The Culture of Learning

Training doesn’t work! That is the axiom that many people have lived by for years. Training is presented as the magic wand that when one waves in the air, everybody comes back changed. But, as we all know, it never really works that way. You can almost hear the manager say, "Hey, I sent you to that class to make you smarter and you are coming back dumber. At least go back to what you used to be—I can deal with that." It reminds me of a Dilbert cartoon I cut out a long time ago. Dilbert is shown in the office holding a binder when his boss asks him "Well, how did that training event go?" Dilbert then answers ruefully, "Great, now I have another binder that will sit above my desk and collect dust." In the final panel, Dilbert’s co-worker asks him if he was able to secure funding for the project they were working on. "Yes," says Dilbert. "I think I got it out of the training budget."

The Four Levels of Learning

Ever notice how children learn to walk? They start by crawling and can get around fairly well. However, when they notice other people walking, they start to stand up, take a few steps and fall down. Crawling is a much faster way to go. However, parents will hold children by the hand and support them while they take a few steps. Then they will let go and allow the children to take a few steps toward them, encouraging them with praise in their efforts. Even though their performance has decreased (it is faster at this point to crawl than to walk), with support, encouragement and guidance they continue applying what they have learned until they are able to walk more quickly than they crawl and eventually stop thinking about it altogether because walking becomes natural.

It is something we have all done and is how we, as human beings, learn. There are four levels of learning and, try as we might, we cannot escape them. Everything we learn goes through these levels. The four levels are:
  • Unconsciously unskilled: We don’t know what we don’t know!
  • Consciously unskilled: We now realize that we have to learn something.
  • Consciously skilled: We have learned it and are trying to apply it. It seems difficult and unnatural but we continue anyway.
  • Unconsciously skilled: We have done it so much it is now second nature to us, and we don’t even think about it anymore.
Here is how the four levels of learning affect performance:

As you can see from the above-noted chart, learning (at least in the short-term) actually decreases performance. It is only after applying it for an extended period of time that performance increases significantly.

Lesson learned: You cannot rush learning—it takes time to incorporate. There are no quick fixes or short-cuts you can do.

Six Steps to How to Create a Culture of Learning

Here are four simple concepts that you can apply to your learning strategy in order to create an effective learning strategy.
  1. Create a blended strategy. Generic training creates generic results. Training programs should include additional support such as coaching/mentoring, online resources and other ways of learning (both formal and informal) that help to build on the learning. Strategies that include mentoring, online/intranet follow up and discussion groups, and coaching are very effective strategies to help implement learning into the workplace.
  2. Make it applicable and relevant. "Off-the-shelf" programs (such as Flexible Thinker®) should be designed to apply to specific situations in the organization. These include applying the program to issues that are identified by the participants, team or organization and can easily be made. One of the key concepts of adult learning is that people have to be motivated to learn and aware of the application. If there is no immediate application or they "go back to the same-old, same-old" without an opportunity to apply what they have learned the motivation starts to fade and the learning has gone for naught. People need to understand why they are there, what is in it for them and how they can apply it to solve a problem or help them in their jobs or lives.
  3. Measure. We value what we measure.How do you know how far you have come if you don’t know where you started? Measurement is important, and measuring impact is even more significant. For instance, you could measure a recruiting program as the number of applicants that you receive. However, if none of the applicants are able to fill the position then the impact has been negligible. Instead, you could measure the impact by the number of good applicants received and their affect on the organization. That is measuring impact. Impact measurements in learning should be tied to measurements are easily understood by the participants and tied into business results.
  4. Reward. Why do so many people want an M.B.A.? The answer is simple: Because it furthers their careers and they are promoted for it. Since the reward is there, the individual is motivated to learn in order to get the designation. When you have a strategic initiative that requires change, you need to have how to reward people who apply what they have learned and (sometimes) how to punish people who will not change as part of your strategy.
  5. Motivate. I was working out at my local health club when I noticed that they had put up inspiration stickers throughout the club (especially near the cardio equipment). I found myself reading it, becoming inspired and working harder. It is the same with learning. Simple concepts that are placed in various places help remind people what they have learned and inspire them to it.
  6. Accountability. At the end of the day, each person must be held accountable for his or her own learning. In a sense, each of the steps above depends upon, and creates, accountability. Everyone has to be held accountable for understanding their own individual learning needs, finding the right training and then applying what they have learned to address their needs.
The best any training program can do is to take you to the third stage (consciously skilled) of learning. The real long-term success of any training program is the transition from the consciously skilled to the unconsciously skilled (the fourth stage). Once the learning is internalized and becomes "second nature," both the organization and the individual will benefit from their investment.