Learning Sustainability

Coincidentally I entered into the discussion in separate occasions with others on how to sustain the impact of learning interventions.   Whilst achieving 100% learning transfer all the time is not possible, I think the question is more about ‘How to sustain learning impact to a larger extent?’   Among all the ideas we discussed, it seems to me the ARL (Action Reflection Learning) practice is still the key.   (Yet, it is not without implementation challenges)

I may have written some of the following points before.   Allow me to refresh my thought (to myself) by possibly repeating some.

I think ARL, or the practice of ‘Learning whilst Earning’ is the future.  I once was asked a question ‘What do you think the future of leadership development will be?’   Ideas came to my mind and I said:

“I think we will not have any traditional openly-nominated classroom-based workshop.   We will not have a fixed schedule and thick binders for the learners.   We will not do Just-in-Case learning anymore.   In the future, we will do Just-in-Time learning.   Our facilitators will go into business meetings, perhaps those annual strategy planning meetings. We facilitate their real business discussion.   More than that, we will pause the leaders to reflect on their behaviors in the meetings and if necessary we will introduce some concepts or tools for them to use on spot.”

There are a few reasons why this is probably the future:

Learners’ Commitment – There are lot of problems in the Just-in-Case setting.   I become more and more skeptical of ‘prisoner’ type of learners. They are in the learning event because they are asked to.   Everybody suffers – themselves, the fellow learners and the facilitator.   Time is wasted.   However, if the event is a real business meeting, everyone will be much more engaged.   Things are relevant and real.   And if we can introduce tools and concepts to be immediately used in the on-going situations, learning retention is high by definition.

Sponsors’ Commitment – No matter how well one learns in a workshop, learning retention will drop a great deal if he or she is not supported to apply the learning back in the workplace.   And the line managers are the most important factor determining whether there is enough support.   A typical example – one learn the GROW model to coach.   He applies it back to the workplace but is challenged by his line managers on why he asked so many questions instead of just telling.   And the line managers in fact always just tell.   This will kill his learning on coaching skills right away.

On the other hand, if we install learning in a real business setting, the sponsors are likely involved and in fact become learners as well.

Effectiveness Measurement – Learning professionals have been struggling how to measure effectiveness on leadership development initiative.   There is no perfect solution yet.   However, in the Just-in-Case setting, the intervention effort can possibly result in better business result e.g. cost saving / attrition rate, on top of developing leaders.

Cost Pressure – Given the more and more difficult operating environment, learning resources will likely be cut ……. unless we can prove the effectiveness.   When the next financial crisis comes, it is not unlikely that corporations will further either cut down the stand-alone learning department or outsources majority of the work.   It will however be a different proposition if the so-called learning department can facilitate both earning and learning.   I wrote more about this idea in my previous blog post Forget about ‘Training’

Despite the above, the move from traditional practice to ‘Connecting Earning with Learning’ is still a big paradigm shift for most organizations.    Essentially, it is ‘safe’ to run traditional classes.   And there are often stakeholders with vested interest to the traditional practice.

To me, the key outstanding questions are:

  • How to balance the need for consistency in learning across the organization in adopting Just-in-Time learning approach?
  • Should we adopt a higher balance of conformity for more junior learners i.e. less Just-in-Time?   And if so, how much and where to draw the line?
  • What kinds of quality are needed for the facilitators or Team Coaches to be able to conduct Just-in-Time learning?
  • How to build the initial success in order to influence other stakeholders?

Tavistock Experience – Learning Design

Further reflection on the Tavistock experience – As said, it is a very uncommon learning experience. To the extreme, for some parts, I could not help comment them as bad learning design.    On the surface of it, there were things looking like ‘shallow debrief’, ‘loose instruction’, etc.    On the other hand, I questioned myself on ‘What am I missing?’.   In sharing these thoughts with others, I was challenged with a question ‘So, what does good learning design mean to you?’

I think this is a good question to ponder on.   Given how unusual the Tavistock experience is, the question can really uncover and challenge my assumption on learning design.    I think there are a few elements which a good learning experience should consist of (not meant to be a prescriptive answer to good learning design).

A good design should create an environment which generates more learning around the topic as agreed with the learners than environments otherwise experienced by the learners.   What such intended environment should look like thus depends on what the topic is.    By environment, it includes the process, facilitators, the physical set up, the material, the learners mix, etc.

