Active and Passive Learning and a Project

I meet and chat to quite a lot of baristas and coffee people from all over the world. Often one of the topics that comes up is having a career in coffee and the idea of progressing. One of the most common avenues of conversation is learning, and I confess that from time to time the following sentence has been like a red rag to a bull:

“I think I am going to look for a job somewhere else, I don’t really feel like I am learning anything any more.”

To most people this may seem like a fair comment, but I want to explore the idea of learning at work and its purpose and value.

When you start your first serious coffee job (it might not be your first coffee job, but your first speciality coffee one) you go through a very intense learning experience. Learning like this feels great. Coffee seems big and exciting, and the learning is not only rapid but generally fun. Learning like this is very addictive and we all want to learn like this all the time, but that isn’t really viable – there’s work to do! We need to split the value of learning into two separate ideas here:

1. Learning is rewarding, and a motivating factor in performing and remaining in a job. The idea of mastery was best communicated to me by Daniel Pink in Drive, which is a great read about how to retain staff and motivate them to do good work.

2. Learning is a way to increase the value of a staff member. If time/money/resource has been spent on a staff member then, from a purely business perspective, this person should be able to generate more revenue and value as a result. In the simplest terms, if I teach you to brew espresso you go from being completely useless to a successful cafe, to someone who can produce products for sale. The more I train you then the more product you should be able to produce (you get faster and more efficient) or the more revenue you can generate (you can make more expensive drinks or upsell, or do good customer retention work).

The second type of learning is the responsibility of the business, to assess whether you are ready to learn more (you have achieved some level of mastery of your existing skillset) and then to deliver more training. After this there is a period of time when you should be mastering the new skills. Then there needs to be a period of time where you return on the investment of the employer. If you take your new skills and jump into a different job then the employer has no return on their investment. This will increasingly discourage them from further investment in staff, and over time lead to a stagnant work environment. Alternatively there may be requests for learning from staff, but no way for the business to recoup its investment as the learning may not have a practical application to that business.

The problem many people have is that in the period where you leverage your new skills for your employer, you generally stop learning. So you feel uninspired, restless and you start to look for other employment. I will accept that (and I include myself in this too) employers often do a bad job of setting out goals to met and expected time periods between the periods of advancement. (And in fairness to them, this is no easy thing to do).

This isn’t the only part of this that I find frustrating. Learning does not need to be passive. If you want to learn then there is a world of information out there, and a little effort will yield big reward. Staff who are active learners stand out very clearly in any business, not simply because of their demonstrated motivation. For quite some time I suffered mild imposter syndrome, because I felt that people thought I knew lots and all I had done is read things that had been published for free on the internet – something freely available to all. I should add that while I am pro active learning, I’m not a big believer in work cultures that expect you to stay late and be in early for no extra financial reward, in order to move up in an organisation.

My point here is not to try to generate sympathy for employers, but instead to try to encourage more active learning. This leads me to one of the things I’d like to do on the blog this year.

The Learning Project

Here is what I am proposing: a monthly topic of learning that allows people to get involved with it. The plan will be:

Month 1 (this month): Write a short introductory blog post on a certain topic (approx 1000 words). This will also have a link allowing you to submit an interesting link on this topic. When you’ve submitted a link you will then get to vote on which topic we cover the following month.

Month 2: Republish the initial blog post including all of the submitted links on the topic. Publish a short introductory topic on the group voted subject. Again, submit a link on it to vote on what we do next.

My goal would be to continue this same cycle month to month throughout 2014 (thus covering 12 topics).

I have no idea if it will work, but if it does it will be fun to take a journey around different topics and to not know where we’re going until we get there. It will certainly push me, and I hope others will benefit too.

If you think this sounds fun then do please get involved. When the first topic goes live please share it (the more incoming and suggested reading the better!), and any feedback is welcome on twitter.