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Organizational Learning Strategies

Gus Curran and Rachel Gathagu on organizational learning strategies in NGOs

Like any other department in a company, Learning and Development teams have the biggest impact when their efforts are tightly aligned with the strategic goals of the organization. Gus Curran and Rachel Gathagu from Humentum and co-authors of a new ebook on organizational learning strategies (which is free and can be downloaded here) joined Brian to discuss their observations about how L&D teams can best contribute to the overall health and success of organizations. [Editor’s Note: Check out Successfully Working in a Remote Office with Gus Curran]

Transcript of the Conversation with Gus Curran and Rachel Gathagu

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast of all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, Co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning. And Train Like You Listen is brought to you by Soapbox, the world’s first and only rapid authoring tool for instructor-led training. It is a little bit like an instant pot for instructor-led training. You throw a few ingredients in, you turn it on and you get a lesson plan.

Today, I am joined here by Gus Curran, who is the Senior Manager of Humentum Learning Services. And I’m also joined by Rachel Gathagu, who is the Learning and Development Manager at Humentum. And we’re here today to talk a little bit about overall organizational learning strategy. So, Gus and Rachel, thank you so much for joining me today.

Gus Curran: Thank you so much for having us.

Rachel Gathagu: Thank you, Brian.

Brian Washburn: Well, it’s fun to have you and it’s kind of an international podcast today. So we have — I’m here in Seattle. We have Gus on the east coast in North Carolina, and Rachel’s joining us all the way from Kenya. So, thank you all for joining. 

6-Word Introduction

Brian Washburn: We’re here talking about organizational learning strategy and, as we always do, we’d love to have you introduce yourselves using a 6-word biography just in terms of what this topic means to you. So, for me, when I think of organizational learning and strategies “I think organizational learning can change the world”. How about you, Rachel, do you have a 6-word biography that can introduce yourself to our listeners?

Rachel Gathagu: Yes, for me the 6-word introduction would be “a learning approach leads to transformation.”

Brian Washburn: Nice. How about you, Gus?

Gus Curran: Mine would be “Dream big, start small, think scale”.

Brian Washburn: Ooooh. I like that. Alright, so let’s jump into these questions here because I know that you have just recently released — you, being Humentum – your organization has recently released an e-book called Mastering Organizational Learning. So that’s where we want to, kind of, take our focus today. And this first question is going to go to Rachel. I’m just kind of curious from where you stand, what’s the difference between personal, or individual learning, and organizational learning?

The Difference Between Individual Learning and Organizational Learning

Rachel Gathagu: Alright. Thanks, Brian. So, personal or individual learning involves, and also happens itself, at the me-level, their own body, where an individual is able to increase their knowledge. Do you know the whole learning process of acquiring, retaining, sharing knowledge? Well, organizational learning is that process of creating, retaining, transferring knowledge within an organization. And now this organization is the wider body made of many individuals. So what happens is they both depend on each other and that there is a correlation because the individual who learns better in the organization that has put in place systems, structures that enable the development well enough to ensure that it’s able to yield and the individual is able to yield to build up the organization. So there is a correlation in that when the individual learns, the organization learns and vice versa. When an organization learns, the individual learns as well.

Brian Washburn: And so if we can keep to that topic for just a second because I think the individual learning is really important, what would you say the individual’s role is once they learn something when it comes to organizational learning?

The Role of the Individual in Organizational Learning

Rachel Gathagu: Alright, that’s great. That’s a good question. So the individual has a role because they’re part of the learning approach. Because when you look at the learning strategy, it’s actually an approach that the organization wants to take to ensure that learning happens. So the individual is part of this wider organization. And then the learning strategy itself being a commitment to implement this learning initiative, the different processes, the government structures. So all of this will ensure that the individual is at the core there and so it plays a cognitive role in learning. And also the learning strategy itself will access a guiding framework. So as an individual learner I am able to have something that will be able to guide me, you see, because especially in places that the learning is decentralized, in cases of new tasks or roles that are not very clear. So, as an individual learner, I am able to see my outcome of my learning, as an input to organizational learning. So that the individual is able to see their space in the learning of the organization.

Whose Involvement Is Essential for a Successful Organization Learning Strategy?

Brian Washburn: That makes sense and so when you think of an organization, which is obviously made up of individuals, and those individuals come at all different levels and they belong to different teams and departments so, Gus, I’m going to turn to you here and I’d love to hear from you a little bit more about your perspective on who is essential to be involved in an organization’s learning strategy? So if you think of leadership, who can be really busy and doesn’t maybe always have the time and thinks “you know what, this is learning so the Learning & Development team needs to take this on”. Who does need to be involved? Who is essential? Whose involvement is essential for an organizational learning strategy to be successful?

