Be a Modern Professional Learner

As a project coach, I get many opportunities to ask the question,” What did you learn from most over the last few years?”   So far no one has ever answered; “There was this great course” or even, sadly; “There was this great presentation you did on…”.

Most adult learning comes from relevant experience: challenges faced on a project, interactions with peers, or opportunities which force reflection upon and make sense of our experience.

Recently a project manager described how he had to set up a ‘lessons learned’ process in his organisation.  At first, he had been reluctant to take on the work, but quickly found he was learning so much just from trying to make sense of the lessons from across the portfolio.

Professional bodies such as PMI and APM are increasingly recognising the need for informal learning.  PMI’s PMP CPD scheme is split 70:30 Professional Development: Giving Back.  “Giving Back” encourages social interactions with peers and the sharing of knowledge and skills.  APM states that informal learning is a very important part of professional development and provides a list of the kinds of activities that project managers should get involved with.

How we should go about doing informal learning, and how organisations can support project managers in this process is less clear.  Here are my four starting steps:

Step 1: Throw out the ‘I need to attend a course’ mentality 

Don’t get me wrong – sometimes going on a course is the right thing, but it is not the first stop.  ‘Going on a course’ is often an easy option for your line manager and for you.  However, it takes much more than attendance on a course to create sustained changes in performance.  Being more innovative in thinking about the best ways to grow your skills may result in you identifying you don’t need the course – or – and equally as valuable – ensuring you have considered how the experience on the course results in learning once you’ve completed it.

Step 2: ‘Mash-up’ your learning approaches 

You can’t just go to the PMBoK and list off the things you need to know about.  It’s not just about what you learn but also how you learn, that matters.  For example:

  • Collaborative activities such as mentoring, workshops and joint problem-solving activities support the growth of team skills and personality traits such as Emotional Intelligence. They also help form relationships and build better working practices
  • Reflective activities such as ‘lessons learned’, coaching and personal feedback sessions help us differentiate good strategies from less successful ones. When will this approach work and when should I try something else?
  • Professional-social activities within your company such as peer-to-peer discussions and forums promote the formation of local communities of practice – expertise and support you can call on when needed.
  • Professional-social activities in external forums, conferences and social networks broaden the network of expertise you can call upon and provide access to different ways of thinking and new ways of doing things.
  • Personal learning activities are driven by your needs, interests and curiosity. They can take many forms; reading books and blogs, following twitter feeds and dipping into the plethora of work-related and personal development MOOCs (online courses).  Ultimately they fuel our on-going passion to be professional learners.

Step 3: Be social

There’s no better way of reinforcing your learning than sharing it.  Consider the socialisation of your learning not as a knowledge-giving process but as a way of testing, growing and connecting your understanding to the knowledge networks of others.

Step 4: Make it personal

If it is as easy as this, why aren’t all organisations doing it already?  The real challenge is that this is not something you have done to you.  It’s a learning journey that you have to plan and execute yourself.  Creating your personal learning environment is more than just responding to immediate needs in the workplace.  It’s a way of life, a way of becoming a modern professional learner to meet today’s ever-changing challenges.

My plans for personal learning

One of the most successful learning strategies for me has been the gathering and sharing of stories from project and programme managers.  Listening to how project managers have dealt with extreme challenges has not only grown my understanding but also inspired me to continue to be fascinated by the field of project management.

During 2016-17, I concentrated my story collecting on stakeholder engagement resulting in the publication of a book in this area.  My interests in 2018 moved to planning.  It’s such a fundamental part of projects and yet if you ask a project manager how they plan, it varies wildly.  What planning techniques are we using now? What planning techniques should we be using and when?   This led to the publication of two books on adaptive planning – changing your planning style and approach to cater for all types of projects:

I continue to seek out stories so do please contact me if you are happy to share.

Louise Worsley is a PPPM consultant and a visiting lecturer in project management at The University of Cape Town.  She has a Masters in Online and Distance Education. 

In 2017 she published the book: ‘Stakeholder-led project management, Changing the way we manage projects’.

In 2019 she published two books with her husband Christopher Worsley:

Contact details:




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