Learning to Learn: SHRM Forum Meet

[This was my address delivered at SHRM Forum Meet on May 29, 2014 at Raymond Ltd., Thane]

The subject I am going to deal with is ‘Learning to Learn.’ Forget the play of words; I will put forth some thoughts about learning and development before you.

I am going to talk about five themes today: [a] When do you feel that you must invest in learning, [b] When do we stop learning, [c] When do we keep learning and applying it incessantly, [d] What do we learn at various stages in our career, and finally [e] how to make learning unobtrusive.

When do you feel that you must invest in learning?
We begin with the first question, and I have often thought about it. The question is ‘When does learning begin?’ I am not asking this question to look for a scientific answer. To rephrase this question: “When do you feel that you must invest in learning?” Is this urge to learn sparked off by an incident or is it sparked off by your intellectual curiosity?

I am talking about investing in learning. Let us distinguish this from our studying in school which we attended because that was the right thing to do or it was forced on us by our parents or society. When we talk of investing in learning we are talking about some proactive, goal oriented learning.

I would like to share three true stories with you.

When I secured a job in Asian Paints I saw that  there were many young executives who were better qualified, better informed, well-read, and could speak English much better than me. I realised that I had had a good time in life, all fun and frolic, and forgotten to focus on adding value to myself. A sense of inadequacy crept in. ‘They are better than me but I have to catch up with them quickly’ is what I told myself. I found myself studying various subjects regularly. The sense of competition had opened my eyes. The event of joining Asian Paints made me feel that I must invest in my learning.

The second story is of a young girl, Asha. She was just about 10, and hailed from a village in UP. She was brought to Bangalore by a young couple, as a maid to look after their one year old kid. This couple would converse mostly in English at home and also with the child. The result was that Asha, who was illiterate, started making good conversations in English within a year. Visitors and relatives of the couple would be surprised and they would praise Asha. The self-esteem and learning of this little girl both went up.

The last story is of Mr Parikh who worked as Time Keeper in my department. That was way back in mid-eighties. Parikh was 55 years old when PCs were given to every department. Parikh was a sixth standard school dropout, had a working knowledge of English, but learnt WordStar and Spreadsheet quickly. He also became very proficient in the computerised attendance recording system which then was somewhat complicated program. What made Parikh to learn computers at the very end of his career? What made Parikh think that he could master it when he was only sixth standard school dropout?
There must be several people like me whose learning is driven by a sense of inadequacy.
There must be several people who are lucky like Asha. They receive encouragement and whose learning is driven by increasing self-esteem. And there are several people who learn new tasks, new knowledge because they focus on doing the task very well, excellently, by giving their best, because they follow certain values in life.

We return to the main question: When do you feel you must invest in learning? Is it when you feel inadequate? Is it when you receive positive strokes? Or is it when you follow a life philosophy of ‘Yoga karmasu kaushalam?’

Does this question have any implication for development of people? I am searching answer, we may discuss this at the end of my talk.

When do we stop learning?
I was reading Colin Wilson’s book ‘Mysteries.’ One chapter in that book is devoted to what he calls ‘The right man.’ In corporate life we meet this Mr Right in every organisation. Mr. Right’s behavior [quote] ‘raises some disturbing questions about man’s attitude to events beyond his everyday experience. Men have a deeply ingrained habit of starting with the ‘facts’ they want to believe, and then working backwards to find the evidence to support them.’ [Unquote]

In my assignment as TISCO Chair Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences I interacted with some social scientists and researchers of repute. One of them told me that ‘a good chunk, probably 50% of the research is junk.’ When I enquired why, he told me that they hypothesized first and looked only at that evidence which would prove it.

‘In 1950, van Vogt, a science fiction writer began to study examples of male chauvinism in divorce cases. He observed that there is a type of man who demands one code of conduct for himself and another for his wife. The chief characteristic of this type of male is an obsession with being right! Under no circumstances would he ever admit that he might have been wrong. If something upset him, he would tend to blame and pour his irritation on the head of someone…  He could never admit that he might be to blame.’ Van Vogt labelled him ‘the Right Man.’

I am sure we have met many such people in our career. Van Vogt’s research showed that such men are not a rarity, they are common. Colin Wilson makes a point which I would rather read out, he says, [quote] “The really disturbing implications of the Right Man theory begin to emerge when we try to draw the line between ‘unbalanced’ people and decent people like us. For it proves impossible to do it. All healthy normal human beings dislike being in the wrong; we all feel embarrassed about making mistakes and being seen to make them. What is wrong with the Right Man is that he has never conquered his childish desire to have everything his way…” [Unquote]

So all of us are Right Man at some point of time.

