learning theory


There are a lot of truths in this world, relayed to us at varying volume levels and frequencies. Some of the most interesting or illuminating, however, are uttered so rarely or so quietly that they almost go unnoticed. In business, one of the great taboos is losing. We regularly hear that it is not an option, unthinkable, a sign of deplorable weakness and so on. Much less often do we hear that it is a natural occurrence: despite the parable of The Midas Touch (and King Midas seems to have had more than one problem with being unable to control either his wishes or his mouth), our desire for invincibility and endless glory shouts louder than our counselling wisdom. And that quietness conceals something else: that losing can be a great teacher, but you have to learn how to be a good loser to make the most of the opportunity.

If you’re not suffering terminal Apprentice fatigue (and I may be in mortal danger, after reviewing the whole series), the final delivered one interesting lesson: that the contender who loses best can be the winner. Having been on the losing team many times, we can perhaps argue that Ricky Martin was a man who had had plenty of practice. But then again, practice makes perfect: Mr Martin may not have racked up 10,000 hours of losing – if we accept Malcolm Gladwell’s recipe for mastery – but he’d grasped the ideas of learning from mistakes, reviewing personal expectations and managing those of others, and something close to the idea of purposeful practice in honing efforts on specific areas to improve performance.

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So here we are at The Final. Even if I’m not entirely about the numbers (as my MBTI and other psychometric experiences confirmed), I can calculate on the spot pretty well for someone whose background and strengths are mostly on the creative side of the fence. So if time really is money, I  reckon this series has cost me about a grand at my going rate. Ok, it’s had its moments, but any sense of a meaningful return has been a little difficult to identify.

Nor am I entirely proud that I’ve reviewed the episodes as if I’ve been watching televised pantomime, but that is what much of the series has felt like: the reviews are at least honest. And few reviewers – except one or two written by people taking themselves rather too seriously (or trying too hard to sell their own services) – have treated the programme with much more respect. There has been wisdom on offer, but all too often it’s been Norman Wisdom rather than Business Wisdom. No disrespect to Nick Hewer, Karren Brady or Lord Sugar himself: I’m sure your intentions are entirely honourable and your hearts are in the right places. But a lot of the audience are laughing up their sleeves rather than taking notes. There also seems to be a consensus that this hasn’t been a bumper series: the candidates have neither shone with brilliance nor dazzled with ineptitude, and the format feels tired. (If you can’t be clever, be likeable and all that …)

Indeed, the format is now an ugly cut and shunt job. The title never really belonged: whatever the programme has ever been, a structured learning programme with constant mentoring isn’t it. The task format worked while it was about picking an employee, but has not been amended now that it’s about identifying a partner to invest in. As The Telegraph pointed out, this year and last year’s eventual winners were both the candidate in the final who had been on the losing team the most often. (Although this criticism also overlooks the factor that annoys me: the worst or weakest performance can easily be on the winning team, while someone else must be fired.) The selection process may introduce a ‘reality tv’ level of suspense into the series, but as a model of business selection criteria it needs a stern word in its ear. (Claude, do you have a moment?) As models for assessment centres go, It’s A Knockout is an unusual choice.

Interestingly, the ‘The Final Five’ and the ‘Why I Fired Them’ programmes gave the viewer rather more beyond slapstick and buffoonery than the actual episodes: they had moments of a sober reflective quality that reviewed business strengths and personal qualities in ways that the tasks themselves have not. And as Lord Sugar reminded us in them, the process is also about the person: as well as an investor, Lord Sugar will be a business partner with the eventual winner. Good luck with that, as they say. And are you sure you didn’t want that dog?

Anyway, here we all are at the Institute of Directors, and each finalist gets a couple of sentences to outline their business plan. Nick offers a one-click facility for any recipe on the internet so we can buy the ingredients in one fell swoop. Tom is punting a hedge fund based around investments in fine wines. Jade is offering a call centre the size of Wales. Or perhaps Nepal. And Ricky is proposing an ethical recruitment service aimed at the scientific industries.

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#lt12ukAnother year, another train, another exhibition hall and yes, another trade conference. I was in London’s Olympia for the Learning Technologies and Learning and Skills 2012 Conference. Most ‘industry events’ act, at the most superficial level, as a kind of barometer: the level and enthusiasm of those in the hall can speak volumes, even if you don’t listen to the actual words.

