Beyond knowledge: five ways to ensure learning is applied
We may give our employees the knowledge to do their jobs effectively but this does not mean they are applying that knowledge. Has the L&D industry finally woken up to this reality?
This might be wishful thinking, but there seems to have been a sea-change in the world of L&D. For years, whenever people have focused on corporate learning, there has been a seeming belief that the learning of which we speak is about knowledge. It’s about knowing things, theories, ideas and processes.
The assumption has been that if we know stuff, people will change what they do and how they do it now that they have been informed of alternatives.
Skills training, where it was mentioned at all, was focused on new starters, apprentices and those who have skills that are no longer required in a post-industrial, automated world. Skills training has either been focused on the basics, teaching those with few skills (or few relevant skills) how to do something new, or concentrated on introducing new software.
Recently, however, two reports have talked about the L&D function engaging at a higher level with skill development. LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning report and Towards Maturity’s report on ‘How to Build and Change Habits in the Workplace’ both recognise that businesses need new and different interpersonal skills, and that changing habits which have served individuals well over many years is not straightforward.
It seems that the focus on knowing new things as the basis for L&D interventions is no longer enough (assuming it ever was). These reports – and other commentary I have seen in the L&D world – has recognised that doing new and different things needs more support. The work L&D do has to go beyond knowledge.
Knowledge is only the start of learning
Our L&D inputs need to adequately prepare people for doing things differently and doing different things. Solely giving them access to more content or more information is not enough to help them make those kinds of changes.
That’s not to say that knowledge is not required. It is, but it is inevitably only a start of a learning intervention which needs to continue into the workplace to support people at the point when these new skills and behaviours are required.
We need to lengthen our engagement process with programme participants. People developers need to play an active role with team members, alongside peers and managers, in the following:
Helping new skills get used in the real world
For those skills to become part of the available arsenal of behaviours individuals can call on
Where required, for those behaviours to become habitual – i.e. the default way people approach a particular task or situation
How to lengthen learner engagement
So, what do we L&D folk do to extend their engagement? For the purposes of shared understanding, I want you to assume you are supporting a typical blended learning approach. There is a part of the process which tells people what, why and why now. This may be delivered digitally.
There is a part of the process which looks at how – a skills-based piece. This may be delivered face to face in a workshop, or virtually or via some other mechanism. The essence is that there are a series of practice tasks, undertaken under the watchful eye of someone who has experience and expertise and who can offer feedback.
Most importantly, it doesn’t matter if people get things wrong. In fact, it may help because this is a practice opportunity and people often learn most from their mistakes.
Finally, there is a part of the process where people go back into the workplace and use these skills. Unfortunately, this is also the stage where there is the least support available and – now there are consequences for making mistakes – there are lower inclinations for having a go at something which has barely been mastered.
This is the stage I think in which we need to be more engaged with.
Here are the five things I want L&D professionals to do
Ensure no one returns to the day job from any kind of learning intervention – however brief or however comprehensive - without an action plan which has been communicated to others. Professor Robert Brinkerhoff is very clear when he writes about the Condition of Impact that unless participants expect to be held accountable for implementing actions, then impact is dramatically reduced. Without an actionable action plan (i.e. not some vague promise to ‘apply what we have learned’ people can’t be held properly to account for doing anything differently on their return.
Set up step-by-step tasks or assignments that people can do. Rather than ask people to do everything all at once, integrate the new skills steadily into the daily work. You can feed these assignments and activities into the action planning process – but these need to support progress beyond the immediate so have a mechanism for communicating them to people as they make progress.
Encourage the participant (and create a mechanism) for reflection. I have regularly written about the importance of reflection and my fondness for the simplicity of the Rolfe Model which asks three simple questions: What – what did you do with what result? So, What – what are the implications? What have you learned to start doing, stop doing, do more of or do less of? And What Next? what are your next steps – In other words, update your action plan.
Provide feedback – encouragement – but also useful insights into how to get better. This is a different role for many – more like a personal trainer at the gym – working to build incremental fitness one session at a time. Those who teach musical instruments or sports are able to observe small tweaks to techniques or approaches which can make a big difference to outcomes. We should be able to do the same – especially if we want people to change their interpersonal skills, which may have become difficult habits to change.
Maintain focus – through consistently following up with every individual (and their manager); by collecting stories (especially success stories) and sharing them with others and by garnering real benefits and performance improvement in line with organisational strategy – so that the rest of the business get behind the initiative and you are less likely to be seen as the training police. Oh, and if you can’t link what you’re doing to performance improvement, why are you wasting everybody’s time?
That’s it. Five things that in my experience really make a difference between whether people know what they should be doing or do what they should be doing. And creating the environment in which people do things right and do the right things – that’s our job in L&D.
To hear Robin speak on this issue of knowledge dumping in more detail, watch January’s Learning Now TV programme on demand.
Robin Hoyle is a writer and consultant working with organisations large and small to implement change through people development. He has a long track record of strategic L&D leadership and materials development and design - working for a wide range of organisations in private, public and voluntary sectors in the UK and throughout the world...