Article: Ray Carvey on action learning and the forgetting curve


Ray Carvey on action learning and the forgetting curve

As businesses change, we need to plug that change into learning - being adaptable, flexible and agile and that's how you should future proof your workforce
Ray Carvey on action learning and the forgetting curve

Ray Carvey is Executive Vice President of Corporate Learning and International for Harvard Business Publishing. In this interview he talks about how the landscape of learning is being transformed in the face of dynamic business change, the kinds of skills that leaders need to possess and much more

What are some of the key issues today with respect to learning and development?

The biggest trend we have seen in the last couple of years is the need for organizations to be faster, more agile, more just-in-time with learning. Because the pace of change that companies have to cope with has increased tremendously. And as a result, they have to enable their people and resources to keep up with that change. One of our client’s in India recently outlined the purpose of their learning program by saying that their objective was to “future-proof” their workforce. When you think about that, that not only a great phrase, it captures the business around professional services. The things that worked for you a year ago, probably aren’t working now. So, how do you bridge that gap in the learning environment? So that employees are actually armed with the types of skills and the type of development that let them do that. That’s the real issue. It is a very difficult problem and it’s difficult to do it at scale. 

Today, there is an emphasis on customization. In an environment where automation, big data, and cloud-enabled disruption are transforming the kind of skills that are required, how are organizations designing their learning programs?

Technology has enabled companies to expect customization in most of their programs. Where five or six years ago, it was much more off the shelf, where organizations asked for certain courses, say for example on customer centricity, a course was designed and delivered on the topic. I think what most organizations expect now - is to understand what customer centricity means to them. And that customization is important because based on the business that you are in and the market that you serve, the region that you are in, it can change dramatically how you think about something like that. Generic learning is a productive thing but is nowhere as near as productive as specific to that client’s need.

When you look at how big data is being used, I think that increasingly we’re starting to see what we call as “adaptive path learning” - where people are using data to understand the best path for productive learning outcomes. Take the example of one of our flagship products, Harvard management mentor. It’s an enterprise-wide online software product – primarily for managers and leaders in organizations around basic competencies, basic skills around coaching, building and managing a team. When we host that, we have the ability to measure how it’s being consumed – which parts of the training that companies are using more and more. So when you look at adaptive path learning, it involves looking at “how it is being consumed” and measures it against the outcomes. And that’s a way the product is being used in real time and it’s like a guided tour through the content. Data will help you make that kind of adjustments and change. But it’s still fairly complicated. There are a lot of data privacy issues around things like that. I don’t think it’s far away but it’s still kind of more in the development stage.

That means a shift in the pedagogy of learning too?

Yes. If you look at Harvard Business School and its pedagogical philosophy that we at Harvard Business Publishing and corporate learning also follow, it is that of “participant centricity”. The case method is a big manifestation of that. If you compare the case method to other methods say like the lecture method, learning is seen in a “one-to-many” framework, but in a participant-centered learning, the format is “many to many”. So the permutations and combinations available inside a case discussion, in terms of what an individual derives as learning is automatically platformed or personalized. 

The ability to leverage technology in the participant-centered learning has been a big change in the last few years. Take the example of our virtual classroom. I’m talking about thirty to fifty learners who go through a learning program as a cohort. They are together from day one to the end of the program, they could be in Mumbai, Singapore, New York, Paris, London, and managing that discussion, a peer to peer kind of learning, as part of the case discussion is quite an extraordinary thing. It’s very effective; it’s something that we’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of energy in the past few years, to find the optimal sizes on the classes and how to best enable the participant discussion. 

For learning to be truly holistic – it should not be seen as disjunct from work. What are your thoughts about this?

There’s has been a lot of research done about what we call “action learning”- that is correlated with what is called as “forgetting curve”. So the old model – was learn, practice and apply. If you’re learning something and you didn’t practice it, how well did you learn it? If you have practiced and learnt on the job and apply it on the job, you will not have built-in gaps in learning – whether it is forgetting, or thinking about what exactly they have to do. It’s a pretty important part of an instructional design and learning. 

A lot of companies and certainly most of the companies that we work with are designing that learning into work. The virtual classroom that I talked about is aimed at senior leaders in an organization and its high potentials. And they have three to four hours a week dedicated to this learning. And one of the reasons for that is – it’s concentrated and the rest of the week is for them to think about what they learnt and practice what they learnt. So in the program itself, we design what we call as “action learning” as a project. So they’ll take work and apply what they learn as part of design. And when you do it in a thoughtful way – you start to learn and apply it.

How are companies tackling leadership development programs? What has changed over the last few decades?

First and foremost is the definition of leadership. When I was in my 20s, the leader was the knight in shining armor, the visionary CEO that was going to not only define the purpose of the business but make sure it happened and predictably, save the damsel in distress. Organizational thinking has changed quite a bit in this time. When we think of leadership, we are thinking of leadership as a capability. It is a capability that can be taught, that can be learnt and it’s a capability that’s important to push down in the organization.

Organizations have become more global, networked, and have become much flatter. And as change happens more quickly, you have to enable your organizations to make those decisions quickly – you cannot have a chain of command, where the problem is defined and the CEO makes the decision and it works its way down. By the time you’ve done that your competition is already way ahead of you. 

What are some of the defining skills for leaders today? 

I think adaptability is huge. Change, move with it. Don’t get stuck where you are. That’s very important. I think learning agility is important too. As we talk about businesses changing we need to plug that change into learning - being adaptable, flexible and agile and that’s how you should future proof your workforce. You have to understand and manage complexity - if complexity means – multiple complicated paths with uncertain outcomes, you have to make a lot of bets. You need leaders that give support and values structure that’s going to enable them to make decisions and make mistakes. Embracing ambiguity is very important because things are not black and white. What works in one market may not work elsewhere and you have to design your systems and processes and networking. Networking is another important competent for the leader today. Most of us don’t work in a box anymore. Even the peers that we work within our own network are in a network. So those are some examples.

What is the role of HR departments in understanding these needs – whether that is in L&D or more specifically in identifying and supporting leaders?

I think that assessment is a generic word that’s very good for organizations. So it’s important that human resources are part of the business discussion and not just the human resources discussion.  In trying to understand where the business needs to be in “x” number of years, the kind of capabilities or competencies that would be needed, it’s assessing what you’re strengths and weaknesses are, both individually and across different grades in the organization. I think we should start there. 

In the Indian context, based on our discussions with companies we see that when things get uncertain – there is a risk of becoming extremely short term focused. HR should ensure that the focus is on the long-term value that needs to be created. The other risk is where you just freeze and take a very high degree of tentativeness in your approach. So, that’s something that needs to be reflected upon. 

With additional inputs by Vivek Chachra, Country Head – India, Harvard Business Publishing

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Topics: Leadership, Learning & Development

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