Why learning at work isn’t the same as learning a hobby

One of the common pieces of rhetoric that comes with the social learning brigade is that the accessibility of information for improving your knowledge about a hobby is at your fingertips, and so should be the same at work. Except this is completely the wrong analogy and just doesn’t compare to the reality of what it means to learn a hobby.

When we have a hobby, it’s because something has sparked an interest in us to such an extent that we want to pursue that activity on a regular basis. It holds a personal meaning to us and we find value in doing the hobby. It might even be that the hobby is a strength of ours and allows us to find a way to express our strength in a way that is useful to us. Ultimately, though, a hobby is often about our self identity. It’s something we do regularly enough that it can define us in a certain way.

With the ease of technology we can create or find communities of people who share that hobby and we can have a proper discussion about it. That’s pretty awesome when it happens. You feel like you belong. You have a kinship with others. You share a common language. You’re prepared to accept words of wisdom and criticism and feedback. It’s all ok, because you have the support of others. Hobbies rule.

When we spend time learning about a hobby, there’s often no outcome in mind. We’re not setting out to do it to achieve a goal or an objective. We’re doing it because we want to do it. We’ll learn things along the way, and find information that helps us learn more. Technicalities become important. The right language becomes important. Development of skills becomes important. Feedback on what you’ve achieved becomes important. Nuances and subtleties become important. And it’s all with time as a non-factor. It doesn’t matter if it takes two years or two weeks to learn more. It’s a hobby, and so by nature is something done in pastime.

At some point, you might become so skilled at your hobby that you’re willing to share your knowledge with others. It’s never a given, and is always the option of the individual. If they choose to share their knowledge, that could happen in so many ways, and it might even become an option to be paid for that knowledge.

For sure, though, as part of the hobby, learning is a constant activity, and in the digital age, learning can happen instantly.

Everything I’ve described above just can’t happen at work because the context of workplace learning and development is vastly different.

The primary thing is that workplace L&D is fundamentally about skills development of some sort and is often timebound. If you need to use MS Excel, you can’t meander and take your time over a six month period. It has to be immediate and it has to improve performance. If it doesn’t then the L&D activity is worthless and useless. The social learning brigade argue that when people need to learn MS Excel they will search Google or YouTube to find the knowledge they need. Sure they will, but that’s not how learning or development occurs. It’s the discussions, the Q&A with a community and the testing and practise which support the L&D to happen.

What we’re now learning about our roles as L&D practitioners is how to better argue the case for embedding learning using holistic methods. What we’re also learning as L&D practitioners is how to design those holistic learning methods into the L&D provision. You can take the principles of hobby based learning and adapt them to workplace learning, but the analogy just doesn’t translate.

Add to that also the fact that most workplace learning tends to be centred around activities and tasks which most of us don’t care about and never want to care about. You use tools and models and techniques and systems at work because you have to, not because you have a deep seated desire to. I like using our LMS to help support the learning we offer to our workforce, but I don’t spend my spare time tinkering with it week after week, in forums, reading blog posts, discussing with others or any other type of activity with it. Partly because I don’t need to, but mostly because it’s just not that important to me.

Performance support, job aids, online communities of practise, open learning access, social network access, e-learning, face to face sessions are all useful and helpful ways to create holistic learning solutions. But just because someone has to use a system or learn about the culture of the workplace, doesn’t mean they want to spend their personal time actively doing exactly that.


Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

8 thoughts on “Why learning at work isn’t the same as learning a hobby”

  1. Hi Sukh – have to admit I was a bit confused by this one. Perhaps it’s just the examples you gave, but I don’t think the argument holds together. 

    At the beginning you suggest that accessibility of information isn’t the only thing you need to learn something, which no one could disagree with, even the “social learning brigade”. But I have to disagree with the suggestion later on that you need “discussions, the Q&A with a community and the testing and practise” for learning and development to occur.

    Taking Excel as an example, do you really need to discuss with a community how to do something, if you find a video that shows you step-by-step how it works? Surely you just follow the instructions? Would you have learned that process deeply in a way you could repeat? No, but if you repeat the same task again enough times, you will.

    I use Lynda.com whenever I need to learn a new aspect of a software tool because I get access to trustworthy information/instruction that is easy to search. I wouldn’t consider this social learning at all, I don’t interact with anyone. I know how to find something and follow the instructions. Then it’s up to me to interpret the instructions to adapt them to the task at hand. The same applies at home if I need to do some DIY task that I haven’t done before (ie. most of them), I look it up, find a video or some instructions and follow them. That doesn’t necessarily work so well for things like leadership or coaching, so maybe they would have made better examples in this case.

