Co-President Practica Learning (formerly e-roleplay Inc.)
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Learning transfer: why now is the time to change our learning strategies

Our new working reality is forcing many organisations to reevaluate their approach to training – received wisdom no longer holds true in the current climate. It’s time we adapted our learning strategies to the changes we’re all facing.

27th Apr 2020
Co-President Practica Learning (formerly e-roleplay Inc.)
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iStock/MissTuni

The events of the past months have us all questioning our business models, from where and how we work, to how we help our leaders, managers and employees adapt to change while they continue to run the business. One of the lessons we’ve all taken from this is that many of our old learning and development paradigms have been broken and it’s time to question whether we bring them back. There is no longer room for a ‘because we’ve always done it that way’ attitude.

The speed at which we adapt and measure a now largely, remote workforce will be an even bigger competitive advantage in the new world we face.

Implementing change that sticks (observable behavioural change) has always been a challenge. Coaching, leadership development, sales and customer service programmes have notoriously low retention (and ROI) due to a combination of the manner in which they’re taught (classroom style workshops or virtual workshops) and a lack of opportunity to practice and learn from failure in a safe environment. The typical retention rate of a one-day workshop (in-person or virtual) is only 12% to 15%. The retention of e-learning is typically higher, however neither method provides an opportunity to practice newly leaned skills effectively.

Business leaders need a fast, agile, cost effective, and measurable (ROI) way to ensure that a new message, strategy or process is being implemented quickly and effectively. It’s time to reevaluate why we think classroom style training (in-person or virtual) works when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The problem: the ‘know/do’ gap

Anyone who has designed a workshop or sat through a train-the-trainer session knows that in a full classroom day there is typically about two hours of actual learning content, if you had to explain only the concepts or content to an individual. The rest of the day is questions, exercises to keep people engaged, and demonstrations of concepts and content that a high percentage of participants already understand.

It’s my experience that of two hours of content, the average learner typically already understands about half of it. Think of delivering and explaining a coaching or customer service model – the concepts themselves are not difficult to grasp.

The challenge is not understanding the process or skills involved, but using them in actual conversations. This transition from knowledge to skill (the ‘know/do’ gap) is where the typical learning and development process breaks down. We expect a salesperson or new leader to master a new model or processes after sitting through only a couple of days at a training workshop. We expect them to use these new skills the next time they speak with a client or coach a direct report.

The belief that we will be good at, let alone master a new skill the first or second, or even tenth attempt is not supported by any logic, research or experience. Leaving skill development to on-the-job training is a high price to pay, and frankly a flawed premise adapted from a model developed for high school and universities.

The solution: practice

Skill development is about practicing the right way. Deliberate practice has emerged as a methodology from the research of several authors (Ericsson et al) over the last ten years. It helps to change behavior and increase skill levels before the need for performance in the real world deters taking risks. Using deliberate practice in a business context is similar to role-playing with several important changes.

Through hundreds of thousands of one-to-one practice conversations, we have found that there are nine elements to leveraging deliberate practice for business conversations (figure 1).

figure 1

Receiving real-time feedback and coaching from an expert allows the participant to understand how it felt to be in the conversation with them. It also provides clear and practical examples of how to apply the knowledge obtained during the knowledge transfer (workshops, e-learning) process. Practicing with an expert role-player coach creates a safe and productive environment, unlike practicing with peers who also all just learned the content in the workshop, or practicing with your boss.

For our deliberate practice sessions, we design several scenarios that reflect real-world situations, and deliver simulated conversations and feedback in bite-sized experiences (30 to 45 minutes each).

We also create practice moments to allow learners to implement feedback right away and experience the difference after using the corrected skills. We conduct our practice sessions remotely over video or telephone. The data from every scenario, every skill, and every participant is presented back to the organisation in cohorts (e.g. collected data from 10,000 practice sessions in 2018).

The last line of resistance from transitioning from a one-size-fits-all to a one-to-one tutorial style of learning and scenario-based practice is the assumed cost. In fact, the cost of running workshops is much higher than one-to-one learning and practice for several reasons: travel, lodging, meals, time out of office, and lost opportunity costs (see RIO paper).

When you consider that a very high percentage of your learners are not using the skills you taught them without practice, it becomes an easy shift. Now we can also add that our new reality is not encouraging having groups of people to travel and attend workshops. Deploying a deliberate practice solution to thousands of learners can be accomplished in a week or two.

The speed at which we adapt and measure a now largely, remote workforce will be an even bigger competitive advantage in the new world we face. We have an opportunity to question the status quo of learning deployment and by leveraging the methodology of deliberate practice, we can help our organisations quickly adapt to change.

Interested in this topic? Read Trainers' tips: how baseball players' 'deliberate practice' can improve your training technique.

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