What if instead of ‘learning by osmosis’ we tried sharing with intention?

Before 2020 if you googled ‘learning by osmosis’ you would mostly find memes of cats and students asleep atop a pile of books, alongside articles telling you this was no way to study.

Then came lockdown, and all of a sudden the idea of ‘learning by osmosis’ was everywhere and all of a sudden I realised I now had a name to put to the problem I had been seeing with many many graduates of 2-5 years experience. No-one was actually teaching them anything and they were just expected to be learning because they sat there working in an office.  Similar to the people who believe that a positive workplace culture comes from just sitting in an office together, there seems to be a lot of people who believe that learning happens just by being together.


So is leaning by osmosis really the best way to expect professionals to learn? Do graduates actually get exposed to training and life lessons through overhead phone calls and incidental conversations? Do many people even have phone conversations anymore? Or is it just like culture, in that you might find you get better outcomes if there is some intentionality behind how you teach, coach and mentor.  Maybe more learning happens by inviting them to sit in on client meetings and spending time explaining the concepts behind what we are asking them to do?  Maybe even investing time in regular group training (which can also easily be recorded for future use).  All of these things can happen both in real life and virtually too.


It’s not just about learning for graduates but other ways we communicate and share information in the workplace too. The pandemic has highlighted the function of the office as a place where frequently all kinds of project and organisational knowledge is shared on an ad-hoc basis between whoever happens to be physically around at the time.  Long before Covid and remote work, larger companies have been aware of the need to create ways to record and share knowledge beyond smaller groups and individual teams who might speak to each other on a day to day to basis – to share across different disciplines and geographically dispersed locations. Anyone who has worked if a dispersed team has probably noticed this and perhaps thought about how to change it. I believe it’s one of the biggest reasons why dispersed and hybrid teams are often so difficult to setup and manage.


Do you want to rely on the right person happening to overhear the right phone call to learn or know something? Its a pretty chancy way of communicating even without the fact that people taking taking phone calls in the open office has been on the decline since before Covid (unfortunately though still to many people think its okay to do a Teams in an open office). More business is today conducted via email and scheduled meetings. Frequently one on one phone calls just create confusion when multiple parties are expected to be on top of the issues and part of the decision making. Copying everyone into an email or scheduling a meeting became the solution to ensuring no-one was inadvertently left out. While endless meetings are not ideal, sometimes it’s better than circles of calls (and messages) trying to keep everyone in the loop. Even when phone calls do occur, with mobile phones now the default number to call, frequently they are taken while on the go, or in a meeting / focus room so as to not force your colleagues to have to listen in.


An informal and ad-hoc approach to sharing information also can create disadvantages for many in the workplace. The people who are part time, work shifted hours, work on site some days or happen to have the day off. Even someone who was in a meeting or at lunch.  Whenever we communicate based upon whoever happens to be physically present at the time, we are potentially creating inequalities of information (which can even become a form of bullying).  A more intentional approach to sharing information, whatever level people are at helps avoid this bias.


Intentional teaching and sharing also helps address different modes of learning or language barriers.  By writing down or recording what we are communicating, we allow people to review and learn at their own pace and to check back in later.  Written forms of communication particularly where shared amongst the group – such as chat, planner platforms or shared documents are invaluable for dispersed and hybrid teams. As long as people use them! Make these methods the starting point for all your team interactions and very quickly most people will see the benefits. Not everyone finds writing the easiest way to communicate though – video and screen recording is now so accessible sometimes this can be an awesome way of communicating and learning. (Thanks to my recent grad who demonstrated that to me one day recording her software troubles on video to share with me).


For individuals and teams who work closely together and need to communicate frequently, scheduling time together regularly and in advance is an easy start. Both group time and one on one time are necessary depending on the structure of your teams. It doesn’t have to be weekly, maybe for some people it’s monthly.  Rather than focus valuable time together on who is doing what (which is easily written down and doesn’t always need discussion), consider discussing project issues and problems as a group so everyone can learn from one another.   


Sharing knowledge with intention means people are going to learn what they need to know and do it faster than if you rely upon  chance.  It has been a long time since I’ve spent a lot of face to face time with my team (long before covid), but I’ve always spent a lot of time teaching and coaching with intention.  One of the graduates I worked with told me she learned more from me on 3 months than she had in her previous 3 years of work.  I probably saw her 2 days a week. Throughout my career, I have experienced different models of distributed and remote work which have frequently meant I didn’t work in the same physical location as people who I could learn from, people I needed to share information with or teach – either inside or outside my organisation. Being open to learning, sharing and collaborating remotely opened up many more opportunities than it would have reduced or constrained my learning.


If the workplace is not for learning by osmosis, what is it for?  One of the things that is much harder (its not impossible) to either learn or do virtually is to network and build ties within an origination outside of your own team.  There is a lot of research starting to come out on the importance of weak ties and this is one of the challenges that remote and even hybrid work will need to overcome. Its not learning stuff that matters but connecting with people. In this way workplaces, real life conferences or networking events all serve the same function. You create connections that can help you later. You don’t need to learn everything yourself, but to know the right people to help you.

Ceilidh Higgins
Image via Marco Chilese on Unsplash

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