was my address delivered at SHRM Forum Meet on May 29, 2014 at Raymond Ltd., Thane]
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
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?
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?
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.
would like to share three true stories with you.
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.
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.
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?
must be several people like me whose learning is driven by a sense of
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.
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?’
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?
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]
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.
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.’
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]
of us are Right Man at some point of time.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
explains this endless learning?
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?
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.’
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.
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
‘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.
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.
believe the solution lies in the complexity of the problem, the challenge that
it holds. That brings dedication 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.
move to the next point.
What do we learn at various stages in our
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
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.
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
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
Labels: Assessment Centre, Coaching, Development, Development Centre, dialogue, Individual Development, Learning, Mentoring, SHRM, training, Unobtrusive development