Gus Curran: That’s great, Brian. I think you’re 100% right when you say “leadership”. I would want to define who “leadership” is because it’s not necessarily, to me, the CEO or the senior leadership team. You know, when we’re looking at getting buy-in and you said “essential”, I’m looking at the managers, the line manager, supervisor, and any kind of team-lead who’s implementing strategy for the organization. Because if you can convince that group that this learning strategy is important – that learning is important – and they can see the change and how it aligns with their own department and organizational strategy, you’re going to have champions on your side right there.

Brian Washburn: And this, kind of, goes back to — almost it goes back to your 6-word biography, right? “Think big, start small,” something like that was in your biography.

Gus Curran: Yep.

Whose Buy-In is More Important, Influencers or Leadership?

Brian Washburn: I know from my experience the way that I was able to get the organization on board was one manager at a time, one functional department manager at a time outside of L&D. So is that what you’re saying? So when we talk about leadership, you’re not just looking at positional leadership, you’re looking at influencers across the organization.

Gus Curran: Exactly! Oh, I’m so glad you said that because, yes, I think that is one of the most important groups. Now we say “influencers”. I think we used to say “the cool kids”. You know, when I’m looking for those people it’s the people who have a Brown Bag and everybody shows up because they know they’re innovative. Or the person who you go to because they know all of the Excel tricks, like, the “cool kids”, that’s what I call them. You get them on board, you get them talking about your L&D team and how it’s helped them and you start building that bridge to the other folks. You want the thumbs up from the CEO and the vice presidents and the SLT, but you really need that buy-in from the people who are making the change in the organization, and then they become sort of like your business partner and wonder what HR does and you’re on your way.

Brian Washburn: Alright, so Rachel when we think of leadership across the organization and, kind of, an expanded definition of leaders, being people that are middle-level managers or maybe early career professionals or managers or other people who, kind of, have some influence in the organization – with so many other pressures, so many other things that are happening in organizations every day how do we get buy-in from leaders across the organization?

Demonstrating the Value of L&D to Your Organization

Rachel Gathagu: Good question, Brian, and quite interesting. And also to tie-up to Gus’ point, I mean, leadership at this point would be varied, depending on what you’re looking at. And to be able to get this buy-in, especially for L&D, we need to demonstrate the value of L&D to the organization. So that you don’t show up as an extra, you have to show value. This is beyond course completion. All these people took this course, so what does that 1,000 mean to the organization? So, how does the training that you offer influence the revenue? And also, how does it impact the goal of the organization, that the organization has set? So showing up that value would make the leadership pause and think “oh, so what else can we get from this L&D?” 

Something else you can also do is to engage the leaders and this means that we show up as a critical business partner. So we’re talking about how are we aligning with the strategy? What are our managers saying and all that? And then how do people see L&D in the organization? So, are we doing those self-assessments? Are we doing the pulse-checking to see? What’s our brand in the organization? And the last thing is communicating the role of L&D, not just as a service provider of dishing out courses, but the strategy crawl. This is attracting and retaining talent because it’s the talent, it’s the skills in the organization that will help us to achieve the goals and the priorities. And also, motivating and engaging the employees as well as developing their capabilities. So all this will ensure that our leaders can be able to notice or even bring us to the table.

Brian Washburn: I really appreciate the last thing that you said, in terms of Learning & Development can’t be seen just as a bunch of order takers, saying “hey, we need to create this training, can you do this for us or can you help us?” But rather being seen as strategic partners as well, being able to bounce ideas around, saying “hey, is that training really going to be the most valuable thing or is there a different way to approach this problem?” And the other thing that you mentioned was in order to get people’s buy-in we need to show our value. We need to show some sort of value. And I’m going to go back to you Rachel, with this last question here because learning is notoriously squishy when it comes to being able to measure our success or our value. What are some ways that you can think of that you can determine whether or not the organization’s learning initiatives have been successful?

How Can You Determine Whether Your Organizational Learning Initiative Has Been Successful?

Rachel Gathagu: Thanks, Brian. So yes, it has been, learning has been — I can say we have been notoriously squishy because we have been coming from a service provider approach because “you told me to do 10 questions, I delivered 10 questions”. But how do I measure the impact of that? 

So L&D needs to do a self-assessment, take a hard business approach, like other functions – functions like finance or HR – and also put in place measures that are going to measure their own success, for example, to stay strategically aligned. How effectively does our learning strategy support the organization’s priorities? So we just don’t wake up in the morning or — for the year, just do do do, but are we speaking the same language the organization’s priorities are doing? And then again when it comes to capabilities how much are we helping the colleagues? How much of the function is of helping colleagues to bigger mindsets, you know, expertise that is needed most for the organization. So working towards organization goals through being strategically aligned, ensuring the capacities that are needed are there, and also this will lead to having a good organizational health. This is the fabric of the organization, the culture that is there, the overall health of the organization. How can we measure that in terms of this is the role of L&D and all that? 

