Learning

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What is Neuroscience?

Neuroscience1 TotemWhat is neuroscience and what impact could it possibly have on our industry?

It might seem like one of those fad terms as it’s everywhere at the moment, but neuroscience has a lot to offer the discerning L&D professional, people manager and leader.

Neuroscience is the study of the brain – or more technically the nervous system including the brain and spinal cord – so it’s like learning how people really work.  Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways this relatively new science is quite literally changing the way think about work.

Click on the image and magic will happen!

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Threat vs Reward

Is it a carrot?  Is it a stick?

At the forefront of every good organisation’s thinking is how to maximise the value of its (usually) most costly asset: its people.

One of the most effective ways of maximising our people’s potential is to create an environment which is conducive to optimal performance. Thankfully for us neuroscience sheds a significant amount of light on this issue. Which is what we’ll explore now.

But first, a little neuroscience 101.  The primary role of our brain is to help us navigate our environment; this distinguishes us from plants, for whom the only way is up.

On a very basic level our brain does this by avoiding threats and seeking rewards. While this instinctive orientation is brilliant for finding food and avoiding becoming it, it does generate problems for us in 21st century life.

Firstly, we have an incredibly strong natural response to threat that is instant and long-lasting.

When we were being chased by tigers this was brilliant, in flight or fight mode our brain’s responses cause a rise in heart rate and blood pressure, our pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible, which helps to trigger brain cortisol production (stress hormone) and decrease dopamine (pleasure hormone).  Rest assured you will not be distracted by tempting pleasures whilst running for your life!

Cortisol makes us see things in black or white, yes or no and leads us to over-assess the level of threat in front of us.  From an evolutionary viewpoint, those ancestors that thought “better safe than sorry” presumably lasted a little bit longer.

However, all of this is rather unhelpful as a response to a strongly-worded email from your boss.  Herein lies the issue: our brains respond to social threat in much the same way as they respond to physical threats.

As a result of this perceived threat (even though it’s just an email), the blood vessels to our muscles dilate in preparation for action and blood flows away from our Prefrontal Cortex – the part of our brain which manages planning, complex cognitive behaviour, decision-making and our emotions.  Otherwise known as the rational part of our brain.

If we threaten someone or put them in a threatening work environment (even by just writing an email they respond negatively to), we are literally reducing their capacity to think rationally.  So when you’re upset with someone for being behind on a deadline or being unhelpful in some way, the very email you might send to get them to focus and do better, will probably only make things worse.

Blood moves to this area of the brain when under threat...

Neurologically speaking this should be great news, because surely there is something we can do about it?  We know that our brains are mouldable like plastic, so whenever we find out something about our brains that is not ideal, we can consider ways to respond and encourage our brains to react differently.

Is reward the solution? The effects of reward, although less strong, do put us in a better state of mind for operating in the modern working world.  Reward stimulates parts of the brain that are responsible for optimism, concentration, collaboration and innovation.

However, it is surprising to some that the conventional business understanding of reward i.e. money, is perhaps not as significant for creating a reward state of mind as was once thought.

Research has shown when we are given a choice between money and social connection we are more motivated by social rewards than by monetary ones.  The research suggests this is because our brains experience physical pleasure during socially rewarding experiences.

For instance, having people collaborate with us, perceiving ourselves to have a good reputation, receiving recognition or giving help to someone all trigger a pleasurable reward response.

So by extension, creating an environment which offers rewards and minimises threat does not necessarily mean financial incentivising.  What the research suggests is that we need to create an environment where we each build genuine relationships with one another.

What could you do with this information?  How might you contribute in your office and your team to a working environment where strong relationship-building is the expectation?

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The Games People Play

games-people-play-totemUnderstanding the dynamics of relationships in a way that is truly practical

The Games People Play explains and analyses with pertinent real-life examples, the continual struggle between our inner child, parent and adult to dominate a social situation, colloquially termed as ‘games’.

The book interprets that the outcomes of these games are a fundamental human requirement and by understanding the way these games are played we learn to understand the motivations of ourselves and our peers.

Each chapter addresses various situations and the author lists the multitude of games people partake in where the outcome is win, lose or draw.  The games have names such as: “See What You Made Me Do”; “Ain’t It Awful”; and “I’m Only Trying To Help You”.

