Continuous Learning: A more natural way to train

The history of corporate training mirrors that of management: As companies grow more complex, a manager’s ability to deal with that complexity becomes equally important. Take for example the following before and after states of “how things work” as published by Deloitte University Press.

[Deloitte University Press: 2017 Global Human Capital Trends]

To meet these evolving needs, training has become increasingly critical for forward-thinking companies, with many directing more and more resources toward training initiatives.

Just as the practice of management has become less about formal meetings and procedures and more about continuous, ongoing processes, so too has training evolved from static classes toward a more continuous process that includes a range of different ways to learn — from social media to googling to coaching and beyond. In truth, we are all continuous learners already.

See Bersin by Deloitte’s Continuous Learning Model:

[Bersin by Deloitte: Reimagining L&D Capabilities to Drive Continuous Learning]

This is how we learn

To illustrate, let’s go back to first principles, and look at what we’re hoping employees will learn and how we expect they will learn those sorts of things.

ATD’s 2016 State of the Industry report gives us a good list of the five topics most represented in organizational training:

  1. Managerial and Supervisory
  2. Compliance
  3. Processes, Procedures and Business Practices
  4. Profession/Industry Specific
  5. New Employee Orientation

The 2015 Brandon Hall Group Training Study has a similar list:

[Brandon Hall Group: Brandon Hall Learning and Development Answer Book 2015]

What is interesting about these topic areas is that most relate to behavior — they aren’t subject areas you can master by memorizing lists.

In each case, management is looking for improved business outcomes by changing the way employees behave. This is important because we know that the best way to teach new behaviors is different from the best way to teach facts. While behaviors are learned by doing, like riding a bike, facts are learned by repetition, for example, studying for a French test.

There is, in fact, a whole science around behavior change that revolves around a new way of looking at the learner. Here’s how lecturer Ben Williamson puts it in a recent piece:

In the traditional conception of school, the learner was invoked as a docile individual who turned up to school to be instructed in a core canon of curricular content and codes of behavioral conduct. Now, in our digital times, the learner is being reimagined as a more active, interactive, connected and collaborative individual — a behaviorally different species to the normalized learner of mass schooling.

Let’s unpack that statement a little:

First, Williamson mentions that learners are more active. This is important because the internet and mobile search have both totally changed everyone’s relationship with information. We no longer need to wait to know something; we can immediately search for it instead. As a result, we are both less likely to memorize things and much more likely to actively search for answers on the spot.

The next point Williamson makes is that learning has become interactive. It’s long been known that active engagement leads to much more effective learning outcomes than passive consumption. What is new is the ease with which this engagement and interactivity can be created and distributed digitally. In fact, one could argue that the main contribution of the e-learning revolution is the ability to create and cheaply distribute interactive learning experiences.

But what to do with all this engagement? How is it really helping? It turns out that we have learned, in the past few decades, a great deal about learning itself. We now know how to deal with interactivity much more effectively than we once did.

As an example, the relatively recent cognitive load theory (CLT) helps us to manage interactive tasks in several ways. The main premise of CLT is that all learning must involve working memory, which itself is subject to three different kinds of load:

[CommLab India: Instructional Strategy Based on Cognitive Load Theory]

  1. Extraneous load. The mental load caused by distractions.
  2. Germane load. The mental load spent thinking about what’s being learned.
  3. Intrinsic load. The mental load caused by the learning task. More complexity leads to more load, but more familiarity with the task or subject means complexity is reduced by “chunking” ideas into groups.

The first way CLT helps us to use interactivity is by warning us against “extraneous” cognitive load — specifically to avoid gimmicky interactivity that distracts from the main learning goal. In fact, extraneous load serves as a guideline to make everything as simple as possible, so that the learner can focus attentively.

Next, CLT tells us that, to learn, we must consciously think about what we are learning. Called “germane” cognitive load, the process of reflecting on what we’ve just done, how to do it better, and what lessons to extract is the basis of coaching & mentoring, and why frameworks can be so powerful. Germane load is the critical activity for effective learning.

The third and perhaps most important lesson of CLT for interactive learning is the realization that a problem that is too complex for the learner will not leave any cognitive load for actual learning. Here, learners are so focused on completing the task that they don’t have the additional mental capacity to realize what they’re learning — and learning suffers as a result.

Digital interactive learning allows a level of control of the task that gives us the ability to more easily scaffold the learning, i.e., create problems that are mostly solved and allow the learner to solve part of the problem at first, then, over time, solve similar, more complex problems as they develop new skills and learn more.

Returning to Williamson, he further points out that learning has always been somewhat collaborative in that the discussion of what things mean is often critical to understanding and mastery. What has changed is that the opportunities and mechanisms for collaboration have grown tremendously; texting, emailing, and online collaboration tools, for example, have all made it much easier for learners to work with each other.

