Studying, practicing, learning

In a previous blog post I discussed briefly the difficulty of learning in today´s work: identifying, let alone acquiring the required knowledge and skills can be very difficult, even overwhelming. Now I will introduce an interesting learning concept from Charles Jennings describing how high performers emerge.

I came into contact with Mr. Jennings’ thoughts during a seminar on learning organized at our company. His thoughts and the studies he refers to give  a good idea how we might both improve our learning and also make it easer to identify what we need to learn. The following post is written in a bit more academic style than my other one, but bear with me. The content should be worth it, even if the assumed entertainment value is reduced.

Studying does not equal learning

Jennings states that we should learn about the things that are embedded in our daily work. It is not enough to take a formal course on a topic or to read a book: we also have to be able to apply and rehearse the new skills for them to stick. The material also has to be relevant. Learning skills that are embedded in our daily work addresses both of these issues: we learn things that are relevant and we are able to hone them on a frequent basis.

Jennings also mentions the ineffectiveness of testing. Testing measures mostly short-term memory, but in order to learn and improve we have to store those new skills and new knowledge in our long-term memory, and that takes place via recurring practice.

Why training fails?

A McKinsey study from January 2014  lists reasons why corporate leadership training programs fail. Among other things, the unsuccessful programs fail to:

  1. consider context, and thus apply a similar training for all cases and individuals
  2. intertwine training and its content with daily work, therefore preventing the application of new skills and personal growth
  3. measure results, which makes it difficult to improve the training.

Another reason for training not delivering the desired results is that training is perceived as a one-time endeavor, while in reality a formal training is merely a start. Ideally training and practice take place everyday. Regular, recurring practice is much more beneficial for learning than single episodes of binge-studying.

Charles Jennings presented in the seminar the following points as reasons for training not delivering the expected benefits of improved performance:

  1. lack of practice in real environment
  2. classroom training is used for knowledge building (this is ineffective according to Jennings)
  3. managers are not involved
  4. employees are taught “tasks” away from the job

The reasons listed by Jennings identify the lack of training and context and decoupling from daily work as major reasons for training failing to bring improvements.

How do we become high performers?

In the seminar Jennings mentioned the importance of mind set for successful learning. We should be allowed to fail and learn from those failures. How many of you have emerged from an embarrassing failure, remembering not to repeat the same mistake again? I suspect that quite many of us have had such unpleasant experiences, that nevertheless have through their emotional impact branded a life-long learning on our brain.

For successful long-term learning and improvement Jennings draws lessons from the world of sport where competition is more than tough at the top and so called high performers are the norm. High performers, according to Jennings, develop through:

  1. new and challenging experiences and structured development to manage the basics
  2. opportunities to practice
  3. extensive practice
  4. rich conversations and networks in the professional community
  5. mentors
  6. space for reflection and access to on-the-job performance support

Not surprisingly, this list is somewhat the opposite of the lists naming the reasons why training fails to deliver results. However, among the mentioned success factors for developing high performers are the additional parameters of challenging experiences, networking and mentoring. It is not enough to learn a skill formally and train it frequently. The new skills have to be enough challenging, take one out of his comfort zone. A community for sharing experiences and receiving mental support from mentors are also beneficial for creating top performance and top performers.

70:20:10 model

Charles Jennings describes a model for effective and sustainable learning, which he calls the 70:20:10 model:

  • 10% of learning in formal environment, separate from work: e.g. a course on project management methodologies
  • 20% social learning: learning through others: e.g. learning form colleagues on the job or via informal exchange
  • 70% experiental learning, learning through experience, “learning by doing”

As the list on the creation of high performers, Jennings’ 70:20:10 model also emphasizes learning by doing, the importance of practice and learning from others and discussing your own experiences with them. Implicitly the model also mentions the importance of facing and accepting failure. Through extensive practice and multiple failures we learn to overcome and master the difficulties.

An obvious objection to Jennings’ model would be to ask, when one is to train and learn anything new. If you already have a job, how are you going to devote time for learning on the job? In my opinion, the point is becoming proficient and even better with your current tasks, thus being able to carve out some time for learning new ones. It’s also clear that learning new things is hard work and requires putting in more effort to bring you forward, but gradually you will become more effective and efficient,

Learning how to learn

It should be clear by now that learning does not take place in an instant, nor does it deliver lasting effects if we do not stick to it on the long-term. Learning also requires more than learning a skill while detached form the environment where the skills is to be applied. The process of learning is not trivial, and it can and should be learnt.