Berne introduced some of these concepts in Transactional Analysis and gives lots of examples of the different games played by people.  The book provides a view to pinpoint and categorise people’s behaviour or combinations of behaviours and to think about the origins & continued causes of this behaviour.

The book examines the roles people assume in their interpersonal relationships which foster the subsequent and often repetitive transactions. The description of some of the games such as Alcoholic and Courtroom are incredibly interesting.

On the whole the book is a very interesting study of human behaviour and a good set of “worked examples” for anyone trying to understand Transactional Analysis.

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70 20 10 Further Research

702010 TotemWhat could 70:20:10 mean in practice if we pushed the boundaries?

As more organisations look to review their learning strategies according to the principles behind the model, there has been a corresponding push from some parts of the L&D community for further evidence to support the principles of 70:20:10 in practice.

In response, Towards Maturity have produced new data which claims to look at the actions behind the numbers and the resulting impact on performance.  We’ll review their work in a little more detail below.

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70 20 10 In Practice

70-20-10-TotemWhat does it really mean and what does that mean to me in L&D?

This model or set of principles seems to have been a little misunderstood.

The CCL shared the 70:20:10 model as a description of what happens in the workplace.  It was not in itself a guide for what we should be doing in L&D or a target for how we should spend our time and money.

The  research suggested that in reality, we learn 70% of everything we know on-the-job and 20% from asking others.  It makes sense – how do we do things around here?  Where’s the coffee machine?  How do we file our expenses?  What’s Joe like in IT?  How do we tend to manage customers who ask for too much?  What is our usual approach in this business of managing teams?

We learn by doing, asking around, observing how others do it and seeing what feedback we get on our performance and behaviour.

Totem Lollipops

A lot of the time we don’t even realise we are learning – it’s just all going in, giving us points of reference for when we’re in a similar situation.

Our manager and our peers are our L&D team – they are delivering learning for us all day every day.  So what does this mean for learning professionals?  Should we give up?  Of course not!

What is required is a different way of thinking about learning.  The age-old “I know more than you do on this topic, so you sit there and I’ll impart my knowledge” does not and will not cut it.

Sukh Pabial’s consistently insightful blogs have given some suggestions on this.  See this one for a list of interventions that could be helpful alternatives to the traditional classroom learning:

It seems to us there are two big questions to deal with with:

1) If the manager is delivering learning all day, every day – are they teaching people good stuff – or bad stuff?

2) What does that mean we need to do in L&D?

We can answer the first question using employee engagement data and looking at the performance of teams.  If speaking to a member of team fills us with enthusiasm and confidence then I’m sure the manager is teaching good stuff every day.  If the team sound disengaged and frustrated – and we hear complaints about that team across the business, I can’t imagine the right attitude and behaviours are being role modelled.

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If we’re happy that managers are developing the good stuff, why mess with it?  The role of L&D is then to offer further support to what is already happening on the job, through skills and knowledge development.

The challenge is usually that the majority of managers are not developing the good stuff.*  The role of L&D then has traditionally been to give people an alternative view: “Here’s some good stuff you could do.”

But this will most often be drowned out by the manager,* who is still offering on the job learning (whether intended or not) that lacks support for or directly contradicts the messages L&D are giving.

So perhaps the most straightforward role for L&D is to support managers – so that they can role model great performance and great character.  That might start right at the top, so that the role modelling of the good stuff filters through, or it might start at one level and move in both directions.

Either way, let’s find out what the managers think and how they consider things could be better.  Then let’s support them to develop the skills and habits required to deliver just that.

* We don’t want to shoot the manager – click here to find out more.

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Learning Technologies Event Pt.2

LT-Totem 400x265Part 2 of our little jaunt to the Learning Technologies event

In case you missed the first part, you can find it here.

Blame Taylor

We can all be guilty of thinking that problems can be addressed with a one-size-fits-all solution.  With an elearning course or even a blended learning journey – it’s “we design, you consume.”  Saffron Interactive spoke at the event of Taylorism – the principles of management devised by Frederick Taylor (not to be confused with the fandom of Taylor Swift!).

Taylorism worked really well in the early 1900s manufacturing world, where working out the most efficient and effective way of doing something, then teaching everyone else to do just that, in that way, gave great results.  As decades, technology, lifestyles, attitudes and ways of working have moved on, Taylorism has all but disappeared, except, this speaker argued, in L&D.