And then when it comes to individuals so that we don’t stick so much on the strategic and organization, when it comes to the individual and the peak performance, so going beyond the raw capabilities. Like, how is L&D helping colleagues achieve their maximum impact? Do we have a skills cup in the organization? Do we have an assessment that can be able to show this person was able to move from here to here because of what L&D put in place? So that we’ll be able to, you know, not just show up numbers, but what do these numbers really mean for the organization?

Brian Washburn: It is interesting because numbers are one thing and they tell a story, but what is the story that they are trying to tell, and that’s always the toughest nut to crack, and one of the reasons why sometimes it’s squishy. Gus, do you have anything to add when it comes to what we can do to show and demonstrate the value of organizational learning initiatives?

When Do You know Your Organizational Learning Strategies Have Been Effective?

Gus Curran: Yeah. I think Rachel actually hit it all. Like one of the things that — how you’ll know you’re reaching that milestone in your own L&D team is when you are no longer the last person invited to these initiatives. But when they come to you near the beginning and say “hey, we’re thinking of this, how can you help us?” you’ll know you’re being successful at that point. And that will happen if you keep doing these things that we talk about. Like, you’ll stop being seen as squishy, stop acting squishy and they’ll listen to you, so that’s kind of all I have to add there.

Brian Washburn: I love that and it really does — and it’s been my experience too. It goes into providing value in being a thought partner alongside of other people across the organization. Well, that’s all the time I have for questions. But before we go we do want to make sure that our listeners get to know you all a little bit more so I have a few speed round questions. Gus, I think that you’ve been through this before so you should be well prepared here. (LAUGHING)

Gus Curran: (LAUGHING)

Get to Know Gus Curran and Rachel Gathagu

Brian Washburn: But here we go. We’ll start with Gus on this first one, then we’ll go over to Rachel. What is your go-to food or snack right before a presentation?

Gus Curran: Lately it’s been an english muffin – whole wheat, with almond butter.

Brian Washburn: Even if it’s in the afternoon?

Gus Curran: It’s always in the morning so i’m –. But it’s been morning the last few months.

Brian Washburn: (LAUGHING) Awesome. Rachel, how about you, what’s your go-to food or snack?

Rachel Gathagu: Strangely, carrots.

Brian Washburn: Oh, ok.

Rachel Gathagu: Yeah.

Brian Washburn: So – carrots? That is not an answer I’ve ever gotten before — (LAUGHING)

Rachel Gathagu: (LAUGHING)

Brian Washburn: — so I like it. I like the uniqueness. (LAUGHING) And I’ll start with Rachel with this next question. What is a piece of training technology that you cannot live without?

Rachel Gathagu: For me, it’s breakout rooms, Brian, because especially in this time of booming digital learning and the way connectivity, learner engagement and stuff like that, I find these are the spaces that quiet learners feel involved and heard. Because you go into that room and you connect with 3 or 4 people and your voice can finally be heard, other than in a 30-group or 30-room where you don’t know who is there, so for me it is the breakout rooms.

Brian Washburn: I couldn’t have said that better myself. That’s a great one. How about you, Gus? A piece of training tech?

Gus Curran: That’s tough to follow because when she told me that I’m like “that’s perfect”. I’m old fashioned, Brian. I’m going to say – it’s not popular – the Learning Management System. You know, it gets a bad rap. Everybody’s moving on to the shiny stuff but when you’ve got a global audience to train and you’re unsure about bandwidth and time zones and all of that, LMS can still be an indispensable tool. So I’m going to just say LMS today.

Brian Washburn: Nice. Is there anything, Gus, that people should be listening to or reading when it comes to L&D stuff or maybe it’s not L&D related but can be inspirational for L&D folks?

Gus Curran: Train Like You Listen is one of my favorite podcasts. I’m reading The Art of Gathering, which I heard about on this podcast, How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker. It is so good and it’s going to make our team have better meetings I already can tell you that.

Brian Washburn: Nice. How about you, Rachel, is there anything that you’re reading or listening to that you want to let other people know about?

Rachel Gathagu: Yes, indeed. Currently, I’m reading an e-book from Nick van Dam and the title is Elevating L&D, Insights and Practical Guidance from the Field. Quite, quite insightful.

Brian Washburn: Nice. And speaking of e-books, I want to wrap up here to see if you all have any shameless plugs for us today.

Gus Curran: Yes, thanks for asking. As you, kind of, heard we work with a lot of L&D Departments in global nonprofits and we’ve collected some of their best insights and their best ideas, and some of their worst ideas, and put it into an e-book. And it’s free and we want to share it as widely as we can with everybody who wants to read it, called Mastering Organizational Learning, as you mentioned. And it’s free to download at

Brian Washburn: Excellent. And we have the link in the show notes, so…

Gus Curran: Great.

Brian Washburn: Gus, Rachel, thank you both for joining today and thank you, everyone for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen. You can find us on Apple, you can find us on Spotify, you can find us on iHeartRadio, or anywhere where you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear go ahead and give us a rating, that’s how people find out about us. Until next time, happy training everyone.

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