Organizational barriers to learning are often not as obvious as being given no budget for training, or no training facilities, or no LMS. More often barriers are built in the subtle ways that managers talk about capability development with their direct reports. For example, below is a conversation between a manager and direct report that was recently overheard in a medical device company. Read the dialogue and then consider the questions at the end.

 

Direct Report:

Good morning, Steve.

 

Boss:

Good morning, Jim. From your email it seems that you have something urgent you want to discuss with me.

 

Direct Report:

Yes. I would like to discuss an opportunity that has come up that I think will really help me here at the company. I have been talking with the team over in R&D and they are starting on new project and believe that my talents would be put to good use particularly in the early stages of the project development. I think I could learn a lot from being on that team. So, I am requesting a transfer onto their team for three to six months, just during the start-up phase and then I’ll return to my job here.

 

Boss:

Well Jim, you know we are very busy here in product support right now so I don’t think I can afford to let you go, even for three to six months.

 

Direct Report:

Well, I have been looking at the company’s long and short -term goals and it seems that the R&D team could provide me with the experience I need to help you achieve those goals. Also, our company’s vision and statement of beliefs say that employee development and learning is our competitive advantage. It seems to me that this opportunity with the R&D team is aligned with those statements.

 

Boss:

I get what you are saying Jim, but it is just that our work here supporting products that are already in the field is much more important and practical than R&D. We do real work here; theirs is just head-in-the-clouds stuff.

 

Direct Report:

I know R&D can be that way sometimes, but it just seems to me I would gain a great deal by working with them and, given my product support knowledge, I could influence the development of the new product. In the long run, it could make our work in product support easier.


 

Boss:

Jim, are you saying that you are not learning enough here in Product Support. I mean, I did send you to that training program out of town last year. What the hell was the name of that again?


 

Direct Report:

It was called, “Project Management for Dummies.” I learned a lot and have been applying some of the things I learned in that program back here in my job and I think it’s made a difference.  I enjoy learning and want to get as much out of every opportunity that I can.

 

Boss:

Oh yeah, now I remember that training program. Hey, we should have coffee sometime and talk about it. I will have my assistant send you a calendar invite.

 

Direct Report:

That would be good but I will have to dig out my notes.  It was 6 months ago. [pause] But what about my request to transfer to R&D?

 

Boss:

Jim, it just seems like too much risk for this department to lose you at this time. And frankly, I don’t see how you would apply what they do in R&D to the work we do. It is like apples and oranges.  Besides, I would have to get the approval from HR and you know how tough they can be on anything that deviates from the norm. In addition, there just isn’t enough money in the budget to back-fill for the time you would be over there. Who in the heck would pick up the slack and do your job during that time?

 

Direct Report:

So I guess you are telling me the answer is, “no”.

 

Boss:

I am afraid so Jim. I mean come on Jim, have you ever seen anyone recognized around here for taking that much risk? This could be a real career limiter for you as well as me, particularly if we are not able to keep up with the work while you are gone. In the meantime, maybe we can find another training thing you could go to – you would like that wouldn’t you? Now let’s stop all this foolish talk about transfer and learning and get back to doing some real work.

 

Now that you’ve “heard” the conversation between Boss and Direct Report, ask yourself these questions:

 

  • What did “Boss” say that put up barriers to “Direct Report’s” learning?

  • Why do you think Boss was not supporting the short-term transfer to R&D?

  • What’s the possible cost to the Boss and department of having Direct Report participate in the short-term transfer?

  • What do you think Direct Report was hearing and what is the likelihood he will pursue other learning opportunities?

  • What could be gained by supporting Direct Report in the short-term transfer opportunity with R&D?

  • What might Direct Report learn and how might Boss’ department benefit?

  • If you were Boss, how would you have handle this request in a way that would support learning?