That sounds rather harsh – are we really saying that L&D teams sit in a dark room working out what people need to know and how they should learn it, then force out that model for consumption?  There have certainly been examples of this, but we see plenty of examples of the opposite too: L&D professionals working with people to identify the root cause of an issue and generate solutions together that suit each person.  There is also the challenge of making individually-tailored learning and problem-solving solutions scalable.  We can’t deliver something bespoke to every person in a global corporation, can we?

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Playlists

One suggestion of how this individually tailored approach might work was from Saffron Interactive.  They seem to have taken what works well in the consumer world – YouTube channels and iPod history – and presented the idea of playlists for learning.  This works particularly well if your online learning system is a curated set of user-generated insights, on top of the L&D-generated material.  The idea is that an individual’s line manager would look at the content and suggest a playlist for someone in their team.

You would hope that playlist would be based on the individual’s recent reviews, goals, strengths and development needs – as well as interest areas.  Then the manager has been directly involved in the development journey and encourages the individual to use the content recommended.  When the individual looks through that playlist, views content, rates it as useful, adds their comments, recommends it to others in their team – there we start to see the level of engagement with learning we might dream of.

Work problems not learning needs

But does all this miss the point, that we don’t think we need learning?  Another study conducted by Scott Bradbury highlighted that managers are highly confident in their abilities as people managers.  They consider that they have plenty of experience – and it’s this experience that is most beneficial when someone faces an issue, not external best practice insight or learning.  Now that’s a challenge: If someone doesn’t think they need any development, why would they choose to login to a learning system at all?

Perhaps this brings all of these considerations back to the overall trend in learning and development: We need to be helping people with their work challenges, not offering them learning.  Rather than a “leadership programme” we need to be offering “what to do when you’re pushed to deliver more with less.”  So does that mean you should stop all elearning?

That seems a bit drastic considering the content could be useful.  But certainly there is a need to reposition what’s on the system as helping with challenges rather than giving learning.  And if your system is mostly used for compliance training, there is a far wider question to be explored about the culture of the organisation and the behaviour that is encouraged – is it in line with, or counter to the content of the compliance training?

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Learning Technologies Event Pt.1

Totem-LT-Logo1 400x265“Stop your elearning!”  Wait, what?

There was plenty of myth busting going on at the Learning Technologies event, some well-founded and others perhaps a bit too harsh.

“Forget 70:20:10, there’s no empirical evidence for it” was on the harsh side, given that the idea of 70:20:10 was never published as a proven theory for how we learn, more a sensible approach for supporting learning in the workplace.

“Stop putting compliance training online, it doesn’t work” may be one we need to pay attention to.  We saw the bankers of 2008 (who it has been pointed out will have all completed their compliance training) following a set of behaviours that were certainly not in line with that training.

And the 2012 HBR article stating that “diversity training doesn’t work” made some very good points about emphasising difference rather than developing good communication skills and understanding.

But should we stop providing elearning altogether?  Here we’ll explore the different evidence and theories on why elearning doesn’t achieve what we want it to, and consider some recommendations for L&D teams as a result.

Just Google it – obviously!

A few firms have carried out research to understand where and how people learn when they need to.  A key point here was to ask people what they do when they face a challenge they don’t know how to work through – as that’s a more relevant question than “how do you learn?”  Ask the latter question and people think back to education, not everyday life skills.

Good Practice shared their finding that the most frequent things managers do when they face a new challenge are to have a conversation with their colleagues and do an internet search.  Looking at in-house online learning or resources was 5th on the list.  Considering an internal or external face-to-face course came 10th and 11th on the list.

Why is that?  Why don’t people use the resources L&D have provided for them?  The suggestion, from both further data and anecdote, was that we all want to use things that are quick, easy and relevant.  In fact ease of use was the greatest determining factor in deciding what or who to go to for help (not how useful the insight might be!).  Isn’t it easier to ask someone, or Google it, than it is to log in to the company LMS, search for a course and find the specific aspect relevant to the particular challenge faced?

