It has been said that you should never stop learning, and that’s good advice. If there was ever a case for applying the lesson to the lesson then this is it: professional development. Because, not only should you never stop learning, but you should never stop learning new approaches to the way that you learn.
Learning Outside Your Comfort Zone
In Purple Cow, Seth Godin pointed out the benefits for marketers and designers of learning something from each other’s skill sets. By sending marketers on a design course and designers on a marketing course, companies can make sure that the different teams can understand each other’s processes and work better together. Designers who understand some marketing can ensure that their product is fit for the market. Marketers who understand some design can better sell the benefits and innovations of the products they represent.
But as a person looking to learn you can go beyond this. Look for courses that will help you to develop new skills, attitudes and behaviors, that will energize and provide fresh ideas, whatever field the training comes from.
Maybe you could take a history course, so that you understand how markets and society develop over time. By gaining historical perspective on your business you can better predict its future by understanding its past.
Maybe you’ve always been curious about engineering, and the way that it combines technical skills with leaps of the imagination. By following that interest you can learn to twine those different ways of thinking together.
Maybe you don’t have time right now to seek out something new. In that case pay attention to what you’re already learning from outside your field. Maybe a television documentary will show you how a leader in another field applied his learning to business, like Robert McNamara going from military supplies to the car industry. Be ready to take in the lessons, no matter where they come from.
If we only ever applied ideas from within our fields then we’d just keep coming up with the same ideas over and again. Maybe nine times out of ten your outside learning will make little difference, but the tenth time will give you the unique combination of skills and ideas to leap ahead of your rivals.
Narrowing Your Focus
This might sound like I’m encouraging you to go out and pick learning at random, just throwing knowledge at a wall until something comes up relevant.
Far from it. Learning outside your regular field is tied into another important lesson I’ve learned about learning – focus on what’s specific to you.
As David James Hood pointed out in The Marketing Manifesto, a lot of the training given to marketers is aimed at marketers in general, not the individual marketer with a particular role in a specific organization. The same is true for training all across business. We follow standard paths of learning because they’re there and because they fit the standard profile of the career we’re on.
The thing about standard profiles is that they are based on an average, or to put it in other words they don’t look the same as any specific career. If you want to excel in your specific job then you need to think about which parts of that learning are useful to you, and which things are absent. If you work marketing milk then you need to learn about milk as well as about marketing. Maybe you should take that further – learn about farming, about nutrition, about the other interests of major groups consuming milk. Build your training around the real employee that is you, not the specter of some average figure hanging over your industry.
Usefulness Versus Validation
It’s also important to train in versions of skill sets that are actually useful, rather than just those with a high profile – to avoid buying into the hype.
It’s hard to over-state the influence of public perception and validation by people in authority on the way we respond to ideas. The efforts of Wikileaks to expose intelligence secrets were largely ignored until the organization teamed up with prestigious news outlets. The information did not change at that point, but people’s interest in it did.
A business training example of this can be seen in the fascination of UK companies with the PRINCE2 project management package. This approach to project management was developed for large, high profile government projects, and then adopted by others as a best practice project management tool. This gave it a high level of perceived validity as a project management tool, and soon project managers working in all sorts of organizations on all sorts of scales were training in it.
The problem is that, while PRINCE2 has many useful components, it is completely out of proportion to many organizations’ needs. Many British project managers have spent weeks learning a process that’s of little use to them because they chose it for what had public validity, not what would be useful.
So when you select your training look at the details and make sure that you’re picking something suited to you.
Setting Your Own Course
In an age with so much learning so readily available there’s no need to follow the path set down by others. Look at a wider range of skills for what’s useful to you. Look at the specifics of your own job, not the generalities of your industry. And don’t let yourself get bogged down by the hype. By learning to channel your professional development in this way you can ensure a skill set better suited to you.