't' Magazine

to view other areas of the magazine both historically and currently

click here

© t Magazine 2002

Used with permission

Just in case you have the time to…..

The Learning curve

Each month Bill Lucas, writes for 'T' on one of the major learning issues of the day.

A few weeks ago the printer I use at home with my laptop went wrong. It was late at night and I was tired. I probably loaded it up with too much paper. It refused to work and then various lights started flashing.

In the cold light of the morning I rang the help-line and they talked me through my options. With amazing skill, the voice at the end of the phone told me his diagnosis. The paper had jammed. I had removed the jam. But a sensor inside the printer had not noticed and still thought it was in a jam. The printer would not therefore work. The options? Take it to the North West of England or pay the same amount of money and walk down Winchester High Street and buy another.

Later that day, I eagerly installed my new printer, a gleaming aerodynamic new model which cost me £50 less than the one it replaced and promised photographic quality reproduction.


The first thing that struck me was how painless the whole process of installing printers has become. A large visual learning mat fell out of the box, with clear stage by stage instructions. But far more impressive was the online support that the cd-rom which I put into my laptop gave me. Not only was each stage very clearly illustrated, but the more idiotic of my likely worries were described and dealt with clearly and effectively. The installation went like a dream and I met my deadline. But the whole episode left me thinking. Why had something which should have had me being grumpy about technology failure actually been a rather enjoyable experience?

I reckon that the answer is to do with the way the learning to do with printer installation and its use has been so cleverly interwoven with its operation. Now I am getting more used to my printer, I am also getting used to it telling me when it is running out of ink, how I can change a cartridge, what the paper situation is like and, for all I know, when it is the most propitious time in the month to write my monthly column for 't' magazine. As I reflect on the experience, it seems likely that the innovation here is that the operating system of the product and the learning its user might want had been thought about at the same time in an integrated way. My needs had been anticipated almost as the printer was being designed.


I suppose this is what Chris Agyris calls double loop thinking. The printer's electronic support system deals not just with the single loop problem of a printer not working, but also stands back, as it were, from the day to day operation and suggests ways of ensuring the smooth running of the machine in the future. It reminds you that ink is running low or that the printer jets might welcome a clean before either of these events happens.

All of this got me thinking about learning within organisations.

It has become a clever thing to say that today we deal with just in time learning where in the "olden days" of the last century we focused on just in case education. While this sounds intelligent at first hearing, I am just not sure that I believe it. Of course we need to think more of the needs of the learner and that means getting learning to the learner when they want it.

But I think that my printer has helped me to see something more profound. Just in case and just in time are not the polar opposites that they are made out to be. Rather each contributes to effective performance. I need someone to have worked out all the just in case scenarios that may befall the printer user, but I would prefer actually to do the learning when it is most relevant. This includes anticipating many needs which I would not otherwise have thought about, just in case.

If learning is only supplied at the moment of breakdown, then it will tend to be highly instrumental and problem specific. And however rapidly you learn, there is a limit to what one can absorb at the moment when your printer actually or metaphorically breaks down. For our own sanity and enjoyment we need more than this.


Which brings me by a round about route to Learning at Work Day on 16 May. This year we are focusing, among other things, on the importance of coaching. As I have said and written on many occasions, everyone needs a learning friend, someone who can help them to reflect, plan and generally become more resilient and effective. On 16 May we will be encouraging organisations to see this as far more than just an issue for those in leadership roles. It is just as important for telephonists and line-workers as it is for managers.

But next time your printer breaks down, just relax. For its on-line coaching support is sure to see you through the problem….

To find out how you can take part in Learning at Work Day and to receive free materials call 0117 966 7755 or visit www.campaign-for-learning.org.uk