    I think what you’re really talking about is motivation. Because that’s the real difference between learning something for yourself and learning it for work. It’s got nothing to do with different media or holistic learning. So perhaps the focus ought to be on “what can we do to build motivation to learn at work?” Or more sustainably, “how can we create an environment at work where people are motivated to achieve and perform?” An environment where learning is just a lever, a tool for people to achieve what they need to do. Without motivation people don’t learn. It doesn’t matter how good your instructional design is, how strong your facilitation skills are, or how zen your slide deck looks; if I don’t care about it, I won’t learn about it.

    1. Hi Sam,

      You’re right, it’s the wrong analogy. Excel doesn’t work for this purpose and I could have chosen a good many others.

      Also, you’re very right about it being about motivation and how we cultivate an environment at work where learning takes place in such a way that it’s already part of the performance equation.



  2. Sukh, One of the things that has always annoyed me about the social learning brigade is this assumption that people will want to learn ‘work stuff’ outside of work hours. They talk about people accessing learning outside of work, things like while commuting or when at home. Unfortunately I just don’t think that happens anywhere near as often as the ‘evangelists’ would like to have us believe. I also tend to feel the same way about gamification (maybe because I am a gamer) but the last thing I want to do is interact with a game in work time, which is no where near the quality (in almost any term you would like to name) of any game I have in my collection at home.

    1. Paul, you help raise two things. One is that people just aren’t accessing their workplace learning on the go. It just doesn’t happen that way. Not unless it’s an integral part of their role. Second is that workplace gamified learning is nowhere near on par with games we are more commonly used to. That’s mostly because we don’t have the full set of resources required to truly create a gamin experience for learning purposes.

  3. Interesting read Sukh, thanks for writing and sharing. Your post reminds me of some parts of the work of K. Anders Ericsson I’m rereading over and over these days. He differentiates activities ad work, play and deliberate practice. They all have a different intention looking at outcomes, work to get a job done, play for fun and deliberate practice to become better at something (clearly defined). I think these parts can overlap but it’s good to be aware of the primary intention. We as L&D pro’s should focus on primary objectives, not on side effects. Should learning be fun or is it a nice to have side effect. Does workplace learning really get the best result or is it a cost cutting meadure in disguise? I love the quote of top drummer Thomas Lang who says: ‘never play when you practice and never practice when you play’. When he has to practice a new technique he tries to focus on practice for a few hours. Practice is hard and shows on which parts you still fail which evokes the seduction to shift to play something you already master because it’s more fun – that is not the best way for deliberate practice. Hobbies are for fun, workplace learning to improve skills – but do we organize and support enough for deliberate practice?

    1. I love this comment, Ger, thanks very much for writing it. Your last questions is perfect. How do we organise and support deliberate practise? There’s the million dollar learning question.

  4. Hi Sukh

    Thanks for sharing your article, an interesting read but I think I have to agree with Burrough’s outlook on this. There has to be something that gets someone out of bed every morning and into the office. Whether that is enjoyment of their job, enjoyment of a certain aspect of their role in particular, responsibility, a challenge, proving people wrong, getting a promotion, not letting people down, security, money or even the basic motivator of a job title. Something makes each person tick and it is different for everyone.

    Hobbies are pursued out of enjoyment yes, but who is to say that workplace L&D objectives can’t tap into the same motivation that hobbies’ create? Wouldn’t that increase a person’s learning? Wouldn’t that improve their performance if they were actually working towards objectives that they valued and they felt motivated by?

    I strongly believe that often workplace objectives can be perceived as something that just ‘needs to be done’; a box ticking exercise that no one can possibly enjoy as the objectives are imposed on the individual by their manager and they have no input whatsoever. Of course this type of situation is a million miles away from pursuing a hobby but I think that this is as a result of the conversations that happen between the team member and their manager. If a manager is aware of what motivates their team member, they can build on those motivators and set objectives that could actually make a real difference to that individual’s learning, their future career and the business.

    It is absolutely possible to get enjoyment out of objectives set at work, it just depends on what those objectives mean to the individual in the first place. If they value an objective and it plays to what matters most to them, I don’t see where it can go wrong?

  5. Hi Eloise and thanks for taking the time to comment. I have a few thoughts on what you’re saying.

    I’m in agreement with Sam here. Workplace learning can only take on forms of hobby based learning if the environment is actively supportive of it. If I need to learn about report writing to the Exec Board, the only way is through regular practise and with regular feedback. If either of those are missing, it doesn’t matter how motivated I am to achieve those, I just won’t get better at doing them on my own.

    The other thing that comes to mind is that often objectives set at work are done very poorly, often focused on workplace targets which often don’t align to an individual’s ambitions, strengths or motivations. That’s where objective setting falls down. Of course there is a whole other school of thought which argues that objective setting is a complete waste of time in and of itself.


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