Organizations often mandate the learning function to not just enable learning across the organization but drive it. Sure, some contexts necessitate mandatory learning and certification for compliance or client-driven skill validations. But too often, when a company enforces skills development on employees, the outcomes are poor, even counter-productive: check-the-box programs, human resources (HR) reports with sanitized learning touch-point metrics, a constant push from learning and development (L&D) fueled by a pure metrics-driven philosophy, entire learning initiatives implemented to fulfill parameters of how the organization’s brand image must be perceived.

The Trouble With the “Push” Approach

How an organization approaches staff development informs everything from the values which govern learning and the learning culture to the nitty-gritty of process management. But, when possible, learning should not be mandated, pushed or driven.

Consider an information technology (IT) business that mandates tech employees to learn new skills to make them billable in new projects. No amount of force can embed the learning if an employee doesn’t see value in it. The choice, of course, is theirs; they can either create a path forward by upskilling or choose not to add a specific skill set because it probably doesn’t align with their career and self-development goals. Either path is legitimate. It’s up to the individual if they want to join the new project or evaluate the implications with their manager if they choose not to. The onus is on the company to offer options and respect their decision. The problem? Often, companies push the employee to upskill precisely in the path defined by the manager. The result is disengagement, cognitive dissonance, learning resistance, and a widening disconnect between employees and the company. Such an approach may help meet the short-term goal, such as an improved project resourcing metric. But a poor learning effort rarely produces worthwhile results in the long run.

Why Doesn’t the “Push” Approach Work?

Edward Lee Thorndike, one of the most influential educational psychologists, asserted decades ago in his law of readiness or action tendency that learning won’t just happen. It can’t be forced. A learner must be willing (and prepared) to learn!

Adult learning motivations are complex and diverse:

Learning in adulthood is far more layered and complex than learning in childhood. Barry R. Morstain and John C. Smart, studying adult learning motivation, outlined six factors that drive learning, including:

  • Social (have friends and build relationships with people).
  • External expectations (comply with needs or requirements by figures in authority).
  • Social welfare (make a difference to the community).
  • Professional advancement (career growth).
  • Escape (do something exciting and break monotony/boredom).
  • Cognitive interest (genuine interest to gain knowledge and satisfy curiosity).

Can mandated learning even begin to address these needs? Not meaningfully, except, of course, in superficially meeting external expectations.

So, what’s a better way?

The responsibility of learning must rest squarely on the learner — the buck stops there! Of course, the learning function can listen, curate, enable, mentor and structure. But attempts to push learning and “cover the crowd” are inherently dysfunctional.

Professionals in organizations must own their learning journeys, relying on L&D only to support that process. It requires L&D’s radical shift from push to pull, and that’s possible only when learning leaders and employees revisit their approach to learning, and draw new realistic, intersecting role boundaries.

How L&D Can Create Pull

  • Show people potential career paths linked with specific learning journeys and let employees decide how to proceed.
  • Curate content relevant to not just business needs but employees’ larger, more holistic learning aspirations (i.e., content of different types, formats, levels, content on demand, immersive experiences, real-world learning, etc.).
  • Mentor learners by connecting them with peers, business professionals and subject matter experts who can guide, clarify and nudge.
  • Emphasize the value of learning outcomes — shift the focus from learning itself to learning outcomes — business contribution, quality of output, ecosystem feedback, self-reporting, observed improvements at work.
  • Shift from seeing employees as resources to treating them as customers – create spaces for business-centered and personal aspiration-based learning needs. Demonstrate to employees that the organization cares about their growth and is willing to offer learning support with no strings attached.
  • Instill learning as a core value. Make learning part of foundational values and culture — eliminate any activities that are mere box ticks. Integrate learning more into daily activities, rendering it informal, seamless, and continuous. Use their work to create learning opportunities.

Google, for instance, has seen quite some success taking a community-based, less formal, more learning-driven approach. Their “g2g” (Googler-to-Googler) network comprises purely volunteer coaches who help peers on their learning journeys through teaching, content creation and mentoring. This makes the process more relevant, immediate, holistic and effective. And creates a thriving learning culture!

As Dr. Carol Dweck affirms in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”; people are born with a growth mindset, and it develops from a powerful desire to learn. When L&D shifts from push to pull, it challenges people to abandon a fixed mindset and develop a growth mindset where true learning can transform everything!