Encouragingly, the event was packed: unless vast droves of the HR and L&D professions are fearing imminent redundancy and are taking any opportunity to network furiously, the implication is that learning has not fallen either from fashion or from organisational budgets. It would, however, be unwise to overlook the ‘jackdaw’ effect of technology. In the learning arena, this effect is arguably doubled – the possibilities of each new technology as a medium for learning (and for quite a wide range of present participles, come to think of it …) brings the possibility of fresh excitement to existing themes, while the possibility of delivering learning (and yes, that does make it sound like milk or groceries) to a large, geographically dispersed audience without travel costs, with fewer trainers and no travel budget understandably brings a rare glint to the usually steely eyes of budget holders.

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HRZone recently published an interesting article by Emma Littmoden, partner at The Living Leader, called Can HR devise rules that stimulate not stifle innovation? A question that begged for a response – possibly a fairly abrupt one – from the organisational equivalent of ‘the cheap seats’, I thought, so it’s lack of comments so far comes as a surprise. Perhaps everyone else’s HR departments have issued memos banning employees from posting comments at HRZone?

There were quite a few points I wanted to pick Emma up on, in the nicest possible way. First of these was her surprise at Apple’s apparent introduction of stern social media protocols, given the money it makes from handheld devices that encourage ‘the free-flowing ideas of the individuals on the payroll’. Once some of the world had stopped loading candle apps on their iPads and leaving £400’s worth of hi-tech equipment outside shops to mourn Steve Jobs (I’m no accountant, but a tea-light would have said the same, and been far cheaper and less of a personal data security risk), I got the impression that the control-freak tendencies of the recently deceased were aired more freely than previously. And Apple, for all the design savvy of its products (for which thanks should strictly speaking go to Johnny Ive), is a company that makes it very hard to dig beneath the OS, install open source software, and is very keen that we load our (very profitable) new toys with apps, tunes, books, movies and so on bought from an online store that very much runs by their rules. Apple’s version of the world is impeccably stylish, but pretty tightly closed. I’m not sure everyone wants to rule the world, but Apple is keener than most: their internal application of the tendency didn’t surprise me in the least.

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Ah yes, January. Bit of an opinion divider as months go. Some of us are raring to go, all ‘out with the old and in with the new’ – purging ourselves of brandy butter and port, and filling the void with earnest resolutions. Some of us are closer in sentiment to an old Flanders and Swann song:

Dark November brings the fog/Should not do it to a dog.
Freezing wet December, then/Bloody January again!

My own take on resolutions is probably closer in spirit to an Oscar Wilde quote – “The basis of optimism is sheer terror”. The spur to think about changing things springs predominantly from the horror of the idea of more of the same old same old. Which in turn requires a modicum of awareness that things could at the very least be different, and possibly better. Faced with thinking or feeling “Uh oh, here we go again”, one answer is to go somewhere different.

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Language is a fascinating thing but as a psychologist looking at speech development in children, especially my own, is hugely entertaining and enlightening into the workings of thought and logic. I watch with great anticipation and expectation as I observe my children and their friends talk about everyday life to see what wonderful combinations of phrases and mispronunciations occur, something I often do myself – and not always on purpose. One which made me laugh out loud most recently was when a friend of my middle daughter was trying to explain a school project she had to do, which puzzled us all to begin with…

“I had to make a boat out of Pepperami”

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While the world – and certainly many of its organisations – is always in need of more skilful, insightful and capable leadership, it is hard to argue with an authentic heart that the world is crying out for more books on the subject. Thankfully, just as some leaders rise above the multitude, some books stand taller than the mire of self-help tools and celebrity business hagiographies that continue to flood forth. While some of the latter may provide inspiration to improve, or a spark that sets an individual off on a personal development path, comprehensiveness, rigour and practical usefulness tend not to be high on their authors’ agendas. For the leader (at any level), coach, L&D or HR professional who is looking for something that truly provides these so-often lacking qualities, Awaken, Align, Accelerate should be an addition to the Leadership bookshelves that they can wholeheartedly welcome.

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