predecessors, were too harried and overwhelmed to give more than a few fractured, half-guilty moments to support the learning needs of their deer-in-the-headlights juniors.

So striking to me from these conversations has been the perpetuation of poverty: that is, the poverty of time. And of course it is not restricted to the teaching profession. I encounter time starvation anecdotes routinely in my personal and professional exchanges with workers from all walks of life. Don’t you?

Lip Service for Learning

Adult learning, human resource management, professional education: all of these are fields in which workplace learning – the kind that often happens informally, and through which people gain know how and institutional memory – plays a central role. In the academic world, such learning is heavily theorized [2]; in practitioner magazines and HR circles, a more pragmatic focus still amounts to an endorsement of “learning” on the job for improved productivity and organizational effectiveness [3].

So why, then, does workplace learning fail to take place to the extent that it is desired? Call it the irrationality of rationality – the paradox of productivity. See if you downsize the crap out of everything, you improve your fiscal bottom line in the short run, but kill off what might be described as “deep productivity.” (I just made that up.) You get short-run productivity, perhaps, by ensuring that people are up to their eyeballs in work at all times. However, you also ensure that there will be no spaces for creativity, informal learning, reflecting on how to do better, or forging the kind of relationships with colleagues that make the inevitable stresses of work more tolerable [4].

So what’s so silly about this, really, is that creativity, problem-solving, team-work, inquiry, and a desire to learn are precisely the qualities lauded as critical to knowledge economies. However, despite wide acceptance of this prescriptive, employers don’t want to invest in workers’ learning because 1) they’re scared the training investments they make will literally walk out the door when trained workers are “poached” by other organizations; and 2) they want to have some sense that there will be a quantifiable “return on investment” (ROI) in terms of productivity [5].

This last point is a killer, because it causes a focus on formal training, which is in theory, easier to document and measure. However, I’d argue that a lot of what makes a worker “good” is learned informally. It’s a body of know-how and experience that is often difficult to articulate, and must generally be taken as an article of faith. What’s worse, there’s no sure-fire way to teach it. It can’t be reliably measured. It is context-specific. It has no bottom line, and it comes with no guarantees.

The solution is to back off on the search for the Holy Grail of ROI and instead give people breathing space to muck around and share what they know as problems and challenges naturally arise in the workplace. This is “deep productivity” because it builds the capacity of people individually, and organizations as wholes, to respond constant demands for new knowledge, and constant environmental changes [5]. It is also a position premised on, again, faith in people and generosity of time: two qualities in short supply at work.

What’s so sad – and this takes me back to Sheila and WordPerfect – is that the lack of generosity that characterizes the way most organizations think about workplace learning makes us just as stingy in our own informal teaching and learning. Like the school teachers I recently spoke too, I must also take a deep breath, and try to tune out the panic alarm in my brain (which is always on) in order to support a co-worker, colleague, or student who’s struggling and needs the time, patience, knowledge and care of someone who has been there.

At the risk of alienating cynics and possibly breaking out into my own rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine, I simply want to make the point that what we call “return on investment” for workplace learning is highlighted and measured in all the wrong ways. Some kinds of learning can’t be measured; they must simply be valued. Until this is realized, what we know, what we share, and who we can become through work will remain impoverished.


Notes and References

[1] These were the days before e-mail. Now I feel old.

[2] Here’s a good basic academic collection: Rainbird, H., Fuller, A. And Munro, A. (2004). Workplace Learning in Context. London: Routledge. Etienne Wengers’ Communities of Practice and Lave and Wengers’ Situated Learning are key volumes in this area. Stephen Billis and Knud Illeris are other authors to look at. Areas of interest include adult learning theory, group cognition, adult education, basic skills training at work, union-based learning, apprenticeship, mentoring, prior skills recognition, and human resource management.

[3] It’s always good fun to read T+D – Training and Development, which presents a more “corporate” perspective on workplace learning, as well as a good overview of “cutting edge” practices and technologies. While I disagree with the feasibility and efficacy of fixating on ROI for learning, it’s important to understand and treat as legitimate the cultural and structural conditions that foster this approach. On a further editorial note, I do think that academic work that trivializes, dismisses, or demonizes these perspectives can be rightly accused of failing to address the “realities” of workplaces. This is something I think I’ve learned over time in my studies, and try to keep in mind when I’m critical of the corporate sector.

[4] Crassly put, you kill your chickens because your shareholders/stakeholders haven’t got the faith or patience to wait around for eggs.

[5] See the Canadian Policy Research Network’s (2006) Employer Investment in Workplace Learning in Canada; Canada Council on Learning (2009) Fostering Employer Investment in Workplace Learning. These documents discuss Canada’s under-investment in learning in detail, and provide policy recommendations.

[6] Nothing new here. I mean Peter Senge’s “Learning Organization” has been beaten to death, and gleefully ignores the inevitable presence of narcissism, apathy and power mongering within any organizational “community.” But Senge still has some enduring, good points. Also, check out Dan Pink’s Drive for some cool stuff about human motivation, and Tim Hartford’s Adapt about why screwing up is inevitable, and actually a good thing.



  1. A very astute observation! And I like the term you coined, “deep productivity.” Isn’t it ironic that developing deep productivity requires an intentional reduction in short-run (“shallow?”) productivity.

  2. Great post—so thoughtful and on point. I also love your term ‘deep productivity.’ When I went from being a tenured prof to working half time as an undergraduate advisor at a different university, one of the unintended consequences was that I suddenly had SO much more time to sit and talk to undergraduates, listen to their concerns, and help them solve problems….time that I couldn’t possibly devote as a full time faculty member pulled in 25 directions for committee work, teaching, grad students, publishing, etc. to maintain my own “productivity record,” constantly being evaluated for raises, promotions, etc. This advising is *slow* and unglamorous work, but makes a huge impact on the students’ lives, they tell me. I also wish it was accorded the respect and compensation of more obviously “productive” outcomes.

    • Hi,

      Hey thanks for reading! Always flattered if someone takes the time to comment. And yes… burned out faculty. Makes me think twice about whether I want an academic career. The psychic rewards are important, and your blog on women in the academy… well that raises further questions of whether women are more apt to feel tension because they aren’t able to exercise “care.” Is this a bigger problem for women than men? Anyhoo, lots more to talk about there!

      As for “deep productivty”… well I’m sure if it’s sexy enough, someone will steal it, eh? 😀


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