In order to achieve the above, a good design should take into account the Adult Learning Principles.   To me, the key ones are WIIFM, variety in learning styles, repetition, a balance of realness and unfamiliarity, learning transfer, effective use of pre and post experience.

In particular, a good design should enhance learning transfer as much as possible so long as it does not crowd out learners’ own responsibility and compromise learning depending on the nature of the intended learning topic.   To be more specific on experiential learning, a good design should provide space for learners to make sense out of the experience individually and collectively with fellow learners.

In that sense, my Tavistock definitely create an unique environment to learn about group relations which the participants would not experience otherwise.  In particular, it is very successful to create the learners’ mix – the size, the willingness to learn and the variety.   Re the Adult Learning Principles, being an open program, the Tavistock conference has limitation on repetition and ‘pre & post’.   I think it did well on variety in learning styles and realness.   Yet, i think there is missed opportunity in WIIFM and learning transfer.

For those who have been to Tavistock experience, what good learning design means to you and what do you think of Tavistock from the learning design perspective?

‘Learning’ from Ancient Chinese

IMG_0241Triggered by a discussion with a friend, I would like to write a few posts about Chinese ancient wisdom, and more importantly what it means in corporate learning nowadays.   I believe it would be a good reflection for my own experience in the corporate learning world as well, both in China and outside.

 The first one is the one that I have thought of the most (by 荀子 Xun Zi)

不闻不若闻之,
闻之不若见之,
见之不若知之,
知之不若行之,
学至于行而止矣.

The literal translation is:

Not hearing is not as good as hearing.
Hearing is not as good as seeing.
Seeing is not as good as knowing (intellectually).
Knowing is not as good as doing.
True learning is complete only when we put it in action.

This quote illustrates a great deal on corporate learning:

  • How the industry has changed – The quote highlights the evolution of corporate learning in the past decades.   In the past, when we thought of corporate learning, we tended to have experts standing up and talking for the whole day i.e. teaching.   As visual technology e.g. powerpoint became popular, the experts talk and show picture, video, graph and unfortunately mostly bullet points.   This is from ‘hearing’ to ‘seeing’.  Further, the focus changed from ‘what is sent’ to ‘what is received’.  The learning professionals were transitioning from trainers who tell to facilitators who guide people to discover and make meaning themselves.  This is from ‘seeing’ to ‘knowing’.  

(Whilst this makes sense, I do not find facilitating people to learn common in the corporate learning field, especially in Mainland China. Here is an interesting phenomenon – when you are waiting for your flight in Mainland China, you often find shops selling video with an expert talking loudly and vividly about certain topic.)

  • Action – The last part of the quote i.e. from ‘knowing’ to ‘doing’.   In a way, experiential learning activities and business simulation are answers to it.    For example, getting a group of people to compete in a treasure hunt activity and debriefing on what they learn about working in team.   Depending on how the intervention is framed and run, this can be much more effective than traditional teaching in terms of learning transfer.   However, I have experienced how learners just went through the motion in the intervention.   They sort of decide to take it just as a ‘game’.   In the debrief, when asked about say what they learn about team communication, they can produce a laundry list of ‘standard answer’.   People cheer and clap their hands as people present back.   But that’s it…..

To me, a more advanced version of the ‘knowing’ part is Action Learning.   There are different practices in the market under the name of Action Learning.   The one I prefer is called ‘Action Reflection Learning’ or ARL – where guided reflection plays a significant part to learning.   See my previous post athttp://www.ask-nottell.com/?p=751    This practice tackles nicely the ‘realness’ problem mentioned above by always working on real work.   (By real work, I mean the result of those will have real consequence to the learners.)    I particularly like the philosophy of ‘Learning whilst you are Earning’.   Using the ancient Chinese language, it would be something like 行学并行.

  • Kirkpatrick 4-level of evaluation – The quote also illustrates the 4 levels.   The ‘Knowing’ part is like Level 2.    Learners can remember the learning and demonstrate say by passing the test at the end of a learning event.    The ‘put in action’ part is like Level 3.   Learners can put the learning into action in the workplace.   The natural challenge of course to the quote is that it misses the Level 4 i.e. real learning is complete only when the learning intervention creates impact as mentioned by the pre-determined business measurement e.g. revenue, cost, attrition rate.    Yet, this challenge is from the corporate perspective rather than the individual learners.

It is amazing how the ancient Chinese has figured out the above a few thousand years ago already.   But even more interestingly, why such wisdom has not been commonly practised though it has been around for so long?

