Learning and Development Are Interdependent, But They’re Not the Same Thing

In my experience, too many learning and development professionals are still ignoring the implications of neuroscience and adult psychological development when going about their work of developing leaders.  This isn’t to say they don’t have the best intentions at heart. It just means they stick to what they know, to what has always been done, they do what is popular, or they do what’s easy to measure in the short-term as opposed to taking a long-term view. This isn’t their fault; they too are products of the systems that have created them.

I think they should go back to basics and crtically examine their job titles: Learning and Development Professional; Leadership Development Specialist; Head of Organisational Development. They should remember that:

  • Learning is the acquiring of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught and the applying of these things. Without application there is no learning.  How many learning and development folk really measure what’s being applied at work?
  • Development is an event constituting a new stage in a changing situation or an advancement in a person’s thinking capability. The outcome of adult development is the ability to think in more complex, systemic, strategic, and interdependent ways.  Development can be measured through stage development interviews and surveys like The Leadership Circle Profile™

If we only focus on learning it’s like adding new apps to a smart phone. The person, like the phone, gets ‘smarter’ but this ‘smartness’ is ultimately still limited by the operating system. True adult development should also include upgrading the operating system of person being developed.

Why is this important in the fast-paced and exponentially changing 21st Century?  I’ll use an Einstein quote to explain: “A problem can not be solved by the same consciousness in which it arose.”  

We need knowledge and wisdom to create sustainable solutions. I have no doubt that the knowledge exists, but does the wisdom?  Can the leaders we’re developing truly conceptualise sustainability in this way: “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” (From the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee, the founding document of the Iroquois Confederacy, the oldest living participatory democracy on Earth.)

Learning and development professionals should also remember their audience: Adults.  At the very least they should be able to answer these questions:

  1. What is adult development and how does it differ from childhood development and how does this apply in the 21st Century?
  2. How will adults learn in ways that keep them ahead of the change curve, not behind it?
  3. How will the people we’re wanting to develop make sure our organisations and world are truly sustainable?  What knowledge and wisdom will they need and how will they get it?
  4. How can learning and development become a part of everyday work and life; not something that waits for training or coaching or mentoring to happen?
  5. If we know change starts with the person’s deep-rooted beliefs – sometimes even competing or contradictory beliefs – how can we help everyone embark on, and self-drive, personal mastery journeys to set them on their way to becoming systems thinkers who have the maturity to cope with the paradoxes of sustainability in the 21st Century?

Perhaps if these professionals were trying to equip Einstein for today’s world of work he’d still describe his learning and development initiatives like this:

“School failed me, and I failed the school. It bored me. The teachers behaved like Feldwebel (sergeants)  I wanted to learn what I wanted to know, but they wanted me to learn for the exam. What I hated most was the competitive system there, and especially sports. Because of this, I wasn’t worth anything, and several times they suggested I leave.”

We – that is all adults – aren’t passive victims of the difficult times in which we live, we are powerful participants in them; mighty co-creators of the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) story we find ourselves in, and together we can determine the plot, but only if we evolve our levels of thinking and seeing the world.

The big difference between how we developed people in the past and how we should do it today is this: Speed of change and disruption. 

The ‘sins of the father’ are no longer carried only by the next generation. The world is changing so quickly that we too suffer the consequences of our own actions, sins or iniquities.  It’s no longer about one generation passing problems onto another to solve. We can’t pass the buck and leave it for the next generation to look back at us and wonder how we dealt with prolonged economic recessions, the delusion of GDP, the question, “To frack or not to frack?” or “Is social media enhancing human connection or eroding it?”  We are the generation that’s already looking back on us as the generation that either acted on climate change or didn’t. And we may be the last generation that still has a chance.

Among many other greats, I’m a fan of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s work. I apply it as best as I can to my coaching and leadership development work. They teach, research, write, and consult about adult development, adult learning, and professional development. Their work explores the possibility and necessity of ongoing psychological transformation in adulthood; the fit between adult capacities and the hidden demands of 21st Century life. This is also known as vertical development. It’s about making sure today’s leader isn’t ‘in over their heads’.  Leaders today need to evolve their levels of consciousness.

Contact Tracy Marsis on tgmarais@gmail.com if you’d like to know more about these things:

  • The Leadership Circle Profile™ (a vertical development 360° assessment)
  • Vertical development through coaching and other forms of leadership development
  • How to change your learning and development culture
  • How to create a deliberately developmental organisation
  • How to uncover the individual beliefs and collective mindsets that hold back change
  • How to create a culture of experimentation that celebrates smart failures
  • How to overcome ego in the workplace to foster stronger communication and innovation

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