When learning, we can distinguish between learning facts and learning how to do things. Repeating facts is rather different from knowing how to do something. In organisations, we are often more interested in people learning to do things, often tasks that can be defined and in many cases measured. We call these ‘skills’ when they are desirable or useful.
We can make a useful distinction between conscious and unconscious learning. We learn unconsciously when we copy the posture of a craftsman. We automatically avoid the puddle that the person ahead of us stepped in. Often we learn through doing a task or set of related tasks: we pick up as go along how to run a household, a family or our business.
As learning and development specialists, we can capitalise on the pretty secure assumption that it's clear that you can't not learn. In formal, educative settings, we can set up tasks so as to produce learning as one conscious outcome, among others: You get the report and the learning of how to write a report. And then there's a great deal learned without formal intervention, (even though much organisational budget is still spent on the formal). There's scope here too for the semi-formal - networking, discussing with peers, reading round the topic, attending good conferences and so forth.
In organisations, we 'deliver' learning to get people to do jobs better and more generally to develop people (if we are so enlightened to see learning as intrinsically good, or to respond to our staff's demand for their own development).
We can ask a good Solutions Focus question before any intervention - 'Suppose this learning programme goes well, what difference will it make'? And we can also usefully ask if we have access to other methods of getting the same results. The desired result is capability, which participants can bring to bear when needed, so that a greater variety of challenge can be dealt with.
While training traditionally aimed to produce consistency, from Roman phalanxes to Starbucks' baristas, there are now fewer rote jobs and more jobs with discretionary elements. Instead of employing people for what they used to do or even what they currently do, firms employ them for what may be needed in future. ‘Capability managers’ are assessing future performance in new settings. What tells them now that candidates for development are a good bet for the future? The signs that someone deals well with practical matters, abstraction, shows initiative and creativity are tricky to capture in performance management systems.
There’s more of an art to spotting talent, as I discovered when I was a comedy scout and programme producer at the BBC. As well as picking potential, you have to create high expectations if you want your team to deliver great results. And they also need the tools and the context in which to succeed. If I want comedy writers, I need to give them shows to write on, performers to work with. Context is critical: a 'learning organisation' picks up innovation. It allows it, notices it, takes it on and uses it widely throughout the organisation, as we see when Starbucks manages to systemize a random novelty such as writing the customer’s name on a cup.
So how do you test for capability if it consists not just of what people have already done? One way is to put people into imaginative scenarios that are as much like the future as you can envisage - and see how effectively they deal with them. We discover how well people dance with the unknown, even if it's a different unknown from what they'll eventually face. Graduate recruitment in some organisations is much more like this now, catering more for jobs changing into the future. Nestle, Tesco and Lloyds all have 'capability managers'. Their job is to deliver capable people to the organisation, not simply 'learned' people.
In particular, they want to unearth talents who thrive in uncertainty, displaying skills such as adaptability and flexibility. This is good news for pioneers of Applied Improvisation and Solutions Focus. Organisational Development has almost reached the point of recognising that improvisation is the key skill - the ability to respond and flourish in the moment as new challenges emerge.