The Learning Lunch – Then and Now

Using the Learning Lunch to Address Challenges

Over twenty years ago the company I worked for (and still do) went live with a new IT business system. The road had been long, difficult and complex. It went live (not quite on time) and the business continued to run successfully. But at a local level, many colleagues found it hard to remember how to do simple tasks in this new environment.

Things like finding a list of purchase orders for a particular supplier,  checking the BBE date of certain stocked items or listing overdue customer invoices. Things that had been second nature in the old world now became time-consuming and frustrating. People had to phone their colleagues, gather around screens, search through (generally paper-based) user guides. The business ran, but it was arduous.

We didn’t have an L&D department in those days and since this new IT system had been landed on us by … erm …. IT (where I worked), so it was up to IT to provide training and sort things out when people couldn’t remember that training.

I knew that knowledge was out there, it was just fragmented and difficult to find. How could I know that the person five desks away could have answered my question if only I’d thought to ask them?

The Learning Lunch Was Born

To tackle it I came up with the idea of the ‘learning lunch’, 30-minute sessions, once per week. They’d be open to everyone and featuring our own staff talking about whatever they wanted to. I intended that it should be about anything, although the difficulties with the IT system was the catalyst and the focus of the initial content. Isn’t it so often the case that a good idea needs a catalyst to get it going?

group of office mates huddled around the table

The Learning Lunch Was Born

As a member of the project team that had deployed this new IT system, I knew the people who had adapted well and having worked for the business for over 12 years. Even back then I knew a lot of people pretty well. So I trawled my favourite contacts and asked, pleaded and begged them to stand up for half an hour one lunchtime and tell people something that was perfectly simple and natural to them but may actually not be to their audience.

This was one of the main challenges and frankly why after three seasons of learning lunches, I eventually retired as the organiser. People often don’t appreciate or believe that they know stuff that others don’t and that is really useful. It amazes me to this day that my colleagues have such little recognition that their own expertise is a goldmine of information that only very few others get benefit from.

But the asking, pleading and begging did yield some results. Some people did volunteer and I managed to schedule a season of ten weekly sessions.
And it went very well, thanks. The audiences were healthy – twenty to thirty people on average, the speakers still looked a little perplexed at times, that people were enjoying this stuff, but my vision was taking shape.

Widening The Discourse

Then partway through the first set of lunches, I started canvassing for the next series. But this time I weighed in more heavily on subjects other than the IT system. I targeted some senior colleagues; people who I knew liked the sounds of their own voices.

So people still talked about searching purchase orders, invoices and stock movements, but now we had a session on how Tesco had transformed from the ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ high street store that it used to be, into the retailing powerhouse that it was (and is). It was delivered in flamboyant style by our then sales director. I can still remember its title ‘Tesco, from bag carrier to box shifter’. People loved it, we must have had a seventy strong audience that day. Most gratifying of all our legal manager, very new to the business then and the first in-house lawyer the business had employed. He gave a wonderfully entertaining learning lunch about the trials (sorry!) and tribulations of his career from a young solicitor to the wise owl who’d be scrutinising our legal contracts henceforth.

Four men discussing

Informal Presentation

It didn’t last. The effort of canvassing content, scheduling rooms and slots and trying to persuade more and more people to give up their lunchtime became over burdensome. I tried to find a successor, but no one put themselves forward, so I let it go. But it had been fun, it had been entertaining, I think people genuinely learnt something new and I’d made a contribution.

Challenging Times

Fast forward twenty-two years. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. Millions of people worldwide are working from home. And even at the weekends we can’t travel, get outdoors much, go to the pub, see friends. Hundreds of thousands of people across the world are dying of a virus that for most of us emerged unexpectedly from nowhere at a rate we can hardly comprehend. In our own country the predicted figure of 20,000 deaths, that at first sounded fantastical has now been surpassed.

In the midst of all this an organisation I know and have worked with as a blogger for the past six months came up with an idea called – you guessed it – the ‘learning lunch’. How we love our alliteration!

MBM’s Sticky Learning Lunches

MBM – making Business Matter, the home of sticky learning is running a series of half-hour ‘Sticky Learning Lunch’ sessions – theirs are daily, not weekly like mine – on topics like the GROW model and personal development planning.
I came across them on LinkedIn, of course.

The concept is simple. One presenter,  Nathan Simmonds, to date,  stands in front of a webcam, armed only with his voice, a whiteboard and a pen and he talks to an unseen (to him and us) audience, the size of which I know not, for 30 minutes.
Nathan is good, great even. He is engaging, enthusiastic, knowledgeable. He prompts for our participation through the chat feature of the app. You can see his eyes scanning his screens for questions and comments and he works what we say into his delivery without missing a beat – it’s a marvel to behold! He occasionally sips from a mug of tea, barely pausing.

Nathan is the master of the killer point, one that resonates with you, makes you realise where you’ve been going wrong, or going right. Moreover, he fills you with enthusiasm to go and apply what he’s been talking about. He calls them keepers. At the beginning of each session, we’re told to write our keepers down.

The GROW Learning Lunch

The GROW model is a good one from its name alone. You know where it’s going from the start. Nathan devoted one learning lunch to each letter, Monday thru’ Thursday.

Day 1. ‘G’

He wrote it down on the whiteboard. Goal. He talked about having SMART objectives but not SMART goals. Make the goals big, ambitious, stretching and gave a great example from personal experience about achieving sales targets. The goal has to be magnetic, it has to pull people towards it. A keeper, I wrote it down.

Day 2. ‘R’

Reality. Up it went on the whiteboard again.

Day 3 ‘O’

Options. Great stuff, engaging, useful. Periodically Nathan says ‘I hope this is useful’. He means it and it’s hard not to type ‘YES!!!!’ into the comments box every time does. I expect many do.

Day 4 ‘W’

Will. This is where most of my keepers come from. Fear can hold you back. Fear of failure, fear of losing face, fear of succeeding even. Really? Yes, according to Nathan.

What will it feel like to be in that place (of having succeeded) … I liked that one. What do you want to give to make it happen; rate your will on a scale of one to ten. I thought about this one. Why wouldn’t anyone just yell ‘ten’! Fear of losing face if you’re not fully committed. So my approach here would be to explain and justify your score. Ten is fully committed, so you’d better be able to convince me (and yourself) of that.
We’re nearly done, just two more.

‘Who will it impact if I don’t do this’? This is a real keeper. Who will it impact if I don’t do this? This creates thought (well, who), motivation, guilt, sense of responsibility, determination and doggedness not to fail.  I loved this one.

Final Thoughts

And finally, Nathan said something that took me back those twenty-odd years to the days of my own learning lunches. He was talking about personal growth and the fear of not being good enough. If you don’t think you can do this and if you don’t think you’re up to the job, then think back twenty years to what you were doing then. Think back twenty years and what you were earning then – he even asked us to type in what that figure was! It’s a great way to recognise how you have developed in that time and what you’re capable of today. It’s also a great way to recognise that even twenty years ago we were all learning, developing and working towards success. For me, that was my own learning lunches.


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