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Opportunity Knocks

When we have to tighten our belts and our budgets begin to wilt, one of the early casualties is often learning and development.  In these austere times, it helps to remember that the work that we do offers almost infinite learning opportunities and, with a little foresight and planning, we can piggyback a learning process on to almost any work activity.

Opportunities in general, have a habit of revealing themselves after the event.  They surround us but we only realise that we’ve passed one by through the benefit of hindsight.  Work-based learning opportunities may seem to be elusive and yet all we need to do is to look for them, deliberately.

In his book “Opportunities; A Handbook of Business Opportunities”, Edward de Bono describes an opportunity as “a course of action that is possible and obviously worth pursuing’.  He says that it is the possibility of an opportunity that differentiates it from mere wishful thinking.  The knack to spotting learning opportunities is through developing a kind of parallel vision; seeing tasks and activities not only as things to do but also as opportunities to learn.

Some years ago, I was involved in a research project to explore what type of experiences people had learned most from.  The most frequently cited experiences were all work-based and included:

moving to a new role;

temporarily working in a higher level role;

leading or working on a cross-functional project

dealing with a crisis and its aftermath

When asked what they learned, those interviewed identified improvements to, and extension of a wide range of skills, knowledge and know-how, including communication and inter-personal skills, problem-solving, managing change, dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty.  A regular comment from the interviewees was how much they learned about themselves, their emotional intelligence and their latent abilities.  This learning had no direct costs; the resource most often used was their managers and colleagues who provided coaching, mentoring or “buddy” support.  

Here are just a few ideas about using ordinary work events as learning activities; you can probably think of many more.

Team briefings


Analysing mistakes (No-one wants to make them deliberately but when they occur, why not extract the learning from them?)

Cover for temporary absences

Giving/receiving developmental feedback

Giving presentations

Writing reports

Job shadowing

Project work

The one important point to remember is that to pull out any learning we need to review what happened and what we learned from it; otherwise, any learning is unacknowledged and often unrecognised.  This means that not only do we lose an opportunity to share our learning more widely but also that we have no way of knowing whether we learned the “right” things – for example appropriate behaviours.  An effective manager, coach or mentor can help an individual to draw out conclusions or learning points and plan how to use them to change behaviour or do something differently another time. And maybe, just maybe, as managers and leaders we need to set the example by sharing our own learning lessons derived from the work that we do.  So, what have you learned today?

First published in the Health Service Journal