Behavior change requires persistence

At the end of the day, almost all training in the corporate world focuses on behavior change. To truly change behavior, we need to be continuously engaged in the process. This engagement can take the form of anything from search to reading to classes, depending on the instructional design. The point is that, by some means or another, we need to continuously engage.

Across industries, training is evolving from periodic interventions (which are mostly classes) to an ongoing, technologically aided process of change. This is happening at the same time that everything in business is accelerating, a factor that both reinforces the need for continuous learning and also means that learners seldom have the time to stop and think about their individual learning journeys.

Why motivation is important

In a recent paper called “Employee Learning and Development Orientation: Toward an Integrative Model of Involvement and Continuous Learning,” Professor Todd Maurer proposes a model for how learning can work. He suggests motivation is the key variable to successful programs:

An employee learning and development orientation is proposed, which includes cognitive, affective, and behavioral constructs that together describe a tendency toward involvement in continuous learning. This orientation is posited to be a motivational state that depends on the degree to which learning and development are relevant to the self.

This focus on motivation is critical for both e-learning and continuous learning. In the past, continuous learning was encouraged after every class. It usually came in the form of a binder or folder that was given to the learner in the hopes that they would refresh their learning on their own time — which almost no one actually did. As business continues to accelerate, we can assume no one will do this in the future, either.

Since a file on a server isn’t more motivating than a binder on a shelf, e-learning runs the risk of suffering from the same problem.

So how do we deal with the need to motivate learners?

Perhaps a better way to describe the issue is that, in today’s hyperconnected world, learners are going to take initiative to learn things that solve problems for them. But these topics are not necessarily going to be in line with what their companies need.

Companies provide intranets, invest in learning management systems, send helpful emails and hold training all in the hopes that their employees will acquire skills and behaviors that drive positive business results. Some level of motivation to learn these skills and behaviors is essential to success.

How do we motivate for continuous learning? There are three broad methods to consider:

[Blue Summit Strategy: The Science of Motivation]

  1. Extrinsic motivation. Tie learning activities and outcomes to compensation.
  2. Intrinsic motivation. Make learning worth doing for its own sake.
  3. Remove motivation. Use communication channels to continually “nudge” learners to engage with learning materials.

Each of these has its own benefits and drawbacks. Extrinsic motivation is controlled by management, easy to incorporate into performance assessments and relatively straightforward to track. When there are large numbers of employees being trained, tying training engagement to broader human capital management efforts seems natural.

However, extrinsic motivators can backfire in a couple of key ways. The first is that you cannot incentivize everything; it can be hard to know how to most effectively incentivize learning engagement in particular. As an example, most tests can be gamed and tests often won’t show behavior change anyway. In contrast, just incentivizing participation can lead to empty box-ticking as employees go through the motions but don’t really learn anything. Everyone who has done compliance training can speak to this issue.

Intrinsic motivation, in the form of gamification, has won lots of praise lately. The benefit here is that by leveraging the psychology of games, non-monetary motivation will keep employees coming back to the training over and over again.

This can sound childish or frivolous, to be sure. But in many cases, gamification-informed instructional designers have found ways to drive engagement without a sense of frivolity.

[EI Design: Benefits of Gamification in E-Learning]

Gamification still has some way to go in terms of adoption across training. It can suffer from the narrowness of a topic area or the complexity of a program that isn’t designed correctly.

The final approach is to sidestep motivational issues and set up training communications mechanisms that keep the ideas top of mind during work. This can be difficult because busy employees will often treat emails the same way they treat dusty binders — leaving them unread in the inbox with the intention to someday get back to them.

However, we know from decades of communications studies that keeping an idea top of mind is critical for both learning and behavior change. To this end, companies have recently experimented with “reinforcing” their employees with everything from social media to text to mobile notifications with success found in each method.

Training: Smoothing out the spikes

It has been pointed out that training used to be episodic or “spiky” in its scheduling.

But as we’ve seen, companies are increasingly creating continuous learning programs because they drive results. Doing so is becoming easier and easier, both in our understanding of what works and the technologies on the market designed to increase the effectiveness of training and learning programs.

As a result of making appropriate investments in learning and training and ensuring that those investments are effective, companies can further develop their most important assets: their employees. When done correctly, these investments can drive competitive advantage and accelerate decision-making — enabling companies to make better decisions faster.

With the right continuous learning mechanisms in place — including gamification and reinforcements — employees will grow in both skill and engagement, and in the process show the behavioral change and business results that are the point of training in the first place.


Originally published at Aquinas Training.

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