Leadership Development

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A friend of mine once attended a Leadership Development workshop all the way in the US.   I supposed it was a huge investment by the company who hired an external facilitator and flew talents from all over the world.   I was surprised when my friend showed me her course material.   It was basically a presentation skills workshop.  And they did do the typical presentation training drill e.g. stand up to present, video-taped, receive feedback, etc.    I wonder how could a presentation skills workshop be considered as ‘Leadership Development’.

What is ‘Leadership Development’ after all?

In fact, if you ask 10 business executives what they will expect to happen in a ‘Leadership Development’ workshop, you probably have 10 different answers.  Probably very different ones.   It is like the term ‘Leadership’.   See my earlier post on ‘Really.. what is Leadership?’   Further, in my experience, ‘Leadership Development’ does not always carry a good reputation.   Some find it very vague and disregard it.   Some will welcome it because of the wrong reason e.g. being invited to attend one means ‘I am in the club’.   

On reflection, there is actually one (probably unconscious) definition on ‘Leadership Development’ that causes this problem.    To many, ‘Leadership Development’ means any development intervention to people in the leadership position.   By this definition, this really could mean anything, including presentation skills workshop.

Well, there is no right or wrong definition.   I guess the question is whether it is useful.   And if it is useful, it should base on a conscious definition on what ‘Leadership’ is.

 

Lucky Me

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This post is a bit dated.   But I still want to post it here since it is rather significant to me.    The photos were taken in Gazipur, Bangladesh – the outskirt of Dhaka.   I conducted a team development workshop there for 2 days.    The event is significant to me in a number of ways:

 

  • The workshop went very well.   The sponsor and the participants were apparently satisfied and more importantly their relationship seemed to start changing.   In the final 1-word check-out, one participant said ‘change’.   He further elaborated that he now saw people differently.  In addition, we arrived with very concrete Requests and Offers between leader and the team, with specific person and date for follow-up.
  • It was the last workshop with my previous employer.    It nicely marked the end.    I am particularly happy that I end it with a piece of ‘real’ work.   As I mentioned before here, I believe more and more that learning happens much more effectively when we get the learners do real stuff.
  • Most importantly, I felt very grateful during the event.    I was absorbed with what I did there.   I felt like time just passed by so quickly.  I was in the flow.   People say everyone is borne for reasons.   If that is the case, I really feel like I am borne to facilitate group work.    Not that I am very good at it.   Just that I like to do it so much.

 

 

 

I guess I am lucky.

Be careful about L3 and L4

A great piece of learning I got in talking to a learning / training veteran – It goes like this:

Business leader: ‘I am sending people to your programs. Can you guarantee that they will do what they learn (i.e. L3) and perform better (i.e. L4)? Oh, and how are you going to prove such to me?’

Learning consultant: ‘You tell me. You have your reasons in why sending people to programs. And you are the one who control the environment in how they transfer the learning into the workplace.’

The above may be a bit extreme. But there is some truth in it. Conversely speaking, problem will arise if as a passionate learning consultant, one promises to produce and measure L3 and L4 result. He takes away the business leader’s responsibility in clarifying what specific result he tries to improve and providing the necessary support for learning transfer. It is like a stationery store selling a pen to a dad for his kid. And the store keeper is trying to promise to the dad that the kid will use the pen and will win the caligraphy award. It is tempting to be so helpful but it could actually be…… not helpful….

I experienced it before. Lesson learnt.

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Action Learning in Action

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I was excited about what I experienced in an internal meeting conducted in India. Basically there were a few leadership development facilitators and operational colleagues discussing with logistic support colleagues on how to improve some operational processes. [Sorry that I cannot tell more about the details] With a few of us being conscious about what is really going on, it turned into an action learning intervention – all worked on the stuff, and at the same time learned about leadership, ways of working, problem solving, etc. At least this is what I perceived. I could not help to share at the end that what happened was a great example of what I believe the future leadership development intervention should be. The beauty of such practice includes:

 

  • Real stuff is being resolved
  • As such, the return on the underlying developmental resources can be objectively measured
  • The common problem of lacking line managers’ support on learning events no longer exists. It is real.
  • People learn effectively with high learning transfer

The question is:

 

How to make it scalable? The facilitator has much more preparation work to do because each intervention can be very different. And we are asking a lot from the facilitator who needs to be resourceful and skillful. Able to intervent just in time with relevant concepts or tools…