There are web courses on learning. I took one from Coursera called Learning How to Learn. I can recommend the course to anyone who wants to become a better learner. The course addresses the theoretical basics of learning as well as the practical implications and introduces tools and strategies for better learning, including the Pomodoro technique, deliberate practice, mini-testing, chunking etc. The course also discusses factors and causes that inhibit learning, such as procrastination, and how to overcome them.

Learning in short

Sustained learning takes place when we daily face new relevant challenges, work on them repeatedly, review our work and failures and exchange our experiences with colleagues and more experienced people.

The things we learn also have to be relevant, so that we will spend the required time honing them, be they mental of physical skills.

We can and also should learn how to learn. The process of learning is not trivial and there are many obstacles that can be quite easily overcome to make learning more lasting and efficient. Learning should also be fun, at least for the most time. Sure, sometimes it requires a lot of work and just pushing through, failure after failure, but you should still be able to enjoy it in general. If you can’t you won’t stick to it. And besides, what would the point of spending so much time on something that is not fun?

Train with a purpose, train the difficult things, train often, train hard, train in the real environment, have fun when training, reflect on your experiences and share your successes and failures with others. Learn.

Edit: Corrected typos on 26.3.2017

I’d like you to meet…

Last week we had our annual company Christmas party: lots of people, friendly atmosphere, good program and tasty food. A perfect venue to practice networking one might say. I have written before how the word networking and my perception of the concept make me uncomfortable. Yet, in the mentioned party I suddenly found myself not only networking, but also enjoying it.

During the last six months I have got to know many new colleagues at work. Being a quieter person, it’s not always that easy for me to take contact, start a conversation and keep one alive. I have heard and read that those are skills one can learn but quite honestly, I have never had enough practice to be a master in those skills. At our company Christmas party I just suddenly realized that I had made progress in all of those areas and that I was enjoying mingling and introducing people to each other.

Help others broaden their network

I think that introducing people to each other is at least as important as getting introduced yourself. When you bring people you know together, you strengthen your social network by creating new connections between existing nodes. This helps strengthen also your personal relationships to those people since they become deeper embedded in your social sphere. Again, I  have to mention that for me it is not about building a network for my own purposes. It is about bringing other people together, people who benefit from those new connections: e.g. introducing an intern to different people in you organization might help that intern find a job later on, and people looking for employees might find the right candidate to hire. Helping others this way is what makes this type of networking enjoyable for me.

Introduction = Name, affiliation and follow-up

Introducing people to each other over and over again during the company Christmas party helped me develop a kind of elevator speech for introducing people to one another. I am sure this is nothing new, but I have hardly ever practiced these skills this intensively before so I had a good learning experience when I introduced people to each other on four or five occasions during the evening. I learned that in introducing strangers to each other the following formula is a good general approach:

  • Mention the names of all present and how they are affiliated to you.
  • Make an anecdote on something you have just experienced with one of the persons being introduced. If you can mention some “fun fact” about one of the persons, it’s easier for others to grab  on it and start a conversation.
  • If no conversation emerges right away, ask one of those present a follow-up question on which they can give a more elaborate answer. This will give others some material to pursue the conversation further.

As an example, introducing person A and B to each other at the mentioned Christmas party could have gone along the following lines (and actually did on one occasion):

  • Me: (approaching A with B) “Hi A, this is B, a colleague of mine. He also has the same name as I do (“fun fact”), so you do not have to learn that many new ones this evening.”
  • A and B: (shake hands, greet each other)
  • A: “Yeah, it’s easier for me not having to learn any new names at this hour.”
  • (silence)
  • Me: “B is actually an intern at department ZX and this is his last work day so he is going out with a bang.”
  • A: “Oh, that’s nice. So B, you are flying tomorrow?”
  • B: “No, actually next week. I still want to have a couple of days free here.”

The example above shows that you may not need to mention your affiliation in detail to all parties present. In the example I do not mention my affiliation to A, although mentioning it would help B get a better picture of the person to whom he is talking. I would recommend saying a word or two on A in the next sentence. Another point is that the follow-up question can come from one of the persons being introduced. In the example I prepared the field for A to present the follow-up question: whether B was flying the following day. A third point worth mentioning is that staying on the initial track (talking about B, for example) might be helpful in breaking the initial silent moments, since the discussion stays on the same direction and participants are receiving more material for the initial discussion. When the discussion has been going on for a bit longer time, it is easier for everyone to take the discussion on to new tracks, when they have a good basis and a common theme has already been established.

