We’re well into the twenty-first century now, but on a structural level, much of corporate education and training has not changed much since the 19th century: teacher-centered training and repetition are still the norm, even after the advent of “digitized” learning models. As a consequence, corporate learning is uninspired and unproductive more often than not.
However, considering the rapidly expanding body of relevant knowledge and emerging concepts such as agility, artificial intelligence, robotics and the “work of the future,” companies need knowledgeable employees more than ever. To be at the forefront of innovation means to be good at learning new concepts and applying them so that they “stick.” The most important competitive factor nowadays is not knowledge — it’s the ability to learn.
Learning: The Current State of Neuropsychology
In the past three years, brain research has contributed an enormous amount of knowledge that allows us to better understand how learning works. (See the book recommendation at the end of this article.) Among the most important learnings are:
- To learn means to differentiate existing knowledge or create entirely new categories. This is (almost) only possible by means of direct interaction with other people.
- Learning requires curiosity. Intrinsic motivation plays an important role in learning, and curiosity is one of the best sources of motivation.
- Learning requires positive emotions. Those who can fully focus on the subject at hand and are not concerned with themselves - especially with fear of failure - learn better, faster and more sustainably.
- Learning requires phases of irritation. The feeling of conscious incompetence – i. e. being aware of not yet knowing something – is an essential motivator for gaining new knowledge.
In light of the daily training practice found in many companies, a reformation is sorely needed: based on what we know about our brain from neuroscience and not what 19th and 20th century teachers merely assumed.
Theses about Learning and Professional Development
From these realizations and from our own experiences gained from many client projects, we’re postulating six theses:
- Seminars are only useful in those few cases when employees do not (yet) know that they do not know something.
- However, seminars do not reach their desired goal when employees already know that they don’t know what is being taught. In these cases, it is essential to create a desire to learn and let curiosity run its course so that natural learning processes (i. e., categorization) can take place.
- The term “employee development” is unsuitable. It suggests that there is a definite final state one reaches once “developed.” However, our brain is not built that way. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: It’s flexibility to build new structures what makes our brain special.
- Learning means advancement and change. To make this happen, organizations need to create curiosity and opportunities for employees to learn from each other.
- Curiosity is intrinsically motivated. However, it can be initiated and strengthened from “outside.” Curiosity arises automatically when people understand and share the intention of the learning process, i. e. when the topic of study bears relevancy to peoples’ daily work.
- If learning is to have a specific purpose from the organization’s point of view, it needs to communicate the overall purpose – not the short-term goals – of education measures. This “big picture” creates much-needed space for change.
Conclusions and First Steps Towards Operationalization
An organization that values the importance of learning inspires employees to learn and promotes the purpose-driven emergence of curiosity.
Content-focused seminars are useful for those few subjects about which employees don’t know (yet) that they don’t know much about. (There’s usually more than enough of those in organizations.) These seminars can be an important component of a learning culture – when they don’t just spoon-feed knowledge but rather create curiosity, elicit questions, and present ways in which the communicated knowledge can be applied in daily work.
When it comes to the most important subjects – especially in higher management – then learning is all about aiming to create space for an exchange of knowledge. (Here there are usually too little – or none at all – offers in organizations.) In order to implement this, corresponding tools must be put in place and made available. We have identified and applied several formats that produced very good results with our clients:
- Self-driven study groups: An intention-focused structured process is offered that allows reciprocal learning. Once established, those groups can continue without external input.
- Quests: Small, focused groups of employees look for answers to their questions – especially outside the organization.
- Learning by Doing: A change coach accompanies groups of employees. They learn from each other while working on a common project and deepen their knowledge and capabilities. The change coach offers learning impulses only when a subject is completely unknown.
It is important for the organization to create the right conditions so that these formats can work well. The most important aspect is to focus on the positive and the employees’ strength – this is especially true for appraisal interviews.
We’ll gladly offer you opportunities to employ 21st century learning in your organization: Get in contact with us here. For an overview of the most recent state of brain research, we recommend How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
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