“Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”
Albert Einstein

Adult learning was studied by Malcolm Shepherd Knowles in the 1960’s and ‘The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy v’s Pedagogy’, released in 1970. The term ‘Andragogy’ (the science of adult learning) was initially coined by Alexander Kapp and then adopted by Knowles. He stated that there are 5 assumptions and 4 principles related to adult learning. Firstly, the assumptions…

• Self-Concept
As a person matures his/her self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being.
• Adult Learner Experience
As a person matures, he/she accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.
• Readiness to Learn
As a person matures his/her readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his/her social roles.
• Orientation to Learning
As a person matures his/her time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application. As a result, his/her orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject- centeredness to one of problem centeredness.
• Motivation to Learn
As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal (Knowles 1984).

Knowles’ 4 Principles of Andragogy

Knowles suggested 4 principles that are applied to adult learning:

Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities.
Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life.
Adult learning is problem-centred rather than content-oriented.

The first involvement and insight I had to the world of adult learning in business was ‘training’ approximately 15 people in to a call handling, Customer Service, Jack of all Trades role in a Customer Contact Centre, or, a Call Centre as it was called way back then. The delegates were with me for 4 weeks, during which time they would learn products, process, call handling skills, complaint handling, accounts, system use etc. My extensive learning to take on this role… I had been a pretty decent Advisor (if I say so myself) in the same Call Centre just a few weeks earlier. That was it.

Looking back, I really had little to no awareness of what task I was involved in. I saw this as ‘training’. My job title was ‘Trainer’ and I had the ability to clearly relay a message from a PowerPoint screen, that someone else had designed, to the delegates and then answer their questions. An important addition: my attitude was to enjoy the role and genuinely help people start their career with the company, however, the terms presenting, facilitating, coaching and training were all merged in to one; ‘training’.

Whether all, or any of the delegates actually learned, or how much they learned; who’s to say, as it was never measured. This lack of embedment is likely to have been as a result of speed of the business, high attrition of employees, busy Managers, in addition to a lack of awareness on my part or that of the small training team. Conversely, the quality of training / education was also likely to be part cause of the same attrition level.

With hindsight, it’s likely my knowledge at that point says more about the norm of internal adult learning in organisations than it does about my limited awareness and skills at the time. However, I, and no doubt many like me were / are given this huge responsibility without fully understanding it. The impact of this on genuine learning is surely staggering? Is it any wonder that other people and departments can point the finger at the quality of learning? Let’s be honest; sometimes that pointing finger has been warranted.

“Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself”

Chinese Proverb

For those of us who work in a learning related role for any organisation, we are working with adults, from millennials to sixty-somethings and we should consider how to cater for all. The question and challenge for me is not only about understanding of how adults learn (I think we generally have a grasp on this) but even more pressing; how do we, in organisations, ensure that adults who are in the learning process are effectively managed through this process?

In a large number of organisations; I’ve seen employees who are ‘sent’ on a course in good faith by their Manager. It may be online, classroom or virtual, as part of the company Learning &
Development offering. Rarely is there adequate set up of this. Even less frequently is there a ‘real’ learning experience involved where the change of behaviour, process or system knowledge is given appropriate embedding and support and a recognised and measured outcome recorded.

Frequently, Learning & Development functions can be criticised and are effectively seen to be ‘ticking a box’. Less often is it accepted as vital to success of the organisation, its culture and its employees. Surely learning can’t be a ‘stand-alone’ function or simply positioned within a larger Organisational Development team? For me, learning has to be involved in and connected with every part of the business, share the same goals, measurable output and work in tandem with those on the ‘shop floor’.

For Managers of people as well as other L&D professionals, let’s ensure that we meet the needs of the adult learner as well as the business. My own visualisation on the needs to ensure ‘real learning’ is simple (see below), but also important to remember that if you miss one step… we’re then leaving it to chance and we’re on shaky ground. This diagram is also based on the belief that learning is the result of all of these steps; not just what happens in a classroom…

The considerations on each of these steps to effective learning may vary in each organisation and the reader may be able to add more to each one, however, as a Manager of people or L&D Professional, consider the foundational building requirements for effective learning in any organisation, and at any level, as noted below…


Have we, the organisation or the Manager, discussed this with the learner? Not just… ‘You’re going on a course’
Do we know the employee understand why they’re included in learning?
Do they know, and have they ‘bought in to’ the benefits of learning?
Are they ‘in the right place’ to learn? If not, how do we overcome that?


Is the learning content designed correctly and appropriately?
Are we using the method of delivery with highest impact, not just the cheapest or quickest?
Is the facilitator capable?
Does the content genuinely meet the learner needs and the needs of the organisation?
Does the learner have the appropriate pre-requisites (knowledge, education or experience) to understand the content?


Is there resistance to learning? If so, it needs to be recognised and overcome
Does the culture of the business accept and embrace learning and change?
Does the learner see and feel that they are learning and that it is worthwhile?
Does the facilitator have the credibility and detailed knowledge for the learners to believe?


When the learner leaves the session, will it stick? How do you know?
Can they start using the information quickly?
Does the content and / or facilitation have oomph?!
Does their Manager / Coach have the knowledge, the time and desire to re-enforce learning?


If you don’t use it, you lose it… give the opportunity to use the learning quickly
Gain agreement up front where the learner will apply the learning to real life scenario
Doing something different can be scary – let’s recognise and face the output of that fear
It’s easy and tempting to fall back on previous habits (I’ve always done it this way) so confront the resistance!


Do we expect and allow for mistakes to happen?
Are there ‘check-ins’ where the learner can update us, and us them, on progress and challenges?
Are we providing measurement of success?
Do we challenge when it’s not working?

“The single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organisation’s learning culture”
Josh Berzin (Berzin by Deloitte)

When we consider how learning impacts on, fits with, drives or becomes the culture of the business; it can go a number of different ways…

The method, process and effectiveness of adult learning in our business (good or bad) can become the norm; the way things are done around here… the culture. Operational Managers, the shop floor will embrace learning if they see and feel a benefit for the role that they have. A successful learning function will be an integral component to product quality of the business, will be a ‘must have’ in ongoing people development as well as change; new products, pricing, structure etc.

If they don’t see or feel a personal benefit, in an ideal world; they will positively and constructively communicate this and work with the L&D Departments to an improved, more effective solution. In my experience, that doesn’t always happen as challenging the norm isn’t the norm! Confrontation will be avoided for a number of reasons and perceived thoughts… they won’t respond well to this, that’s not my job to worry about, I have enough to do looking after my own patch, or even… I can relate, or blame operational under-performance to the quality of training etc.

Operational areas and learning areas can gradually drift apart (if ‘departmental drift’ isn’t already a known business term, it certainly should become one) and result with departments working hard, but not together.

If we examine the culture of our organisation, where does learning fit? Is there a genuine learning culture? Not simply a culture of sending people on workshops or counting how much training we do, a genuine culture of learning and improvement.

My own thoughts at this point in time is that there could and probably should be a shift in positioning of L&D within organisations, not necessarily out of the traditional HR / OD department altogether, but certainly closer and more aligned to the Operation.

My question and challenge for all; do we know that learning in our organisation is effective and that we have a genuine culture of learning?

If you are starting in a career in Learning & Development; this blog is a summary of the knowledge and awareness that I didn’t know I didn’t know. I hope it helps. For those more experienced Managers of People or L&D Professionals, hopefully this is a useful reminder or thought provoking read.

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