Introduction in larger groups

The example above illustrated the case of two people being introduced to each other and assumes an ensuing conversation. In a larger group the introduction may take a bit longer and afterwards multiple smaller conversations would emerge. However, I would still see the general formula applicable also in a larger group. In such a case you would have to be more alert in providing all the participants enough material to start a discussion, since you cannot be personally taking part at each one the whole time.

Of course introductions, especially in larger groups, may also be really short without the immediate goal of an ensuing discussion between individuals. For example in a seminar it might be nice to briefly introduce the participants, but time constraints might not allow anything more than mentioning everyone’s name. Further introductions and personal discussions would take place separately.

Networking with a purpose

In short, I find introducing people to each other enjoyable. As in all your actions, you should do a introduction in order to help others. If you just want to show someone all the supposedly influential people you know, you might as well forget the whole endeavor: you are treating those influential people as trophies and the other ones as your personal admirers, to whom you want to show your trophy collection. Bringing people together should be about them and their needs, not about your showing off to satisfy your ego. Be open, be honest and friendly.

Learning and working in teams

During the last two years at work I have learned, and have had to learn, a tremendous amount on different topics: negotiation, company organization and processes, presentation skills, new product development etc. Based on this experience I agree with David DeLong´s notion that learning on the job is not only a requirement in many today’s jobs, but also complex and potentially overwhelming.

Mr. DeLong’s description of a chief nursing officer’s struggles in getting to know the newest IT systems sounds familiar. Defining what one needs to know in order to be competent, let alone acquiring the knowledge and skills, is not always easy. In my experience this does not only lead to the occasional feeling of incompetence or inadequateness, but may also lead to a kind of paralysis: you do not take action, because you have the feeling that you never have enough information or understanding on the topic. This is well illustrated in one of Mr DeLong’s replies to a comment on his post: You helped make my argument when you wrote “It mystifies me how someone can write a post about learning without referring to…the neuroscience of learning.” The field of learning theory is massive, and if I had tried to cover enough bases to satisfy critics, I’d still be trying learn enough to write something. The point of my short post wasn’t about theories of how people learn, but about the phenomenon of needing to learn too much to be competent.

I think that part of the solution is working increasingly in teams and also being honest and open about the knowledge and skill gaps (and the resulting mistakes). In addition to defining the knowledge required from individuals and helping them acquire that knowledge, company management should also identify the required knowledge on an organizational level. By this I mean that the total pool of required knowledge should be clear, not only the required knowledge of single employees. By identifying the total required knowledge pool and combining that with the different employee networks inside a company, it should be possible to identify two things. First, what competences is the company missing as a whole? Second, what teams or projects are missing certain skills and how to import those skills in to the project?

Knowledge of individual employees can be used more wide-spreadedly through teams and also be disseminated through team work. This way a organization can have individuals with varying skills sets and all, or at least most, of the required total skills. Furthermore, disseminating and using knowledge through teams and team work addresses the aspects of learning on the job and learning sustainably, a point I am going to discuss in my next post.

All in all, as individuals we should have the courage to say two things, the first being “I do not know.” and the second “Could you please help me?”. This way we can bring individuals with the required skills in to teams, identify our knowledge and skill gaps and also foster learning to improve ourselves and our work.


Giving everyone something that nobody wants

Christmas is approaching, being only three weeks away. Last weekend my hometown had the annual Christmas fair and market with stands where mostly local craftsmen and agricultural producers sold their products. I paid a visit, in anticipation of finding something nice for the friends and family. I was looking for nothing special but was sure that I would know when I would find the right thing. After a quick 10-minute tour I had to leave with empty hands and thinking: why did I even go looking?

But I don’t even like chocolate

For some years I have been of the opinion that no one should give or a receive a gift that was not thought through. Just giving something out of social custom, without really thinking what to give and putting your heart into it, is something I see as waste, even counter-productive to a relationship. Gift giving with all its rituals is, I think, expected to deepen relationships and show mutual commitment. However, I think that this requires the gift’s being in some way tailored for the receiver, being chosen based on his character, tastes and interests.

