What Have I Learned at Work?

by Jeff Cobb

The person and questionKnowledge is one of the most valuable assets each of us possesses in this increasingly “flat” world, and so much of our knowledge is acquired through our day-to-day learning experiences at our jobs. Yet how often do you ask yourself the simple question “What have I learned at work?”

I know I don’t ask it often enough. And for that matter, I can’t remember an employer ever asking the question of me. But it is a very important question, particularly in the context of current economic conditions. It can be the key to getting your next job, or even keeping your current one.

I should be clear that I’m not talking only about formal training or education experiences funded by your employer (if you are lucky enough to get those). While these can be valuable, most of us learn at least as much, if not more, through less formal interactions with co-workers, customers, and suppliers, or through our own efforts to meet new challenges.

I am also not talking only about achieving personal objectives you may have defined (or had defined for you!) as part of review process. Again, these can be valuable, but the focus tends to be on the ends achieved rather than the context and processes through which they are achieved.

Context. Process. These are elements of our workplace learning of which we don’t tend to be particularly conscious on a day-to-day, much less hour-to-hour or minute-to-minute basis, but which contribute significantly to how and how much we learn in our jobs.

Here’s a challenge: Go into work one day soon with a personal commitment to be “hyper” conscious about everything you learn that day. Ask yourself some of the following questions as the day goes along:

  • Does what I am doing right now (i.e., having a conversation, participating in a meeting, completing a routine task, etc.) increase my knowledge or skill level in any significant way? How?
  • What might turn this activity into more of a learning experience? What do I need to do to make that happen? What could my employer do?
  • What could I add into my activities for today that would provide for a learning experience?
  • How will I apply what I am learning (at any given moment in the day) to future work at my current job, or to a future job of my dreams?
  • What could I take out of my activities that does not contribute to learning and would not really be missed?
  • Am I learning things that contribute in a meaningful way to my long-term career and life goals?

At the end of the day, sit down and write or type out everything you feel you have learned during the day along with answers to the above questions and any others you might have asked yourself. Spend a bit of time reflecting on how what you have learned (or not learned!) fits into your overall desires for your career and life.

I know most people reading this will shrug or scoff and won’t do what I have just suggested above, much less repeat it over multiple days or weeks and try to develop it into an unconscious habit, but I’m telling you, it can be very revealing and very powerful. And I’d go so far as to suggest that:

  1. Individuals who become conscious of their learning at work and take charge of their learning at work will be by far the most successful in today’s economy.
  2. The primary focus of learning professionals should be helping individuals become conscious of their learning and take charge of it.

There are a couple of corollaries to the above points that deserve future postings of their own. The first is that, if you undertake the exercise above and discover that you really are not learning much on the job, it may be time to look for a better job. The second is that, if you are counting on your employer to understand the new dynamics of workplace learning and help you out, you may be waiting quite a while. More on those topics later.

In the meantime, I strongly encourage you to try what I’ve suggested above, and if you are willing, report back your results here. How do I know this is truly worth doing? Well, let’s say I learned it at work.

JTC

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posted on April 20, 2008

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Shaz December 30, 2009 at 9:47 am

Effing brilliant! I’m a college student and after trying this out I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about my field of study (through working as an intern) and the qualities I need to acquire to improve at what I do.

jtcobb December 30, 2009 at 10:25 am

Shaz – Thanks for the first “effing” praise I’ve ever received here on Mission to Learn – and even more so for sharing your story. I think this is a GREAT thing for interns to do (even if you annoy quite a few people in the process!) – Jeff

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