There is a big gap between what people learn from books, seminars and training courses, and what they actually do with this knowledge. Actually, it’s not a gap — it’s a chasm.
What people learn doesn’t automatically translate into behavior — that comes through immersion and rehearsal. It isn’t impossible to make the transition in a classroom or at a computer, but it requires focused determination. The learning must extend beyond the session itself and, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen as much as it should in the workplace. The opportunities and challenges of real life — and real work — might be worlds away from the typical learning experience.
It’s tough to help people transition from learning to doing. Especially in light of common workplace obstacles like information overload and time compression. The solution goes beyond exploring the criticality of a situation and emphasizes the behavioral implications within traditional learning approaches.
Somewhere in the world right now, there is a group of 20 attendees finishing up a training class, and they still haven’t identified what they’re going to do differently in the future. They’ve taken notes, they’ve talked it over with learning partners, they’ve made lists of adjectives on flip charts, and they’ve shared ideas. With any luck, they will leave the class with job aids or tools. But do they have a firm grasp on how to apply their learning when they get back to work? No, probably not. What they do know is their inboxes are full, and they’ve lost ground over the past couple of days because they were training.
To help others change their behavior, people of influence — trainers, developers, coaches and operational leaders — have to compel others to do something they’re not already doing. This involves developing talent and, more importantly, helping people adopt new attitudes. It requires everyone involved to make a decision about changing not only what they know but also what they do.
Imagine a man wants to learn how to play the piano.He enrolls in a 16-hour series of lessons designed to introduce him to the instrument. After completing the program, he probably doesn’t expect to start playing well immediately. He will sit down, position himself, place his fingers on the keys and begin. He might be competent enough to play scales, or some parts of a simple musical piece. But practically speaking, it could take him weeks — more likely months — to make music that people will really appreciate.
Action is the focal point: new behaviors, real experience and risk-taking. Who is ultimately responsible for all this? Operational leadership. These are not the people associated with knowing; they are the people associated with doing.
Fortunately, the basic principles of learning are tried and true. These should be fine-tuned to help expedite the move to new behaviors rather than new knowledge. Examples of these principles are:
Repetition:Individual contributors, supervisors, managers and executives don’t learn complex behaviors in a single session. People learn from drill and practice. Skill is improved with each repetition, as the most repeated behaviors become the most used. Positive feedback or redirection from a manager also leads to improvement. Granted, there are a few skills that can not only be learned relatively quickly but also retained for a lifetime. For example, most people who learn to ride a bicycle never forget how to do it.
Effect:Action learning is more successful when it is accompanied by an optimistic mindset. When learners expect a pleasant result from practicing the new behavior, they are more inclined to continue the behavior after they leave the learning environment. So everyone involved should recognize and reward success. This positive reinforcement leads to motivation, which leads to action. Negative consequences — even well-intended ones — are not a good choice when someone is in the early stages of implementing a new behavior.
Primacy:Things learned first need to take root. It’s harder to erase old habits or behaviors than to create new ones. So it’s important to teach a lesson well the first time. The early lesson will set the learner up for success in later ones.
Recency:Generally speaking, an individual’s most recent learnings can be retrieved from memory faster. If a person tries to remember someone’s email address they learned a couple of seconds ago, that’s relatively easy. But it’s not as easy to remember an email address they learned last week. Therefore, it is worthwhile to review key learnings at the end of a session. This allows for objective, rational sequencing during the allotted time and facilitates behavioral practice right after cognitive learning.
Intensity: Knowledge is better retained when the lesson is powerful. An exciting learning experience is stickier than a boring one. For example, a learner will remember more from watching a dramatic video than they will from reading a script. The stronger the lesson, the better the understanding. Having learners participate in demonstrations, role-playing and skits is a great way to increase their comprehension. Having them listen to a lecture or fill in blank lines in a workbook is not.
When focusing on solutions, it’s important to start by admitting it’s not easy to make the transition from learning to doing.
“We’ve observed that one of the largest contributors to skill development is learning through job experience,” said Chris Keller, senior vice president of talent and leadership development at consultancy FCC Services. “A powerful leadership cocktail is for individuals to combine this with welcoming and accepting the manager’s feedback, and vice versa.”
Here are some tips to keep in mind:
1. People often don’t know why they’re going through a learning experience.Perhaps they’re taking a workshop because they’ve been told to; or they believe this is what everybody does at this stage of their career; or they’ve heard people say it was good. If participants have the luxury of self-enrollment, they might have signed up based on the course’s title. Or, they might wind up attending simply because their schedule allows it, which could limit the amount of time available for the trainer to send out pre-work emails. Managers must do a better job of telling people why. It’s not only about getting the learning session on the calendar, but also it’s about selling the importance of attending. Managers must set a context of urgency. Attendees must recognize that learning is at the core of what their organization does.
2. Most learning experiences use conceptual frameworks and models.Both are simplifications of the world — not the whole, real world. They’re supposed to help people do something complex. But the training course is probably squeezed into a day or two, which is really only enough time to make people aware of the class’ value.
“What we’ve learned about productivity is that it’s a good start to invest in our associates’ growth and development,” said Jonathan Godown, senior vice president of Talent and Culture Working Group at Fairfax Financial in Toronto. “But the return on that investment doesn’t come until we actually experience the behavior and action. Having a dedicated Talent and Culture Working Group at Fairfax has made a big difference for us. After all, the classic definition of culture is ‘what we do.’ ”
Classroom activities such as discussion and group experiences might move employee learning from awareness to an understanding and appreciation for the outcome. But the real value proposition involves getting them to do, or at least explain, the targeted actions. This doesn’t have to be overly risky; however, it is a big leap for a learner to move from knowing a concept to actually engaging in the desired behavior. Inviting operational leaders, subject-matter experts, or otherguests to show up at training, even briefly, can encourage learners to do so. Maybe the best thing these visitors can contribute is challenging attendees to take the risk of using the new behaviors. Further, managers must model valuing the targeted actions to help attendees feel OK about actually using them.
3. In this era, everyone is doing more in less time. It’s a case of, “We’ve got them doing change management that day, so let’s throw 15 minutes of conflict resolution and generational leadership at them, so they can integrate it with the new competency statements we just announced.” This multitasking trend in the classroom reduces the time available to get clarity on critical learnings. It also limits the opportunity to practice. Managers must stop expanding the critical mass of what they try to do, and emphasize actionable outcomes.
4. Energetic experimenting with a process is more effective than discussing it or having a trainer do a presentation.It is tempting for facilitators to avoid doing a high-priority activity, which can be risky, and instead do a tried and true, story-heavy lecturette that has lower risk for both facilitator and participant. Because of this, doing a training presentation — no matter how flawless — is probably not a good choice. Learners who actively apply their new skills immediately understand that the solution is within the limits of their own talent. That doesn’t happen with passive involvement or a 15-minute philosophical walk in the park. It’s about applying skills to help cope with corporate culture. It’s often been said that culture trumps everything. Managers must sell risk taking to learners, and then protect them when they are back in the workplace trying out their new skills.
To maximize the return on investment from learning, managers must be aware that a timer starts counting down at the end of any learning and development experience. Every tick of that timer represents the continuing erosion taking place in that learner’s memory. If nothing else, managers must remember how critical it is to help learners make the transition from learning to doing as early and as effectively as possible.
When someone asks their manager to tell them something they don’t know, the manager should instead help them acquire behaviors they don’t do. That is the best insurance.