Studies have shown that between 70 and 80% of all workplace learning is informal—what people learn as part of their everyday work and their daily interaction with others. We’ll focus here on two of the many methods of informal learning—asking questions and using critical and creative thinking—to explore how they can people learn in the workplace.
If you want to know something, ask a question. Too many times, we fail to ask a question for fear of exposing our ignorance, or admitting that we don’t know something that we think we should know, or because we don’t want to appear naïve. But if you don’t understand something, you will never develop the understanding you need if you don’t ask. Many times, if you are in a meeting (or a class), others will likely have the same question as you, and if no one asks, no one will learn the answer.
There is more skill to asking questions than just having the courage to do so. Marilee Adams, of The Inquiry Institute (www.inquiryinstitute.com), has studied questioning and has written several books on the subject. People with an inquiring mindset, says Adams, “are curious, open-minded, and ask questions intended to discover, learn, resolve, and create.”
An executive once told me that whenever he put together a problem-solving team, he always included a “smart dummy.” As he explained, this is a person who is very bright but has no knowledge of the situation—someone who can ask the naïve questions that others may be afraid to ask. He said that he put together a team to find ways of reducing the company’s freight costs, which ran to tens of millions of dollars a year. While most of the team members came from the logistics and finance departments, he appointed one person from an unrelated department—the smart dummy—to the team. This person asked, “How do we know we are getting the best shipping rates from our vendors?” The head of logistics replied, “Because we are being charged less than the vendors’ published rates.” The smart dummy then asked, “Have we asked for additional discounts?”
When one of the team members called the vendors and asked if there might be additional discounts available, they immediately offered to cut their shipping rates, saving the company several million dollars a year. If the smart dummy had not asked his naïve question, the discounts would never have been requested or received.
Using Critical and Creative Thinking
Critical thinking focuses on making explicit and understanding the biases, assumptions, and constraints under which each person or group works. Some of these come from life experience and others come from one’s professional training. Because each person has his own set of beliefs, there can often be misunderstandings among people when viewing the same problem from their own vantage points.
Take, for example, what it means for a new product to be “ready for market.”
- From an engineering perspective, the product is ready when it has undergone beta testing and the design of the product is finalized.
- From a manufacturing perspective, the product isn’t ready for market until the manufacturing processes for the product have been defined, the necessary tooling completed, and the raw materials obtained.
- From a marketing perspective, the product is ready for market as soon as it has been designed and the marketing materials and campaigns have been produced.
- From a sales perspective, the product is ready for market when it is in stock and ready to deliver.
None of these perspectives is wrong, but they can sometimes be at odds with each other. For example, if the product is sold before it is ready to be shipped, the sales force can be criticized by customers for not delivering on its promises. If it is a replacement or upgrade for an existing product, the sales force will not want it announced prematurely for fear that customers will stop ordering the current product to wait for the new model.
This is why one of the first tasks of a product development team is to agree upon a common vocabulary and definition of terms. To do this, the team members must discover and discuss the definitions, assumptions, and constraints under which each member is working. This is the basis of critical thinking.
Creative thinking takes people outside the constraints under which they typically work and opens up new possibilities for the future. It enables them to move beyond current rules and to examine new combinations, new possibilities, and new ideas. Think of the creative products that have come from Apple in the past decade—the i-pod, i-pad, and i-phone. None of those products would have been possible without moving beyond the limits of the assumptions that bounded past technologies and products.
Creative thinking takes courage—the courage to try something new and the courage to fail and learn from failure. When Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb, he tested 10,000 materials for the bulb filament before finding that tungsten would work. Did Edison fail 10,000 times before finding a solution? Not according to him: e just found 10,000 materials that would not work and one that would.
Your Job is to Learn
Employees at all levels have a host of learning opportunities every single day at work, but most never seize those opportunities. By being in a continuous learning mode, you can improve your performance in your current job and accelerate your career progression.
What did you learn at work today?