Not accepting feedback and not making conscious efforts to perceive the reality are so common faults that there would not be perhaps anyone who would have escaped it. The recent defeat of Congress party is attributed to this very fault of human nature, and it is, in my opinion, a glaring example. The leaders of Congress Party refused to acknowledge that they failed to read the signals and mind of people on the TV show on IBN Lokmat.

What is the solution? In the corporate life job rotation achieves the effect of getting the man out of his comfort zone. His antenna goes up as he feels a bit insecure, and he then makes extra effort to consciously relate to the world. There are other solutions too. Coaching and mentoring could serve some purpose.

Another possible solution could be to help the person increase his focus on a certain issue or goal. Focus brings high level of attention, high level of awareness. People become conscious about every aspect. One practice is very common among painters. Before they paint say, a landscape, they use pencil to make a study. They study distance, angle, light values and many details. You will be surprised how many details you miss out when you are taking a quick look at the landscape. The trick thus lies in getting a man to work consciously, investing high energy in his activity.

When do we keep learning and applying it incessantly?
Having discussed ‘when we stop learning’ let us now take another case. When is it that we keep learning endlessly? Does it happen? Yes it does.

Let me tell you a true story. I know of one very senior manager in a Tata organisation whose family moved out of Pakistan during partition. When he enrolled for engineering, he had no money to buy books. So he copied one engineering book, he actually wrote the entire book on rough pages. The net result was that he topped the examination which was predictable. He later joined industry and moved to high position. His interest in the engineering never dwindled. He was always abreast of developments in his subject even when he was on the verge of retirement.

What explains this endless learning?

You must have noticed that the people of my generation who studied in vernacular medium school note down an unfamiliar English word and consult the dictionary. It happens even though many of us have gained fairly good proficiency. Contrast this with people who studied in English medium schools. You are unlikely to find them noting unfamiliar word. Why has learning English continued for us and stopped for them?

Let me give you third story. You may have heard of Dr Himmatrao Bavaskar. Dr. Bavaskar came from a poor family. He worked as a hotel boy cleaning utensils and sometimes swept the temples to pay his fees for his studies. Continuing to live this way he earned a degree in medicine and got a job in Government’s health care service. Posted in Konkan area he noticed that there were high mortality rate due to Scorpio bites. He began his research on this issue and has been at it for the last thirty years. His original research and remedies have gained worldwide recognition. His research has brought down the mortality rate substantially. What makes him research this subject for 30 years although he received no support from the Government? The signboard on the door of his laboratory reads ‘Every doctor must remain a lifelong student, because when he stops developing himself, he ceases to be one.’
This is a matter of great interest to HR professionals. If they can get people to passionately pursue studying a subject or developing themselves, then they would create a great organisation.

To find the answer, let us discuss the Planaria experiment. 
[Quote] ‘In 1958, Irvin Rubenstein and Jay Boyd Best, two zoologists working at the Walter Reed Army Institute in Washington, were conducting experiments involving the learning capacity of a simple organism called the planarian worm. Planaria are incredibly simple creatures – no brain, no nervous system – so they make excellent subjects for experiments in the lab. The two zoologists were trying to study how they could learn without a brain. They put some planaria into a closed tube containing water – which planaria need to live. They then turned a tap which drained the water out of the tube. In a state of alarm, the planaria rushed along the tube looking for water. Soon they encountered a fork; one branch was lighted, and led to water; the other branch was unlighted, and didn’t. Soon, ninety per cent of the planaria had learned the trick of choosing, and when the water was drained off, they rushed along the tube and chose the lighted alleyway, whether it was the right or left fork.
‘But now a strange thing happened. As Rubenstein and Best repeated the experiment over and over again (with the same worms), the planaria began choosing the wrong fork. That baffled them.
‘One of them suggested that perhaps they were bored with doing the same thing, and the wrong choice was the expression of the kind of irrational activity – like vandalism – that springs from boredom. The other asked how they could be bored when they had no brain or nervous system. But a few more experiments seemed to indicate that the boredom hypothesis was correct. As the experiments continued, the planaria would just lie there, refusing to move, as if saying: ‘Oh God, not again!’ They preferred to die rather than go looking for water.
‘It seemed so absurd that Rubenstein and Best devised another experiment to test the boredom hypothesis. This time they took two tubes, and a new lot of planaria. In one tube, which had a rough inner surface, the water was down the lighted alleyway. In the other, which was smooth, it was down the dark alleyway. This was a far more complex experiment, and only a small percentage of the planaria learned which alleyway to choose. But that small percentage never regressed. They could do the experiment a thousand times and not get bored. Because they had been forced to put twice as much effort into the initial learning process, they achieved a higher level of imprinting – that is, of purpose – and maintained it forever.’
The relevance and conclusion of experiment should be obvious. If someone fails to put sufficient energy into the learning process, they become subject to boredom, and might even prefer to lie down and die rather than make an effort.

