What we learn with pleasure we never forget

29 June 2017

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Philip CouparMany industries today are evolving at such a pace that it is essential to get to grips with new technologies, new work practices and new legislation on an almost daily basis.  I am fortunate to work daily on building solutions with data that often makes use of cloud-based technologies.  This type of work epitomises this constant evolution, with easier access to technologies to build solutions using big data, machine learning and AI, as well as technically enabling better scaling, more global distribution and greater security.  Continuous learning is not a tick box in my role - it is essential.

The quote in the title from Alfred Mercier is often cited and makes me think back to times when learning was easy.  Usually, I can identify interesting subjects, good people or good teachers that were a pleasure to work with or be around.  Playing games with pictures, letters, words and numbers starts back in our nursery education, then somewhere along the line formal education takes over.  We are taught to read, assimilate and understand, and then apply our knowledge in the exam room.  By the time we reach the workplace, learning is too often seen as an inconvenience and relegated to “on the job” training or cramming in a formal training course for a few days when we can.

That said, it is encouraging to see a number of companies embracing less conventional approaches to learning in the workplace and, as a result, seeing their staff gain far more than simply getting up to date on a new skill.

Hackathons have been with us for some time.  The critical time pressures involved, the focus on a key idea and the blending of skills from many backgrounds combine to create a fertile environment for people to experiment and develop new skills, as well as enhancing team bonding and, sometimes, leading to the successful launch of a new business.  In an article (https://www.forbes.com/sites/theopriestley/2016/01/20/why-every-business-should-run-internal-hackathons/) for Forbes, Theo Priestley suggests the principal merit of the hackathon over alternatives such as innovation workshops is the delivery of a solution in a short space of time.  In addition, McKinsey (http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/demystifying-the-hackathon) reports that business-led hackathons have the potential to create truly disruptive business transformation.  The key to the business-led hackathon is that it’s not only an opportunity to employ new skills and learn from others, but also about organisational learning.  One of the reasons hackathons have been so successful is that their intense and diverse nature pushes people out of their comfort zone and many find this both liberating and fun.

Google, Apple, Microsoft and LinkedIn all have initiatives that allow employees to spend a portion of their work time on developing an idea.  For Google, this led to AdWords and Gmail.  For Microsoft and Apple it is a chance for employees to explore a pet project with company resources.  Not every company has the deep pockets of these giants, but there are examples of similar initiatives from the likes of Ready Set Rocket, who encourage employees to take on side projects.  In an interview with Aaron Harvey (http://www.cnbc.com/2016/11/02/this-boss-sees-great-results-from-encouraging-employees-to-have-side-projects.html) from Ready Set Rocket he says, “I think if you treat people like adults, you’ll find that all the experimentation that they do outside of the office, all that creativity and positive energy is going to come back to the office, and it’s going to touch your workplace in a positive way.”  Other agencies, such as Huge, Adaptive Path, and Ideo have schemes that encourage employees from across the organisation to come up with their own ideas, respond to challenges and have various models from company ownership to employee ownership of the IP.  All of them cite the benefits of being able to test out new ideas that could be applied to clients and the psychological benefits of allowing people the freedom to express and execute their ideas.  Another key benefit to a side project is the breadth of skills required and how far it can push people outside their usual comfort zone.  And when it is your side project and you have to identify everything that needs done and who may be able to help - then you really learn a lot about business and leadership, and especially a huge range of technological, human and economic factors that would otherwise be difficult to experience.

However, side projects do not have to be business or project related.  For example, with a previous client I started a project to build a full size drone from scratch.  During this, the team learned more about each other and gained skills from doing things that would not normally have been part of their normal work.  People got to apply themselves in different areas, to try their hand at new tasks and, ultimately, to build something that the team was interested in and excited about making work.

To conclude, as I said at the outset continuous learning is not a tick box in my role - it is essential. To that end, it would be great to hear of any exciting initiatives that other companies have in order to promote learning, innovation and creativity in the organisations.

Philip Coupar, Bridgeall

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