Good Practice recommended a test for your elearning, intranet or LMS: Ask someone to think of a challenge they might face at work, then time them finding something that will help them with that on your system.  Now time them finding a pair of shoes they would like and getting to the point of purchase.

That’s the difference perhaps summed up most beautifully: Our experiences as consumers teach us to expect everything to be easy to find, relevant to our needs and quick to buy.  Our experiences with company learning systems and intranets is that they’re hard to navigate through, it’s difficult to find what we want and it’s slow.

There’s a further update from this remarkable event and it can be found here!

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How to Encourage Learning

Bicycle-Training-Wheels 400x265Exploring Activities that Encourage Learning

We’ve been having a lot of fun exploring the in’s and out’s of Learning Organisations recently, you can find a couple of additional resources by following me or following me.

We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of a learning organisation and some of the key characteristics or behaviours you may want to encourage in your employees to develop a learning culture.  But what else can we do?  Is there a tick list for successfully embedding learning into your culture?

Well not quite, but there are a few key components to a continuous learning culture.  So let’s explore a few of the methods.  First off we have the traditional methods for individual learning including classroom training; online learning; mentoring; and participation in conferences, workshops, and seminars that can support you.

Let’s begin with individual learning, which is the ability of individuals in your organisation to pursue self development. It requires individuals to take personal responsibility for their own learning and development through a process of assessment, reflection, and action – ideally supported by that individual’s line manager.  Individual learning helps the employee and the organisation continually update skills and remain competitive in the market place.

You might want to consider individual development plans, special projects or specifically created learning groups to support individuals in the acquisition or translation of new skills.

Another way to support individuals with their learning is through online learning or in modern vernacular Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  To find out more on MOOCs you can click me.  In summary MOOCs are a great way of using modern technology to deliver consistent, coordinated and measurable learning directly into the needs of your employees.

Mentoring is a great way to hold learners to account, and to ensure that the new skills an individual is acquiring are actually relevant to the broader business goals.  Quite often a mentor holds a higher position and is usually outside the employee’s chain of supervision.  Mentoring has the side benefit of fostering the talent in your business who show high potential for management or leadership responsibilities.

That’s the usual list of things a firm might do to encourage individual learning, so let’s now look at what a business can do to encourage a learning environment – using organisational learning.

Totem Gummi Bears

Organisational learning occurs when the entire organisation addresses and solves problems, builds repositories of lessons learned, and creates core competencies that represent the collective learning of employees, past and present.

Organisational learning not only contributes to resolving organisational issues, but it also promotes individual development of knowledge and skills.  It’s a win win!  So let’s start with action learning.

Action learning is a great process for bringing together a group of people with varied levels of skills and experience to analyse and address an actual work problem.  It’s important that the group continues to meet as actions are implemented, learning from the implementation and making mid-course corrections. It’s a powerful tool for addressing problems and issues that are complex and not easily resolved.

Cross-functional teams are the natural evolution of action learning groups and are composed of people with varied levels of skills and experience, brought together to accomplish a task. These teams may use action learning as a process to solve problems, but the key here is that cross-functional team members come from different areas of the business and so pool a much broader range of skills and experiences.

Finally, parallel learning structures.  These structures refer to groups who represent various levels and functions working to open new channels of communication outside but parallel to the normal hierarchical structure.

Parallel learning structures promote innovation and change in large organisations while retaining the advantage of bureaucratic design.  They take individuals from each level within an organisation, upskill them in a specific way and send them back into their original level of the organisation – often as change agents or ‘champions’ of a particular innovation or business agenda.

For the eagle eyed among you, what key theme links the steps that an organisation can take to foster a learning culture?

It’s the removal of traditional hierarchical barriers to communication and cooperation – even if temporary, between all employees across your organisation that will drive a culture of continuous learning and growth.  And whilst nothing beats doing this face-to-face, the wide range of social platforms now available for business mean that people can connect, share and learn across the globe.

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Cultures of Continuous Learning

stepping-stonesContinuous Learning is Continuous Improvement

At a personal level, continuous learning is about constantly expanding your skills through focused and specifically chosen learning activities. We touch on the advantages that continuous learning can bring at a leadership level here.

But what about at an organisational level?

We briefly explored what a Learning Organisation is in a recent article, but lets dig a little deeper and walk you through some of the steps that you can actually take to develop a culture within your business that embraces learning.

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