The issue for HR professionals is “how to get people to put sufficient energy in the learning process.” If we can crack this riddle then we can create people who will be passionate learners in a certain area and they will make great contribution like Dr Bavaskar.

I believe the solution lies in the complexity of the problem, the challenge that it holds. That brings dedication and focus.

And how do we take this at the organisational level? I see no other solution than having mentors. They alone in my opinion can create such people. Here is a true story that should highlight this point.
Mr. Guru Narayana, the Chairman Emeritus of Excel Industries Ltd asked Mr. P D Thosar (HR Manager) to translate Bhagwadgita in Marathi verse. Thosar had never written any poetry so he was shocked at this suggestion. He laughed it off. Guru Narayana asked Thosar to choose any one shloka and translate it in Marathi verse. Thosar did this with some effort. Guru Narayana then told Thosar, ‘I have proved to you that you can translate Gita in Marathi verse. If you can do one shloka, you can do all shloka’. Thosar had no answer; he proceeded to translate Bhagwadgita in Marathi verse. It is now published as a book.

Let us move to the next point.

What do we learn at various stages in our career? 
The answer to this question is borne mostly out of my personal experience. As a young executive my first concern was to acquire basic skills, skills of interviewing, of managing performance etc., and basic knowledge of various aspects of HR and ER. I was acutely aware that a management institute introduces you to the subject, and we have to develop on it.

I was also acutely aware that not having such knowledge and skills can only earn me negative points. Gaining knowledge of various subjects is one thing and learning to apply it is another. Anybody who has studied labour law would readily agree to this statement. I believe that learning to apply a concept is a great skill and it takes a good time to learn it.

I call this ‘Security’ stage. What follows then is a ‘Novelty’ stage where we learn the latest and sometimes controversial or new complicated concepts, and we also learn to apply them. Leadership Development’ is one such area. Use of social media is another such area for many HR managers. We also learn to use them for diverse set of activities.

And the last stage is what I call ‘Meaning’ stage. In this stage we learn to make meaning out of our work, the developments around us. The word ‘Work’ means much different at this stage than what we understood when we joined the corporate world.

I also associate these stages Security, Novelty and Meaning with three stages of career. I had read somewhere that there are three stages of or career, and these are Learn, Earn and Return. In the Learn stage the focus is on learning, this is when we join industry and learn our basics. In the second stage, we would like to enhance our skills, adapt new skills to maximise our earning. At this stage we have acquired a family, and earning remains the focus. In the last stage called Return, it comes when we are on the wrong side of forty, we engage in institution building.

I am sure that you would have seen the relationship between Security stage of learning and the Learn stage of our career; Novelty stage of learning and Earn Stage of career and Meaning stage of learning and Return stage of our career.

I would like to ask this audience if this will help in developing a people development strategy, and if this will help in promoting dialogues which facilitate people development.

How to make development ‘unobtrusive?’ 
I have many managers who were afraid of ‘assessment centres and development centres.’ Being assessed for competencies is not all people like. In one of the organisation they had a benchmark created based on global research and managers were mapped against that yardstick. Those who qualified on the basis of the yardstick received recognition. An approach to development like this may have some positives, but it has more negatives. One of the positive aspects is that it makes development process ‘manageable.’

But it has negative aspects too. Those negative aspects show up because this approach ignores the very nature of the development process.

I was discussing Development Centres with my Guru. He did not like the thought of holding development centres. “Who was responsible for your development?” he asked. “My mother and father” I replied. “Did they ever tell you “Come, sit here, now we are going to develop you?” “It sounds funny and ridiculous” I said. “That is why I am opposing obtrusive development ideas” my Guru said.

He had made a point very effectively. How to develop people without being obtrusive? I once met Mr Mondkar, the erstwhile Chief of HR at Tata Motors. He joined Tata Motors or Telco as it was called then as a Despatch clerk. How did he grow within hierarchy, and who developed him? This is a story of the sixties and seventies. He must have experienced unobtrusive development. I recently wrote about Production Executive in a company whose qualification was ‘third standard fail’ as he described to me with a smile on his face. He did not attend any management course, and we are sure that somebody helped in his development every day. Sushil Kumar Shinde may not be the name you will like to recall today, but his rise from being a peon to Governor is not without somebody facilitating his development quietly.

The issue before us is therefore how we can make development more natural, and unobtrusive. Perhaps the solution lies in coaching and mentoring. Because our approach must have reverence to individuality. Because development of people is essentially a process of evolution. For this reason solution also lies in dialogue, in the conversations we have every day at workplace. These conversations have a great potential to program our minds, to program the way we think about issues. My submission is that the coming years will see only greater reliance on this area.

These are my thoughts about learning. Let us discuss your views and experience to make this Meet more useful to all.


Vivek S Patwardhan 

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