Queen's University IRC

Leveraging Your Learning Power

An Interview with Allyson Thomson, Marion Crane and Brenda Barker Scott
Interviewed by Queen’s IRC

January 1, 2007

We spoke to an educational dream-team about best practices in facilitating learning – and harnessing new knowledge to help overcome an organization’s most pressing challenges. Sharing their views are Allyson Thomson of the Ontario Ministry of Finance; her executive sponsor Assistant Deputy Minister Marion Crane; and Queen’s IRC Facilitator Brenda Barker Scott.

Allyson Thompson, Senior Divisional Project Manager, Transition Project Office, Ontario Ministry of Finance in Oshawa.(Queen’s IRC Certificate in Organization Development; candidate for Queen’s IRC Master Certificate in Organizational Effectiveness.)

I’ve never run into barriers to applying new knowledge when I return to work. One reason is the Ministry involves staff in developing their learning plans with managers – so when I meet with my manager we identify learning opportunities that are of benefit to me and to the organization as part of that process.

Another is that I am so well-supported. I’m in a temporary role as Senior Divisional Project Manager of the Transition Project Office, working with a team of project managers and analysts to coordinate a major restructuring initiative within the Tax Revenue Division. Recently, my Assistant Deputy Minister, several key directors from the division, me, and Brenda Barker all met to talk about what kind of learning was of most use to me, to the division, and to the organization. This demonstrates the value the leaders of this division place on learning.

As part of my OD training at Queen’s IRC my practicum is to develop a cultural transformation strategy. This is necessary for my learning, and for the division. The ADM looked at it as a strategic investment, and provided time, support and money.

So it is not like sending someone on a one-off course and hoping they pick something up. The divisional leadership team did a really thoughtful and strategic review of organizational requirements, divisional requirements, and my personal development, and brought key stakeholders together to discuss it. That really clears the way for learning – and its application on the job.

Executive Sponsor Marion Crane, Assistant Deputy Minister, Tax Revenue Department, Ontario Ministry of Finance, Oshawa

The number one thing is to make the time to connect with the individual before and after a program. Allyson’s project impacts a whole division, and involves a huge cultural change. She emailed me to tell me about the Queen’s learning opportunity, and asked, ‘Can we setup a time to discuss this?’

I’m always glad when people follow up. It allows me to do something I am supportive of, which is to ensure the person has the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned. When Allyson followed up with me about this opportunity, I scheduled a meeting with her, along with key directors in the division, to discuss how the learning could be applied – to the benefit of Allyson, and also the Tax Revenue Division.

To ensure knowledge gets transferred, the organization has to value learning in the first place. This should be a no-brainer, but it isn’t the reality in all organizations.

Also, there’s a difference between management support – such as paying for a course – and active support, where you show that you know what the person is trying to do and demonstrate your intention to assist them.

When the person follows up it provides an opportunity to be actively supportive. Leaders want to be more supportive, but there is just so much time in a day. I think the onus has to be on the employee to make senior management aware of what he or she needs.

When Allyson’s project is finished, we will likely have her interviewed for the Divisional newsletter to share her learning with the 2,800 people in our division.

We have pockets of excellence in which there is an expectation that someone who goes for courses will present findings to learning team members. I encourage this, as you can’t send everyone on the educational program.”

Queen’s IRC Facilitator Brenda Barker Scott

The formula for best-practices learner support is three-fold. Number one, you need committed and enlightened leadership – leadership that sees education as an investment and leadership that enables learners to apply their new knowledge back at the workplace.

Then you need a learner who is ready, able and motivated to do the work.

The third element is a relevant business challenge for applying the learning. It’s got to be a challenge worthy of attention and not a make-work project.

When you have these three elements in place, committed leadership, a motivated learner and a real business challenge, then you have the conditions for real results.

We saw this with the example of the Ontario Ministry of Finance. It was time for Allyson to do her Consulting Skills practicum as part of her Queen’s Organization Effectiveness Master Certificate.

Marion called the senior leadership team together to get their ideas and agreement on the real business opportunity that Allyson might tackle with her practicum. And Allyson was a highly motivated learner – she sought out the program in the first place and approached Marion about it.

As well, Allyson had IRC’s support during her practicum, as we guide people through the process that we teach. So there’s always a coach a tour end to bounce ideas off of, both about content, and process.

Quite simply, it’s about tasking learners with real-life, high-leverage business challenges and then supporting and enabling them along the way. This is why people who come to our Master level programs will now be required to meet with their executive sponsor, identify an organizational challenge, and create an agreement before the program about how learning will be applied. Ideally, learners will meet with their sponsor upon their return to discuss the plan for applying knowledge.

As adults, we learn by doing. The more that we can apply new concepts and skills to meaningful work, the deeper our learning will be. For example, you can read books about tennis, or take lessons, but until you play the game you can’t reflect on what worked, what didn’t work and how you will adjust for the next time. Which is another benefit for learners who have a faculty member or in-house coach to work with: it gives them a person to help them reflect on what they learned and how they can apply it in future.

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