Sustaining What We Learn; Changing What We Do

How much of what we learn do we remember? And, how do we make sure that what we learn has an enduring impact on our behavior?  These are the riddles which organizations must solve as they try to measure the value of their investments in learning and the impact it has on business.  Neurobiologists from the best institutions study these questions.  They’ll tell us that buried in our brains are pathways and chemical agents which embed memory, trigger emotions, and help us develop new habits.  Economists and business analysts use long-term studies to plot tangible payoffs from learning initiatives.
While such research will lead to scientific and quantitative enlightenment, let me share some quick thoughts on what works and doesn’t from the perspective of nearly 30 years of practical experience.  Apply these principles, and you’ll have some ready tools you can use to improve learning and retention that build skills and change culture.
Define Modest Learning Goals.  Don’t try to teach too much. It’s better to reinforce narrower lessons that can be absorbed and remembered than to saturate a population with a torrent of details which will be quickly forgotten.
Identify Specific Outcomes.  If your organization is seeking behavioral change, then define exactly which behaviors must change. Telling people they must act with integrity is a broad statement of purpose.  Telling them not to lie, fabricate information, or cover up problems gives them behaviors they can understand and consistently apply.
Repetition Works.  When your organization identifies what’s important, reinforce it in formal learning sessions, in what leaders do, in communications, and in on-the-job shop talks.
What is Done is More Important than What is Taught.  We are more likely to absorb and apply the things we see practiced on a daily basis than to apply something that is taught annually.  It’s critical, particularly when dealing with communicating values, compliance expectations, or culture change, that leaders model what’s important. Workplace osmosis works better than educational force-feeding in the form of required lectures or online click-throughs.
Don’t Confuse Communicating Information with Building Skills.  Many organizations fail when they treat information and skills as one and the same. Rules, processes, policies, and standards are data – information that can be stored and readily accessed.  It’s important for individuals to know the basics, where to access detail, and to be periodically reminded what to do or not do.  How we act, how we respond, and what we do to apply knowledge requires varied skills. And, these skills are built through modeling, practice, feedback and on-the-job application.
Great Learners Teach.  If you want adults to apply important lessons, require them to teach others what they need to know themselves.  Their teaching requires them to learn and understand, if for no other reason, than they don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of colleagues or mentees.  Finally, most leaders don’t want to be seen as hypocrites. If you require a leader to demonstrate and reinforce skills among colleagues and coworkers, for example, she will be more likely to learn them and adhere to them herself.
Anticipate Conceptual Resistance.  Many initiatives fail because they focus on what individuals need to know rather than on the reasons they may be reluctant or opposed to changing habits they have developed over their work lives.  Anticipate this resistance, and address it throughout the design so learners understand why it’s important for them and not just the organization to change.  Many leaders think the rules apply to others, but not them.
Track Results at the Team Level.  Get leaders and others to track how they apply key learning on a daily basis. Ask them to limit their journaling to less than two minutes a day. When learners have to record what they have done in the past with regularity, it makes it more likely they’ll continue to apply the same standards going forward.
Enduring Change Takes Time to Root.  Behavioral change is not the result of a single event unless the event is extraordinarily powerful and clear with life-changing consequences. Tell someone they will die in a week if they continue eating an allergic substance, and you may [but not necessarily] get their attention and action. It’s more likely that reminders and support from colleagues and repetition over time will lead to changes in what’s done. Investment in terms of time and resources rather than a solitary budgeted line item event is what gets long-term results.

  • Ross Tartell says:

    As usual, an article that combines great insight with practicality. A point I would like to emphasize is the role of the manager. As the old saying goes, people look to see where you cast your shadow. Here is an article I recently published in Training Magazine that reemphasizes the point you made and highlights the role of the manager.
    Thanks for the insights!

  • Stephen M. Paskoff says:

    Ross –thank you for your kind comment and for the article you sent which I am reviewing now and recommending at the same time. Increasingly, we need to make sure that leaders have the responsibility to teach through their actions if we want to sustain long term behavioral change. all best. Steve

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