When we have to tighten our belts and our budgets begin to wilt, one of the early casualties is often learning and development.

In these austere times, it helps to remember that the work we do offers almost infinite learning opportunities and, with a little foresight and planning, we can piggyback a learning process on to almost any work activity.

Opportunities in general have a habit of revealing themselves after the event. They surround us but we only realise that we have passed one by through the benefit of hindsight. Work-based learning opportunities may seem to be elusive and yet all we need to do is look for them.

In his book Opportunities: a handbook of business opportunities, Edward de Bono describes it as “a course of action that is possible and obviously worth pursuing”. He says it is the possibility of an opportunity that differentiates it from mere wishful thinking. The knack is to develop a kind of parallel vision: see tasks and activities not only as things to do but also as opportunities to learn.

Some years ago, I was involved in a research project to explore what type of experiences people had learned most from. The most frequently cited were all work based and included moving to a new role, temporarily working in a higher role, leading or working on a cross-functional project and dealing with a crisis and its aftermath.

Those interviewed identified improvements to, and extension of, a wide range of skills and know-how, including communication and interpersonal skills, problem-solving, managing change and dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. They commented on how much they learned about themselves, their emotional intelligence and their latent abilities. 

This learning had no direct costs; the resource most often used was their managers and colleagues, who provided coaching, mentoring or “buddy” support.  

Here are just a few pointers to using ordinary work events as learning activities:

  • team briefings
  • meetings
  • analyse mistakes
  • cover for temporary absences
  • give/receive developmental feedback
  • give presentations
  • write reports
  • job shadow
  • do project work.

The one important point to remember is that to pull out any learning we need to review what happened, otherwise any learning is unacknowledged and often unrecognised. This means that not only do we lose an opportunity to share our learning more widely but also that we have no way of knowing whether we learned the “right” things - for example, appropriate behaviours. 

An effective manager, coach or mentor can help an individual to draw out conclusions or learning points and plan how to use them to change behaviour or do something differently another time. And maybe, just maybe, as managers and leaders, we need to set the example by sharing our own learning lessons derived from the work that we do.