Just getting a box of chocolates from the general grocer, so that you could give somebody something, does not include a personal element. It just forces the gift giver to acquire something that he may not even want to buy, and it also forces the receiver to accept something he probably does not want: time and money are wasted and what’s worse, is the potential damage done to the relationship, expressed in the wordless communication between the two persons. With an apologetic face the gift giver may be thinking: “Here, I got you something I know you do not like, and I hate having wasted money on it.” Meanwhile the receiver, with an awkward smile on his face, thinks: “I see you do not really know me, or at least you did not bother to think, what I really might want. Actually, your company would have been enough anyway.” Of course, the conversation on the surface follows the traditional lines, the gift and its features being praised by both sides. Does this sound familiar? Do you enjoy such situations? Do you think they improve your relationships?

Give some time, not something

I see gifts and gift giving as a physical manifestation of our feelings and thoughts, meaning that giving gifts without deeper thought is just passing an item on to another person. In the worst case, an item that nobody ever wanted or needed. On these grounds I have for some years now abstained from getting Christmas, or any other presents to anyone, unless I feel that the gift is somehow personalized. Sure, I might give a box of chocolates, but even then I have spent time choosing the right brand, selection, pack size and package, based on the receiving person’s preferences. I have even taken plain bread from my corner bakery as souvenirs, knowing that the receiver likes this one type of bread from this one bakery. And I can assure you, the reception has each and every time been sincerely warm and grateful.

Leaving the local Christmas fair last weekend with these thoughts, I again recalled a quote from Rick Warren: “Time is your most precious gift because you only have a set amount of it….It is not enough to just say relationships are important; we must prove it by investing time in them.” I must admit that I have not read any of Mr. Warren’s books, nor am I familiar with his other work or any affiliations, but the quote I find to be true. I believe that people and relationships are among most important things in our daily lives and that investing our time in  relationships is essential for leading a good and happy life. Therefore, putting thought into gifts and investing time in selecting them shows your commitment to a relationship and is a way to nurture them.

I hope we could give a little more of our time and maybe a little less of all that garbage that gets hauled around the world especially during Christmas time. I am not against giving gifts, cheap or expensive, classical or modern, unique or mass-produced, novel or clichés. I am against giving gifts that were not chosen for a specific person and personality, but merely grabbed by a hand lacking thought only to be forwarded to another one lacking gratitude. If you cannot find a gift, maybe you can just give someone your time in its purest form: spend time with your closest ones, cook a meal with them, go for a walk. Be there and show that you care.

My revolution

My last, and already long due, blog post of the LYL blog challenge is about revolution: What revolution will I lead?

Seeing the question, I am already thinking if I even want to lead a revolution. Maybe just a small upheaval, or a demonstration, or just a harmless gang? At the same time I am confident, thanks to putting some thoughts on the proverbial paper, that I might actually be able to lead a revolution. The question just remains, which one?

Based on my elevator pitch and the difference I want to make, my revolution might be about empowering people through collaboration, getting people help one another more and work towards common goals. I know, this sound very far-reaching, abstract and more like a UN statement, but at the moment that’s all I have. I will work to get a clearer picture so that I can and eventually will  start my revolution. Maybe the goal will change, I do not know yet. In any case, I will not wait for a final, clear formulation, but just for enough to start a revolution I want to start. In the meantime, gaining experience on working together with people, bringing them together and encouraging them to reach together for common goals should give me the confidence and some of the skills I will need later.

The difference I want to make

As one of the last writing tasks of the LYL blog challenge we were asked to write about the change we want to make in the world. Reflecting on my elevator pitch I wrote earlier, the change I want to make would go along the lines of making a better society where everyone wants and can help others as permitted by their own capacity. I want to see a society with people working together to achieve more than anyone alone could achieve. Of this last point I was reminded just this weekend, as our gymnastics and sports club threw our bi-annual show comprising of acting, acrobatics, dance and other kinds of entertainment without forgetting food and beverages. Being not only on stage but also behind the scenes showed me, how enthusiastic and hard-working people with a common goal and a leader can achieve whatever they set out to do.

Having experienced this team-spirit and seen its results, I am sure that using more of the same approach in our society and politics we could achieve much more and at the same time also with less resources, be they natural or human. Sure, we are working towards common goals, but still we have too much antagonism that prevents us from working together to our full capacity. How this ideal will transform into a crystal clear goal and action, I have yet to define. On a personal level, the first step for me is to stay and become even more engaged in our gymnastics and sports club, and just do things together with friends. I believe that taking even one step in the right direction helps more than trying to plan out the whole trip before making a move.

I will keep doing things, learning and trying to be a zero. I am confident that the goal will become clear during this process and I can take the next, bigger step, when the time comes.