The urgent need to democratise learning

 The never-ending debate around undergraduate tuition fees and vocational and technical training courses is never far away from the headlines. The Prime Minister, Theresa May is calling for ‘better value’ from the former and ‘higher standards’ for the latter. While this issue centres on the quality and cost of education for young people entering the world of work, no such focus is given to the quality of learning and development once in it.

If a recent Government white paper is to be believed then the UK’s poor productivity when compared to its EU counterparts is down to poor leadership and insufficient development of our people resources. If we democratise learning across the board then we equip everyone to deal with our fast changing world.

People are ‘our most important asset’, yet only 5% of people appear on the development radar. What about the other 95%? How do we equip them to deliver today and be prepped ready for the challenges of tomorrow? Are they less important or simply in less need of development? Are they not the very people responsible for making the business tick like clockwork, the ambassadors who ensure that the customer experience promotes continued loyalty?

Why do we need to develop our people?
People have a psychological need to be developed and to feel that their contribution is both valued and valuable. Those who feel ‘invested in’ are more likely to be engaged and contribute at a higher level than those who feel taken for granted. To be competitive, and therefore more productive, we need to create a skilled and confident workforce by giving people the tools to perform to the best of their ability within their role and to develop their potential to fulfill future roles. In developing people to be the best they can be we are making our business more competitive and more resilient to whatever the future may hold.

What prevents people development from happening?
People development is an uncomfortable area for many leaders. It’s far easier to discuss more tangible topics such as strategy and performance. And, because it’s less tangible it’s also less easy to assess both from a needs analysis and a return on investment basis. In our obsession to put a value on our every action, we’ve devalued the importance of people development. Let’s face it, do we have the empirical data to support healthy eating and doing exercise as a way of extending our life expectancy? How can we when we don’t know of our life expectancy from the outset? Leadership is about combining gut and intuition with experience and evidence to make the best possible decision. Unfortunately, without empirical data, investment in people is viewed as a discretionary expenditure rather than critical investment. This means it consequently suffers multiple cuts both in planning and execution.

The lack of importance given to people development isn’t simply down to the lack of empirical data. The responsibility for ensuring its place at the high table must fall to the leadership population. It’s the leader who creates the working environment in which his or her people operate and who observes them at work, facing the expected and unexpected challenges. It’s the leader who is closest and most able to identify the development needs of an individual so they can perform well within a role and reconcile their appetite and ambition for future roles. This responsibility is factored out to the HR function or in smaller businesses, ignored altogether, ensures that no one is picking up the gauntlet.

The democratisation of learning is about giving people the opportunity to develop themselves. For this to happen we need leaders who coach to emerge, leaders who make people development a priority in their role and recognise it as a key driver to improving performance. In this environment people will feel more valued and more encouraged to give their best to the evolving demands of business. In a world where change is the only constant and people are the most important asset, this coach leadership capability is both mandatory and urgently needed.


David Cartwright, founder of the OBD Academy, which delivers coach-supported leadership development.