Over time, elephant seals have grown to such a size that it is starting to threaten the future of the species. So, perhaps, not all growth is good. In the context of this short blog I'll assume we are thinking about growing to fulfil our potential. That is a good thing, and for all of us to be aware of the growth potential within us and to work on its development could be argued as the purpose of one’s life.

In an organisational setting, learning to grow is all about improving performance and this can only be achieved by individuals learning to improve their performance. An organisation comprises the people who work together, so organisational learning is all about people learning. Over time, through this growth an organisation will develop processes, culture and expertise that can help it differentiate itself and help it deliver its mission. With a good corporate memory, it will know how and why it operates the way it does.

For organisational learning to be effective it has to start with the end in mind. It is therefore important to ask:  what performance outcome are we trying to achieve? Can we be clear about this? And, more importantly, can we help each individual understand what difference in performance we would like to see and how the learning will help them achieve that? As Robert O  Brinkerhoff says, we then need to hold the learner accountable for using the learning to deliver the performance growth we are looking for.

Suppose the growth you sought was to deliver your organisation’s projects more effectively because you have identified that they are consistently late and over budget. After examining the reasons, you conclude that better performance management skills and the ability to have difficult conversations (rather than technical project management training) is the learning that is required. The next steps would then be as follows:

  1. Talk to the people who need to learn to make sure they understand the performance outcomes you seek, and explain how the learning will assist them. They should agree that the learning is what is required for them to deliver the improvement.

  2. The learning intervention takes place.

  3. Another conversation is required to check that the learners now feel equipped to grow and develop their performance and to ensure that any further support is provided.

  4. The learners are held accountable for using the learning to develop and grow.

  5. Review of outcomes.


Sometimes, like the elephant seal, learning assumes all growth is good and, in the process, damages the profession. We need to start with the end in mind and work in partnership with line managers to deliver real personal, organisational and, eventually, economic growth.

(Blog: originally published through Civil Service Learning)