Founder and CEO Learning Futures Group
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Confessions of a well-meaning CLO: the L&D sins we must all stop committing

Ex-chief learning officer Chris Pirie says that it’s time we admitted a lot of standard approaches to training aren’t based on real science – and may be doing more harm than good.

15th Jul 2020
Founder and CEO Learning Futures Group
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Sometimes, I have an anxiety dream where, AA-style, I find myself standing up before an audience of fellow-humbled L&D leaders. There, I’m confessing: “my name is Chris Pirie, and I was a chief learning officer for many years in corporations such as Oracle and Microsoft”. To which, in this rather horrid dream, the group acceptingly chants back, “hi, Chris!” Then I wake up, shuddering… and realise that what my subconscious is trying to tell me here is that I did a lot of things VERY WRONG back in the day,  and, I suspect, so did you – but it really is time to stop.

Also like you, I committed what I now call my ‘L&D sins’ in good faith. I was trying to help people learn in the organisations where I was working. That was my job.

Misunderstanding the basic neuroscience

I now know that what I rolled out was often very ineffective, and indeed doomed to fail from the start.

This is why I feel very strongly that corporate learning needs to be much more science-based. What are we all missing? The basics of the psychology of learning – about how the human brain actually functions and builds knowledge of something internally.

Many CLOs come to L&D with deep knowledge of the business, but not always with enough of a conceptual background in learning science.

The major thing we got wrong is time. We misunderstood fundamental neuroscience. To suit our diaries and budgets, for example, we crammed everyone into eight-hour intense sessions, completely ignoring the fact that literally no human since we left the East African Rift Valley has ever learnt any kind of new skill that way.

This now feels almost criminal to me, because time is so precious. I think it's really incumbent on learning and development leaders to get back to the basics of brain functioning here and build and maintain expertise on some of the fundamentals about how people are wired to do their best work.

Brain-friendly talent strategies  

This has been bothering me for a while, but really came up in a recent conversation I had with well-known US L&D practitioner Mary Slaughter*. Mary is now Managing Director of People Advisory Services at EY, but when I spoke to her at the start of the year she was very much still part of the leadership team over at the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI).

If you’re not familiar with NLI, the institute is all about using science, technology and data insights to help expose organisations to brain-friendly talent strategies, educating learners at all levels about the brain. The organisation is very committed to the proposition that organisational performance can be significantly improved, and that neuroscience and experimental psychology can show us how.

flexible learning hub link

For example, Mary, an ex-CLO herself, told me how over the past ten years she’s been gaining a deeper and deeper appreciation of these things, and especially of the cognitive capacity in the brain, how information flows and how learning works or doesn't. A little bit of a chill went down my neck when she also ‘confessed’ that, “you can probably look back like I have all over your career in learning and go, oh, well, I probably shouldn't have done that, but it seemed like the best idea at the time…”. 

Aargh! Guilty as charged. If there was any one ‘crime against learners’ I’d single out, it was how we abused their bodies, in light of what we’ve learned about the critical role sleep plays in the learning process.

Books like Mathew Walker’s Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams (2018) have shared the science behind the importance of sleep for brain plasticity, while countless studies such as this one demonstrate the positive contribution of techniques such as repeated practice AND proper sleep to improve long-term information retention.

Why, then, did we insist on flying learners to unfamiliar time zones to participate in courses and never allow them to take breaks at critical ’low’ periods such as the early afternoon? How much sleep deprivation have we caused, as a discipline?

As Mary rues, “you know, people are overwhelmed. They're exhausted. There’s just not enough hours in the day”. Despite this, I made them come halfway round the world for eight hours for training that would genuinely have been better consumed one hour a week over eight weeks… but, I had my target.

Over-use of assessments and testing

Here are some examples of learning practices that are not brain friendly, which I have been guilty of propagating (and maybe so have you?):

  • Over-prescribing learning as a magical solution for deeper corporate issues, i.e. not pushing back on stakeholders, and so building content and programmes to solve problems not caused by factors other than lack of knowledge or behaviour.
  • Dosing out that ‘medicine’ in one-size-fits-all programmes that wasted precious time in order to ‘land’ company, not employee, priorities.
  • Requiring people to click through countless pages of passive e-Learning courses with no engaging or compelling content just to be able to say a topic was taught.
  • Shipping out another course rather than supporting social learning modes such as communities of practice and hackathons.
  • Prioritising quantity of content versus simplifying and distilling the message.
  • Not giving the opportunity for learners to do structured practice and engage with the material in their own way.
  • Over use of assessment tools and testing.
  • Use of discredited psychological frameworks no longer grounded in today’s science.
  • Failure to hire and promote teams with diversity of culture, demographics and skills in mind.
  • Measuring engagement, attendance and completion rates in favour of behaviour change and actual business impact.
  • Justifying L&D investment rather than holding business leaders accountable for supporting learning cultures.

Crimes against learners… and learning!  

The reality is, many CLOs come to L&D with deep knowledge of the business, but not always with enough of a conceptual background in learning science.

We can’t accept that any more; we’re wasting the company’s money and our colleagues’ time.

A fundamental reboot of L&D and a 180-degree pivot to learning science is, for me, absolutely the only reasonable conclusion to be made here.

Off to my next ‘AA’ meet.

Plenty of sins need to be accounted for yet…

*You can listen to Chris' conversation with Mary Slaughter in the latest episode of The Learning Futures Group podcast, Learning Is The New Working here

Interested in this topic? Read Lessons in management: we asked some senior leaders what their first-time mistakes were.

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By Andrew Webster
20th Jul 2020 17:22

Here's an interesting thought. I recently heard a mentor of mine say, almost as an aside, "People only know what they know when they need to know it." A penny dropped loudly for me!
I'd long been dimly aware that the context is always key, but when it was put like this, I realized that teaching people classroom material, when they're not going to use it in a classroom, is likely to be largely a waste of time. Adding in exercises, even if they're metaphorical to install a pattern (e.g. Legos as opposed to code) is essential to give learners some experience in a context a little closer to their real-world application. Following-up with them once they actually are back in the "real world" - and thus completely in context - will truly help them know what they need to know when they need to know it!

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