Bite-size learning

Three SCNetwork members engage in a back-and-forth on Carol Leaman’s presentation

Tracey White: Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify, was the subject of SCNetwork’s “CEO Spotlight” in January. Axonify is intriguing because not only is it one of Canada’s fastest growing technology companies, but its digital learning platform is breaking rules in the L&D world. Using brain science and data analytics, Leaman’s team may have finally solved a problem that has bedeviled corporate learning — how to accurately link individual knowledge and skills development to business outcomes.

Jan van der Hoop: Personally, I found the science that underpins the delivery model most interesting… that the research into human learning validates the fact we learn best in small bites (“microlearning”) followed by repeated questioning over time to stimulate recall.

The result? Only five to seven per cent of information from normal training is retained after 30 days, while information that is delivered in engaging “bites,” and then recalled three to five times over the following 30 to 40 days, has a 90 per cent retention rate after nine months.

It’s a pretty compelling case for changing how we train and share knowledge. And yet… is the science itself new? Not really — I expect it’s been out there for a while; Axonify has simply built an efficient platform to deliver, track and measure it.

We’ve known that human learning is best done in bite-size pieces with repetition over time, for decades. So why have we been so slow to shift the traditional L&D delivery models — to the point where 70 per cent of line business leaders bypass HR completely to get the job done?

Paul Pittman: Physiologist Ivan Pavlov had the same idea: Keep focused on small activities to get the best results. In his case, though, there was reward at the end for successful “learning.” Which begs the question: How do we incent and reward folks to keep to the plan, to redo the bite-size learning? Do we reward the activity or the business outcome? Which is more important, the means to the end or the end?

And here’s my biggest concern. I am no neurologist but I have played electronic games and the way to do better, to succeed, is through repetition, through learned behaviour on how to beat the algorithm. Just like the irresistible ping of a new message on your phone, the reward is a tiny hit of dopamine. While gamification might be an excellent way to train repetitive activity, not every solution is binary. What are the outcomes we want: customer satisfaction, higher engagement, greater collaboration? These require complex considerations of the whole rather than a part.

Anyone who has experienced customer service that required the provider’s agent to go “off script” to deal with a problem will know frustration. The dopamine reward comes from steering the issue along a path and into one of several available responses — not necessarily the one required by the customer or colleague. Of course, I oversimplify, but we must not overlook wisdom and relationships as we master World of Warcraft II.

Van der Hoop: There were some gems in Leaman’s discussion of how she has built the company. Particularly interesting, I thought, was her clear-headedness around what builds engagement and esprit de corps, and what does not.

Being in the tech sector in a hot market like Waterloo, Ont., competition for talent is stiff. And while other tech companies are bending over backward to lavish their staff with all the (expensive) trimmings — such as three meals per day cooked by an executive chef — somehow Carol and her team seem to “keep it real” by hiring in the right people (yes, technical skills are critical, but you need to be the right human being) who will add to and complement the culture.

Perks are not culture. I couldn’t agree more.

White: Yes, I agree. Carol opened the Q&A session by noting the importance of her HR leader in helping to build and advance the business. It was obvious that entrepreneurial businesses such as Axonify face the same people challenges as legacy organizations. For all the attention surrounding a startup culture, it was clear that as the business grows and more people join, Axonify is developing the same kind of management programs — such as pay for performance and learning — that are common elsewhere.  

Carol closed the session by observing the need for a strategic approach to human resources management is an opportunity for practitioners.

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