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“We will make ourselves irrelevant unless we commit to existential change,” Dr Nigel Paine tells L&D leaders

London, UKLearning Ltd

Why organizational learning needs to be completely reimagined and redefined.


The Great Reset: Why we need to rethink organisational learning. That’s the title of Dr Nigel Paine’s recent webinar, the first in a series of four looking at organizational learning. Each webinar focuses on different facets of organizational learning, whilst all exploring fundamental questions about the role and nature of corporate learning. What is organizational learning? Does it mean the same thing to everyone? How do you achieve it? What’s the role of L&D? What are the blockers? And so on.

These are big questions and there were some interesting conversations both during the webinar and afterwards on social channels. 

Paine says organizations and L&D need a reset, that organizational learning needs to be completely reimagined and redefined because right now several things are in the way (hierarchies, processes, attitudes, culture…), stopping organizational learning from happening. 

And if there is one thing organizations need to be able to do in an environment of constant change, of constant digital and socio, geo-political and economic disruption, it is to keep learning and to share that learning across the whole organization. Only when organizations learn, can they become agile, responsive, innovative, adaptable, transformative, effective, successful…

Prior to the webinar, Paine had been hosting a two-day session with 40 global CLOs and he shared a comment made by one of those CLOs towards the end of the event:

“We need an existential change in learning and development to be relevant for our organizations”. Paine put that comment on a slide in the webinar and followed it up with a snap poll, asking the x attendees what they thought of the statement. The vast majority (67%) agreed that existential change is needed, with 3% disagreeing and 30% not sure.  

If L&D can understand and get behind this need for existential change, Paine says it will be critical to help organizations pivot. If it doesn’t, it won’t. “We have a fabulous opportunity to move centre stage or an amazing opportunity to make ourselves irrelevant,” he says. “We don’t have a choice – we make ourselves irrelevant or we make an existential change.”

How can L&D achieve this existential change? By rethinking and reimagining how, where and why learning happens, says Paine. To illustrate this, he used a football analogy, one involving West Ham players in the 1950s. A group of them, young up-and-coming players, used to meet regularly in a local café and discuss tactics, led by one player in particular, Malcolm Allison. They discussed what had gone well in a match, what hadn’t, what they could do differently next time and they planned tactics using salt, pepper and sugar pots for players and the table as the pitch…. Over time, these discussions, which their manager knew about and encouraged but without getting involved, revolutionised the sport.  

In the webinar, Paine then referenced a quote by the ex-footballer and coach John Cartwright: “He [Allison] should be revered. They should have a statue to him at West Ham. He laid the foundation for the success of the club, not by what he did on the field, but by the knowledge he gave to other people.” It was, says Paine, a community of practice. Without anyone realising it, it led to a golden age for West Ham and lasting change in how football was played, how tactics came into play, the way that teams trained and passed the ball, as well as changes in dietary and fitness habits. 

This, says Paine, is an example of organizational learning. Hierarchy didn’t get in the way of learning and innovation, as it so often does. Learning was pulled from the centre, people shared knowledge and problem solved together, freely, and willingly, ideas were discussed and tried out…    

It’s about having the right conditions for learning, says Paine (high levels of trust, autonomy, empowerment, and engagement). “You should spend more time focusing on the conditions of learning and less time on building the learning itself because if you get the conditions right the learning can take care of itself, to a certain extent.”

During the webinar, many of the participants posted up comments and questions in the chat box, some of which Paine followed up on later. Here are a couple of those questions and Paine’s responses: 

Q: "What are your thoughts on bottom-up mentoring to reinvigorate the learning process for those who feel like they have nothing new to learn?"

A: “I think any connection between different levels in the organization is exceptionally healthy. It avoids the narrow echo chamber and can confront people with the reality of what working in your organization is really like. It can be an eye-opener and a motivator for everyone concerned. We need more of it.” 

Q: "Are you saying we should focus on the people but collaborate with OD to ensure the systems that enable people to change with them? Do you have any tips for how to bring the OD people along with us if they report into different leaders?"

A: “It is insufficient to simply focus on providing the learning; we need to pay attention to the conditions and culture in which learning takes place. The first stage recognises the fact that L&D has to play inside the organizational culture if the desired outcomes are to be achieved. The next stage is to work out a strategy for getting involved. This can be collaborating with the OD team or even merging the two teams! If this is not possible, look for opportunities to show you care! Make suggestions for creating those conditions; gather data about the different levels of effectiveness when the conditions and the environment change; do your fieldwork and ask what needs to change in the organization to embed learning in the workflow. There is always a way in and each context is different; you need to find your path. What does not change is the effectiveness of this approach. It can change everything! If the OD team reports into a different part of the organization (and this is not uncommon) then suggest regular cross briefings along the lines of "This is what I am seeing. What are you seeing?' And "What can we do for you? And this is what you can do for us".

Paine’s next webinar, Developing the organizational brain, is on 25 January 2024. Sign up here:            

To listen to the first webinar in full, visit