Wednesday, May 22, 2013 | Home› Articles
Learning all over again
Companies invest as much as 6% of their top-line on training and development but does this investment have commensurate returns? - Biren Misra, Business Manager, Productized Services, Hay Group India
Let us say you have just bought the latest smart-phone. Do you:
• Read the instruction manual from cover to cover and find out what each new feature does before switching on your phone?
• Ask the young intern in the office to show you how it works?
• Read the quick start guide at the start of the manual and work out the rest as you go along?
• Put it in a drawer and see if you can resurrect your old mobile?
The fact is that all of the above methods (except the last one!) will mean that you can use your new smart-phone eventually. The point is that we all have a preferred method of learning.
Understanding this, how does this help us get the most out of our company’s training and development investments? Hay Group India’s latest research (June 2011) reveals that companies here invest as much as 6 % of their top-line into training and development activities - a substantial investment, to be sure.
But the larger question remains: does the investment have commensurate returns? Do all participants benefit optimally from our learning and development efforts? Can “one size fit all” training programs work? Most learning and development managers use a two-axis model to evaluate training programs: the x-axis measures financial investment and the y-axis measures time investment. In today’s scenario, a third axis – the z-axis, which measures the impact and effectiveness, is also critical.
This boils down to evaluating how much are the participants actually learning. Is the learning and development activity imparted in a form that matches their learning style?
Based on Hay Group’s Kolb Experiential Learning Theory, it understood that:
• Learning is best perceived as a process, not an outcome
• All learning is relearning
• Learning requires resolution of conflicts between opposed modes of adapting to the world
• Learning is a holistic process of adapting to the world
• Learning results from synergetic transactions between the person & the environment
• Learning is the process of creating knowledge
Often ignored, the learning style of an individual helps us in making sense of the experience, by interpreting those experiences into learning and thereby leading us to respond. Research shows that the approach to learning is a function of various extrinsic and intrinsic factors. Extrinsic factors being educational background, family and professional environment, career preferences and the current work profile; while intrinsic would be more hereditary and genetic.
Learning in action
Having learnt the Kolb theory on learning styles, I decided to experiment on a group of students by teaching them one of my favorite theories: the Pythagoras theorem.
As most of us are familiar, the theorem states that “in any right triangle, the area of the square whose side is the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares whose sides are the two legs (the two sides that meet at a right angle).”
Unsurprisingly, the students used a variety of learning styles to understand this theory. Some understood it purely from a theoretical perspective by reading, while others required some application-based examples. One student related it to the new dimensions of the television bought by his father, and yet another used the theory to understand how far he would need to throw the ball in a baseball game to run out the runner before reaching the home plate.
Understanding the different learning styles would help us communicate better. From the experiment using Pythagoras theorem, I learnt that the student who communicated his baseball experience had what is known as an “initiating” learning style. Hence, if I had insisted on teaching the theorem only through conceptual explanations, both of us would have had a frustrating time. However, by using a real-life analogy that is shared (passionately!) between us, he was able to grasp it quickly.
Learning in the organization
Now that we understand the different learning styles, how do we use it to benefit our organizations?
First of all, managers and supervisors can expand their learning styles, while keeping their preferred style. This will help them communicate better with their peers, subordinates and even superiors!
Secondly, we need to be aware of the learning styles of their colleagues as learning styles also impact team performance. Kolb experiential learning theory explains that teams develop through a creative tension among the four (individual) learning styles.
Therefore, it is very important that the team is made up of diverse learning styles to show maximum results. To learn from its experience, a team must have members who:
• Can be involved and committed to the team and its purpose (concrete experience)
• Can engage in reflection and conversation about the team’s experiences (reflective observation)
• Can engage in critical thinking about the team’s work (abstract conceptualization)
• Can make decisions and take action (active experimentation)
Consider a team that creates an advertising campaign for a new product. Nearly, all the team members prefer active experimentation style. Consequently, they share a preference for action and rarely disagree. They quickly create and place an advertisement in an industry magazine. However, since the team lacks the more reflective and analyzing research and analysis that would have provided support for a targeted, direct mail campaign, for instance, is never considered.
Knowledge of learning styles can help you, as a team member, to assume a leadership role and guide the group through all the phases of the learning cycle. If you are a manager responsible for creating teams, this knowledge helps you ensure that all styles are represented and, therefore, all angles considered. In either role, you contribute to a more successful outcome.
Back to learning about learning
Let us take a step back. We often wonder why the smallest task in the office takes an inordinate amount of time and effort:
• Why does that colleague really frustrate me? Is he playing politics?
• Why do I always misunderstand what my subordinate is saying?
• Why do we never manage to resolve that issue in our team?
• Why did I really enjoy that particular project?
• Why do I always struggle to explain a new idea to my boss?
Knowing our own learning style and that of others would help us understand each other better and work towards decision making, conflict management and career choice. And the beauty of this is the side benefit. By applying this understanding to our personal life (for example, our spouse, our children, more importantly our in-laws☺!), we can have a happier and more fulfilling life.
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