Meet the Experts | Q&A with Learnovation Keynote Nigel Paine

Posted by Learnovate

Nigel Paine, Learnovation Keynote

Ahead of Learnovation 2021, we speak to one of our keynote speakers, Dr Nigel Paine, who has been involved in corporate learning for more than 25 years, to get his views on the future of work.

Nigel is a change-focused leader with a worldwide reputation and a unique grasp of media, learning and development in the public, private and academic sectors.

In 2002, Nigel was chosen to head up the BBC’s Learning and Development operation. Under his leadership, the team developed a new onboarding experience, a comprehensive leadership development programme for over 6,000 staff, an award-winning intranet, and state-of-the-art informal learning and knowledge-sharing networks.

He left the BBC in September 2006 to start his own company focused on building great workplaces by promoting creativity, innovation, values-based leadership and learning and the link between them.

He has a Professorship from Napier University in Edinburgh, and is a Fellow of the CIPD, LPI, the RSA and a Masie Learning Fellow in the USA. He presents a monthly programme on Learning Now TV and shares a weekly podcast (with Martin Couzins) called From Scratch.

Nigel has written three books, all focused on learning. They are: The Learning Challenge: Dealing with technology, innovation and change in learning and developmentBuilding Leadership Development Programmes: Zero-cost to high-investment programmes that work and Workplace Learning: How to build a culture of continuous employee development.

What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?

To never get a fixed idea of yourself and your capacity. Never define yourself by what you can do today. Define yourself by what you can do tomorrow and the day after. The minute you say I am an ‘x’ or I can’t do ‘y’ is the minute you stop living and you paralyse yourself. The second thing is I always try to share and work with other people. I learn so much from other people, listening to them and asking questions. I am never arrogant enough to think I know it all. That ability to quietly learn by observation and questioning is an enormously powerful skill.

What was the best advice you ever received?

I used to work for Lord David Puttnam. He said to me that you never really learn unless you lie awake at night absolutely petrified of what the next day will bring! I modify what he said into ‘discomfort in safety’. David would give you incredibly difficult things to do but he would always give you support and never blame you if you didn’t succeed. I absolutely believe in the power of discomfort. Too many learning organisations make it too comfortable; not wanting to push too hard or get people upset but when you are comfortable, you don’t learn. Sometimes it’s good to be upset. If you have an organisation with no conflict, it is usually not a great one. You want an organisation with constructive disagreement and a focus on getting to the solution while respecting and seeking other people’s views. David taught me to embrace discomfort and not see it as something that you have to avoid at all costs.

What are your favourite tools and resources in work?

I have a deep, profound relationship with my MacBook Pro; I use it 15 to 16 hours a day and I totally trust it. It never lets me down. My iPad and my Apple Pencil are absolutely wonderful. Go paperless! I wrote three books and an entire doctorate without one sheet of paper! I also adore my Apple Watch. I love the integration and the connection of the Apple ecosystem. The one app I’ve been with since the beginning is Evernote. I love it for its searchability and I totally trust it.

Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry?

How do you have a learning technology industry without research? It’s indelibly inked into the DNA of learning technology organisations. They don’t have separate isolated R&D; they have R&D that emerges out of their workflow, out of customer contacts and out of technology. I think that should be the way all organisations should operate. Innovation should be part of the process of work. James March wrote an interesting article in 1991 where he talked about exploitation and exploration. He says most organisations that are really good at exploitation – at getting stuff to their customer, at exploiting their existing products and really being efficient — they are often not very good at exploration – at going out into the unknown, trying to find new markets and new customers. Those who are good in the present are bad in the future. He posed this as a conundrum in 1991. I think that 30 years later, most organisations have fantastic exploitations and are also working on the future. The message for organisations is that life cycles are shortening. If you are at the heights of exploitation and are doing really well, that’s when you should be doing your intense exploration to find new markets. R&D is not a nice thing bolted on the side; its endemic in the heart for the organisation and particularly in educational technology which is rapidly changing.

From your experience, what are the current trends in learning?

The really important trend is to embed learning in work and work in learning. Learning is not something outside work but has become part of work. Learning organisations are the ones who will survive over the next 30 to 40 years. I define a learning organisation as one where the links between people make up the composite knowledge. It’s not about individual brilliance, it’s about shared and collective understanding and problem solving. Learning happens in the spaces between people. That is the distinction between an organisation full of learners and a learning organisation and they are fundamentally different. Organisations that keep those connections alive are the organisations that will have the agility to survive, thrive and deal with issues, conflicts problems and challenges. Those who don’t will crash into walls.

A second trend is the personalisation of learning; that people get what they want, when they want it at the time they need it. We need ‘just in time’ learning instead of having a stockpile. This is where we build people up for skills and competencies that they need at some point in the future and it is incredibly inefficient. We need ‘just in time’ learning but we need to couple it with profound reflection in the workplace. Many organisations are beginning to realise that if they build in time for reflection, people learn faster. If you build in that cycle of focus and reflection, you build a better workforce. There is also a link here to the whole wellness trend. Instead of treating people as, say, a project manager, you treat them as a whole person who needs to have a fulfilling life, explore the next stage of their career and be optimistic about the future. Those organisations who just see a project manager as a project manager will lose out.

How should we prepare for the future of work?

The big message is learning is no longer an optional extra or the icing on the cake in an organisation; it is absolutely fundamental to the way we work and most organisations are so far away from that, it is painful. Also, we have to see organisations much more as organic systems that are evolving and emerging and changing constantly rather than fixed hierarchical models that have been created and fixed and bolted together. As people change, organisations change and evolve for them rather than making people adapt to organisations with a preordained hierocracy. I’m not saying that we see the end of hierocracy in organisations but we see the end to it being the only structure and we will see a much looser organisational structure in the future.

What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?

The one book that jumps to mind is ‘Hit Refresh’ by Satya Nadella. If want to see how an organisation can change from being arrogant, unlearning, badly hierarchal and fighting itself to becoming a learning organisation which cares about its customers, Satya Nadella tells you the way forward.

What impact has Covid-19 had on you and what have you learned from your experience?

The impact was dramatic and fast! When I was looking ahead at my diary for 2020, I was thinking that I had a really great year ahead. I had planned trips to around 25 countries, including five or six trips to the US, and had big projects in Mexico and all over Europe. Literally within two weeks, everything fell apart. It was like my diary was magnetic and someone had turned off the magnetic force and everything fell on to the floor. I ended up with nothing. I had a week or 10 days of despair.

I built back from there. I had to reengage with the world in a different way. It all came back, just differently. In the end, I had a very exciting year and went to more countries – but virtually. It gave me time to pause and think. I did do some big things. I started learning Spanish. I also finished my doctorate during lockdown and just graduated virtually. I probably did more things with more people than I did in 2018 and 2019 as there was less physical travelling. Also, people gave things a go because of Covid that they would never have done before.

I ultimately learned that all the things I thought were impossible were possible. And when the worse happens, it’s not the end of the world.

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