Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Learning is a Process, Not an Event

Yesterday in our discussion about using consultants, I mentioned that learning doesn’t happen all of a sudden.  Developing new skills takes time.

Executive Paragraph:
We do not become skilled or change behavior because of a training event.  We become skilled with experience.  If you expect people in your organization to become skilled with new processes, tools, systems, or methodologies, you must make a plan to coach them through the complete learning process that includes practice, corrective action, and the building of new habits.  Training is only the beginning of the learning process, not the end. 

The Rest of the Story:
Mentally raise your hand if you have ever been directed to attend a training event whereby someone lectured to you, or you watched a video, and then someone declared, in one way or another, “you have been trained.”  I’d be surprised if every reader didn’t raise a virtual hand.   It happens all the time.  Someone decides that the personnel in a business must be trained in something, be it a new methodology, safety training, sexual harassment prevention, whatever, and then makes a declaration that it be so.  In response, training is delivered.  Now for the crux of the matter, raise your virtual hand if that singular training event made you skilled in the subject.  I’d be surprised if any reader raised a hand.

Think back to the last time you were a student, either in grade school, or university.  How much of the skill and knowledge you acquired came from reading a book or attending a lecture?  Now, how much of it came from doing the homework and preparing for a test?  Name one person, if you can, that got a straight-A report card and didn’t do any homework.  We all know, intuitively, that we don’t become skilled in something by reading a book, or watching a video, or snoozing through a lecture.  We become skilled by practicing.  So why do businesses seem to expect everyone to suddenly be safer, or better practitioners of something, just because a training event occurred?  Truthfully, we probably don’t really expect it, intuitively, but we don’t exactly follow through to ensure that our real expectations are met, and that is the failure.

Learning is a process, of which training is a part.  I like to break down the learning process as follows.

  1.             Train it
  2.       Try it
  3.       Correct it
  4.       Repeat it
  5.             Make it habit
Training provides awareness.  For a very few things, like the fact that the inter-office mail center has been moved, awareness is enough.  The rest of the training process will happen naturally without an expert coach.  But, if you are trying to change a process, a behavior, or implement a new system, even instill safer practices, a training event will not get personnel through the entire process.

Let’s look at a typical safety training video that any of us have probably been directed to view.  If it was any good, it did a nice job of making us aware of the rules, expectations, and behaviors that could make us behave in a safer manner.  Part of the video, or the directive to view it, probably also set an expectation that we try what we viewed.  Ok, that accounts for steps 1 and, if we are generous, 2.  But that sort of delivery does nothing to correct our behavior if we failed to recall or practice everything introduced in the video, it may have implied that we should repeat our efforts, but if we repeat doing it incompletely or in error, we just develop poor habits instead of desired habits.  It’s not what was intended, but it’s what was done.  Of course, that result only occurs if we even bother to try it at all.

The next time that you decide to get your personnel trained, or you are directed to train your team, or are directed to attend training, do everyone a favor and lay out a simple plan to complete the learning process.  If you are training an entire organization in the use of a new methodology and driving the behavioral changes to go with it, you might want to lay out a formal plan with criteria to prove each step is complete.  If you are simply worried about making sure your team is practicing the safety guidelines, it may just be some notes on a piece of paper.  Build what you need.

Obviously, make sure that your training is appropriate and delivered well.  It sets the expectations and informs everyone what to do.  Make a reason or otherwise compel everyone to try it and do so immediately.  Be there to observe how everyone tries to put the new information into practice.  If they do so correctly, tell them so and make it clear that you expect them to continue.  If their early attempts are less than acceptable, re-inform them of what is expected and set them to try again.  Repeat your observation and feedback steps until you can tell that the behaviors are taking hold and sinking in.  When this occurs, you can relax, but only for a while.  Go back into observation mode again after you believe the habit has set in, and make sure that your assumption is correct.  If not, repeat steps 3 and 4 until the correct habit is indeed instilled.  Make this a plan with a checklist, and put it somewhere in your personal visual workspace so that you don’t forget to finish it.

I have been a driver of new methodology, change, and new behavior inside of businesses for a lot of years.  Never once did a training event cause an organization to change the way it behaved.  The change came when I and other leaders followed through on the expectations and actively coached everyone involved to follow through on those expectations as well.  If it doesn’t sound like a lot of work, then I’m not getting my point across.  Learning is work, and we leaders inside the business need to make sure that the work happens; which means that we have to work too.

Here is one last way to think about it.  If you have children, certainly you had to teach them how to brush their teeth.  Did they get it after the first time you showed them?  Did they make mistakes?  Did they forget something?  How many times did you have to show them?  How many times did you think that they had it figured out, but when you watched them one night you realized that the habit had fallen short of good practice?  How exasperated did you get before you knew that you didn’t have to stand there and make sure they did it right every morning and every night?  If you are like me, you trained and coached your second child much more diligently than you did your first, because you learned that it’s not easy to create a good habit.

You and your personnel are not children, but you are human, and the process is the same.  With my example of teaching children how to brush their teeth, I don’t mean to suggest that you should treat your personnel like children, but I absolutely do mean to suggest that the learning process is the same.  Treat it like a process.  Make a plan for all 5 steps and execute it.  Don’t just send everyone to an event and hope for the best.

Stay wise, friends.

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