Context is Everything – Nigel Paine

I was flying from Australia recently. I awoke in the darkened plane not realising whether I had been asleep for five hours or five minutes. It is a very disorientating. My solution to discover where I was and how long I had been asleep, was to turn on the electronic map to find out my location and, therefore, how long I had been asleep.

The map showed an aeroplane moving through a coloured background delicately shaded from light blue to dark blue to yellow to black. This was not helpful! What was missing was any sense of scale, any recognisable reference points or any context. I got my information shortly afterwards from other sources, but the hopeless image from the screen stayed with me for a long time.

It struck me that context is incredibly important in order to make meaning. Context helps us know why, know when, and know how. In a similar way to my own confusion, that sense of disorientation and frustration can occur in organisations when you are told what you should do, but not why or in what context it needs to be done.

Learning needs context, most of the time, to make sense. Learning needs context to help motivation and justify some development exercise. Learning needs context if you are attempting to motivate and empower as well as develop skills.

My colleague Matthew Bidwell from the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton Business School, developed a very simple little model to illustrate this. It is a triangle with empowerment, motivation, and skills in the three corners. I find that model incredibly useful. It is often pointless developing skills with out building motivation. It is pointless motivating with out empowering, and it is pointless empowering without the skills to deliver.

When you are considering building skills and competencies you should also be focusing on motivation and empowerment. This allows people who work in learning to have really powerful conversations with the operational side of the organisation and help build a valid context which can be shared and ratified.

These are much more complex conversations than simply: “give me a course!” and they are richer conversations because they share the responsibility for the successful implementation of learning. All too often we blame learning from not doing what it said it would. We blame the learner for not changing in the way we had hoped, and we blame the learning organisation for delivering less than it promised.

If you reflect on that triangle of: skills, empowerment and motivation, I am sure that you will have better conversations as well as deliver more effective learning.

Follow Nigel on twitter @ebase or check out his blog by clicking here

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