March Blogtipping
Why Nonprofits Should Reconsider Site-blocking Policies

Creating a Learning Climate for Nonprofit Staff

Awhile ago, Allan Benamer of the Nonprofit Tech Blog talked about nonprofit staff as knowledge workers and how technology and work processes need to support staff whose value comes primarily from their ability to make effective use of knowledge and information in working with customers. If we're to fully capitalize on the promise of a knowledge network, then staff need to have the tools, resources and supports necessary to truly fulfill their function.

This idea has been rolling around in my head for awhile now. My primary role in my consulting practice is to build organizational capacity, in part by building staff capacity through training and ensuring that staff have what they need to get their jobs done. Part of my fascination with technology lies in its power to help staff better manage knowledge and information to become highly skilled in their jobs. I keep feeling like we're missing some key pieces of the puzzle in terms of how we work with staff. They seem to be the forgotten ones. Developing their capacity is low on the list of priorities beneath things like accounting systems, how to raise more money and marketing. Yet in most nonprofits, without our staff, we are really nothing.

Earlier this week I talked about informal learning and the need to create an environment that supports  ongoing professional development.  I believe that informal learning ("the other 80%") is a crucial element of staff capacity-building, but one to which we pay little attention.

Here are a few ingredients I think we need to create a climate that supports informal learning.

  • A team of staff who have passion for the work they do. Passion is critical. If you don't love what you do, then you're not going to be devoted to doing things to make yourself better at it. And there's nothing better for learning than being surrounded by people who are excited about their work and want to get better every day at what they do.
  • Managers who nurture curiosity. Personally I don't think there's enough curiosity in the world. When my girls were 3-4 years old, all we heard was "Why?" But it seems that when we grow up, we stop asking questions and just start accepting things as they are. Without curiosity there is no learning, though. Here are some tips for "Learning to be curious" that I think hit the nail on the head (although I find it sad that we have to LEARN to be curious!)
  • Access to resources and learning activities. One area that I think is really interesting is "micro-learning."  Without getting all technical about it, micro-learning is bite-size learning experiences that can be easily digested in a short period of time. A great example of this is 23 Things, which is a series of mini lessons to help staff learn about different Web 2.0 tools. Ideally, staff try to come up with their own ideas for learning activities they'd like to pursue. But an eagle-eyed manager might also keep an eye out for these kinds of activities to share.
  • Access to learning tools and encouragement to use them. One of the reasons I love to blog is because it helps me learn--it's essentially a way to maintain an online learning journal complete with links to resources and tools that help me learn even more. Wikis, social bookmarking,  RSS and the work of others in my field that I can catch online also feed my daily learning fixes. Fortunately I work for myself and so I don't have to worry about a boss who decides to take these tools away from me. But other people do. To have a culture of learning, organizations need to consider if the benefits of arming staff with knowledge management tools don't outweigh the risks.
  • An expectation that learning is something that happens on a daily basis on "company time." If learning is going to be part of an organizational culture, than it has to be woven into its fabric.Learning shouldn't be reserved for special training days. And it shouldn't be something that we expect always expect staff to do on their own time. My favorite organizations are those that have subscriptions to professional journals and pass them around the office with the expectation that staff will read them. My favorite bosses have always sent interesting articles my way. In a good learning organization, at the end of the day, not only should we be asking "What did you accomplish?" but we should also be wondering "What did you learn?" If the answer is "nothing," then we have a problem.

So a few of my thoughts. . . . what other elements do we need to create a climate that supports informal learning? And is creating such a climate really as critical as I think for nonprofit staff?

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UPDATE--Rallyfan of Random Thoughts on Life and Work adds another item to the list--giving staff a chance to actually USE the skills. He has a good post on this that you should also check out. 

Also, I've written a follow-up post describing two other strategies that I think are critical.

Comments

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Hmm... I still hold to the notion that nonprofit line workers are knowledge workers but I'm not sure if the professional or academic training they received mesh well with technology. At least at my org, they're slowly improving but they've hit a glass ceiling as it were. Formal training may not necessarily improve upon it.

I often think that much of social services nonprofit management relies too much on managers whose academic credentials come from the MSW world. It's the wrong mindset for Web 2.0.

Hmm... I still hold to the notion that nonprofit line workers are knowledge workers but I'm not sure if the professional or academic training they received mesh well with technology. At least at my org, they're slowly improving but they've hit a glass ceiling as it were. Formal training may not necessarily improve upon it.

I often think that much of social services nonprofit management relies too much on managers whose academic credentials come from the MSW world. It's the wrong mindset for Web 2.0.

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