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:
- consider context, and thus apply a similar training for all cases and individuals
- intertwine training and its content with daily work, therefore preventing the application of new skills and personal growth
- 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:
- lack of practice in real environment
- classroom training is used for knowledge building (this is ineffective according to Jennings)
- managers are not involved
- 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:
- new and challenging experiences and structured development to manage the basics
- opportunities to practice
- extensive practice
- rich conversations and networks in the professional community
- 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.
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