I’m currently developing a new product which aims to blend the insights that come from scenario based discussion exercises with the kind of learning and retention associated with a regular exercise regime – aka muscle memory.
While this work has allowed me to continue to pursue interests in behaviour, decision support, knowledge and cognition, it has also re-introduced me to the world of training and learning systems and it’s been interesting for me to see how practices have evolved over the past 20 or so years.
When I last played in this space, I was influenced by things like ‘Cognition in the Wild‘, artificial intelligence, knowledge management and distributed cognition. Training was an extension of my engineered sense of the world – teaching people how things work. This mindset drove my work founding companies and building products to improve business processes and ‘solve’ management problems with management methodologies and IT systems. At the time, organisations were adopting the first big wave of large enterprise integrated IT systems and there was a lot of effort being made to describe the way the organisation worked in terms that could be supported by the IT system.
My experience came from training environments where it was taken as a given that the organisation would work according to policies, processes, methodologies and ‘best practices’ and that the systems would reflect that. Given these assumptions, a more structured environment could be established to ‘manage knowledge’. The companies and products I was involved in at the time were and continue to be moderately successful serving a customer base which still holds on to this view.
Over time however, I found that most organisations failed to make much use of these structured systems views after a new management system was implemented. Life tended to return to the messy world of ambiguity, cultural influences and self motivated behaviours.
After 5 years involvement in large organisation transformation work, I began to understand that messy was normal and could see that high performance came from teams which could be disciplined about being flexible. Being able to adapt to changing circumstances and developing a deeper general management capability which blended specific skills into a more holistic approach to problem solving and delivering outcomes.
In the past few months I’ve re-engaged with learning professionals and discovered that – surprise – my journey was not unique. People who are passionate about learning have been trying to cope with the increasing pace of change in working environments. In most organisations, there are more variations and new work place challenges than ever before. Managers, service providers and knowledge based workers have to deal with real world ambiguity and exceptions and manage messy issues and make difficult decisions without having as much information as they would like.
So how do you train people to be better at working in a situation they haven’t seen before? Well, for a start, you don’t send them on a 3 year training program which is based on dealing with issues which were common 2 years ago. At the other extreme, you don’t train them on the use of a million different tools which they could use in combination to solve any problem – people just can’t retain the knowledge across such a broad range of skills.
Current thinking in the learning and development world is tending towards the magic 70 – 20 – 10 principle. Rely on people to learn 70% of their craft while working, day to day. 20% through feedback, coaching and mentoring. 10% through traditional formal training programs.
As long as you have the basics right, experience – and an ability to relate experience and incorporate new learning as an adaptive process – enables you to keep your skills up to date.
This however, only tells part of the story. In a changing world, experience is useful, but does not provide the perfect preparation – your experience was gained in an old environment while new unforeseen challenges continue to emerge. You need to be able to leverage experience but not assume that it can be applied directly.
In my crisis management work, I have found that people who are successful working in very dynamic environments such as in defence, emergency services and healthcare, develop an ability to apply patterns of experience to help them deal with challenges they have never seen before – this is the key to learning and development in the 21C.
This sentiment was also expressed recently by US Army Major General HR McMaster in a McKinsey interview in which he said “we’re never going to get the problem of future war precisely right. The key is to not be so far off the mark that you can’t adapt once the real demands of combat reveal themselves, and you need leaders who can adapt rapidly to unforeseen circumstances….we train them on fundamentals, we also test their ability to observe changes in the environment and to adjust as necessary so they can accomplish their mission….Rather than using a checklist of individual capabilities, we are evaluating them on their ability to innovate and adapt to unforeseen conditions.”
In order to develop an ability for adaptation, the 70/20/10 model needs to be supplemented with experience that lies outside the day to day environment. By regularly applying yourself to challenges of greater variety, you can develop a kind of familiarity with the unfamiliar. You get better at knowing what you know as well as what you don’t know.
I often see people gaining new and deep insights during the scenario based exercises which I facilitate. Having to think about making decisions in a plausible but not yet experienced situation leads to a deeper understanding of strengths and weaknesses and reminds people of life’s uncertainties.
Experiential learning is clearly a benefit so why not increase that benefit by increasing your range of experiences – even if it’s just the experience of thinking through what you would do in an unexpected situation.
Exercise the unexpected!
(Flickr photo Darren Kuropatwa)