Liam Brown looks at how learning in the workplace can be used to support manager development.

(This article is adapted from a presentation delivered at IATEFL Harrogate, 2014: 'Informal learning is the new black in management development').

How do we develop our managers once appointed and over time? Many ELT organisations may not have the resources to provide formal learning or training opportunities and look to informal learning contexts, sometimes known as “learning in the workplace”, as a means to support manager development.
But what is informal learning? Is it simply ‘finding learning from everywhere’? If that’s the case how is it planned, managed and promoted?

Planning learning

One of the best drivers of successful performance management, and of course the appraisal that often goes with it, is to ask not 'What am I going to do this year?' (my 'deliverables') but rather 'What am I going to learn?' And, at the end of a cycle, to ask not 'What have I done?' but instead 'What have I learned?'.
If ‘learn’ doesn’t sit easily with you, you can use ‘change’, ‘improve’ or ‘do better’. It’s the same thing. It’s a fundamental underpinning of the notion of a Learning Organisation.
With that question answered, you can widen your perspective. You can add ‘And of what I learned, who have benefited?’ My colleagues, unit or department, my customers and clients, and of course me … are all now in view. 
This year, I am going to learn how to handle myself better at meetings, especially those I lead. That means I will need to improve the before and after bits, take better notes and summaries, and be ruthless on time management and agenda keeping.
This will make me way more productive given the number of meetings I attend. It will have a positive impact on my colleagues (and manager!) and really help me focus on the longer term projects I work on.
And that’s just meetings. I could add: resource management, information management, interpersonal skills, systems working (I need to better grasp the inter-relatedness of various structures within the organisation and work toward maximising the potentials of different departmental resources) and working with technology (how to better apply it, and maintain its usability through a higher than basic understanding of knowing how to prevent problems or identify them).
That’s a lot. So, how do I learn?
I have two propositions:
  1. What motivates me on a day-to-day basis is the sense that I am making progress in meaningful work.
  2. Whenever I examine practice, I identify learning.
The first proposition focuses me on progress: doing things better and differently and doing different things. To do this, I am looking to expand the range of situations in which I can perform competently, recognizing problems faster and dealing with difficult or more important cases or situations, customers or colleagues.
The second says, now I am looking at how I work, I need to look at how I learn.
There are two areas for me to consider: the learning factors and what pushes them, which means the value and challenge of the work I do, the levels of feedback, support and trust I get at work, and my level of confidence, commitment and motivation; and the context factors – how is my work allocated and structured, what are the encounters and relationships like with the people who surround me, and lastly, what is expected of me?
In short, how do I learn and what’s the best way for me to learn for, and at, work? My context and my intention.
Looking again at my determination this year to improve my handling of meetings over the next couple of months I could try:
'Reactive' learning, which is familiar to many of us, where learning is explicit but almost takes place spontaneously and in response to recent, current or imminent situations but without any time being set aside for it. Teachers coming out of a classroom and reflecting on performance or my coming out of a meeting and asking myself (and others) how I did are good examples.
Learning might also be 'implicit', or knowledge acquired independently of a conscious attempt to learn or even without explicit knowledge about what was learned.
I could also engage in 'deliberative' learning, with time specifically set aside either formally or informally.
What does this mean in practice? Researchers and practitioners help us out here. Jay Cross is useful with this comparison: informal learning is unofficial, unscheduled and impromptu … a bit like riding a bike, while formal learning is like riding a bus: the driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride.
Maria Connor builds further on this. In addition to formal (classes, elearning) and informal (community, exploring) she adds intentional learning, the process whereby you aim to learn something and go about achieving that, and accidental learning, when in everyday activities you learn something you hadn’t intended or expected.

Managing learning

Improving my meetings? Let’s take out formal learning … it’s not on offer, it’s too expensive, I can’t fit it into my schedule. It’s not the way I want to improve in this area. I could then consider these options:
1. Work processes with learning as a by-product
  • Participation in group processes 
  • Working alongside others 
  • Consultation

  • Tackling challenging tasks and roles 
  • Problem solving
  • Trying things out

  • Consolidating, extending and refining skills 
  • Working with clients
2. Learning processes at or near the workplace, which could include
  • Being supervised

  • Being coached
  • Being mentored 
  • Shadowing

  • Visiting other organisations
  • Conferences

  • Short courses

  • Working for a qualification
3. Learning activities located within work or learning processes
  • Asking questions

  • Getting information

  • Locating resource people 
  • Listening and observing 
  • Reflecting

  • Learning from mistakes 
  • Giving and receiving feedback
With these options in front of me, now I am in charge – on my bike, setting my own course, direction, speed and definition of value and success. This is my learnscape as Jay Cross calls it.
But it’s not always so easy learning to ride a bike and shaping my learning from these options isn’t also without challenge.
There are three essential resources in particular, according to one study (i), I need to consider:
The first is an effective strategy, along with advanced capabilities for searching the Internet, and distinguishing the most from least useful information. 
The second resource I need is access to high-quality content. Consider, for example, some of the most useful and accurate material I may need in my learnscape, will be custom developed, such as internal policies and procedures guides and specialised internal knowledge bases or sharepoints. In the British Council learnscape we have access to the Ashridge Virtual Resources Site and are soon to have a significant resource in our own Bitesize Learning Programme.
The third resource needed is access to a line manager or colleague with whom we can explore the lessons learned informally. 

Promoting learning

I would add a fourth and fifth necessary resource – time and place. And with both goes permission. In another study, Andrea Ellinger (ii) discovered that where managers do not indicate to their teams that they themselves learn informally in work time and do not express support for others to do so, they actually discourage their teams from learning on the job. She advises, therefore, that managers should openly promote informal learning at work by doing so themselves and give formal permission for others to do the same.
As I work on my meeting handling skills and behaviours this year, through the informal learning options I decide work best for me, I begin to realise I am also widening the range of tasks I can do better and see how this has a real impact on my efficiency and effectiveness. And others will notice and I intend to capture this at the end of this year’s performance management cycle: 'This is what I have learned to do better and here are the contexts and people which have benefitted.'


(i) Downing, J. (2007), Using customer contact center technicians to measure the effectiveness of online help systems. Technical Communication, 54(2), 201-209.
(ii) Ellinger, A. D. (2005), Contextual factors influencing informal learning in a workplace setting: The case of “reinventing itself company”. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 16(3), 389–415.

About the author

Liam Brown is Learning and Development Manager, English and Examinations Strategic Business Unit at the British Council. Liam is an experienced manager, trainer, speaker and writer working on achieving excellence in communication at work, collaborative learning and people-friendly people management. Liam has worked extensively in Europe, Asia, The Middle East and UK within the private and not for profit sector. As an invited keynote, plenary and conference speaker, Liam has extensive experience of over 40 ELT, KM, HR and specialist business and communication conferences around the world. His talks are cutting edge and challenging, sometimes inspirational, but always grounded in real-world work contexts. Liam is based in Rabat, Morocco


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