Converting learning to behaviour

Many learning systems pay little attention to their overall purpose

Learning on its own is not of much value. It is the transition of learning to behaviour that adds value and produces development.

This transition can be illustrated using four basic steps:

Awareness: Learning, and therefore development of any sort, begins with becoming aware of something new. Without a change in awareness there is no potential for development. Traditional training can accomplish only the step of awareness in the development process.

Accountability: Awareness creates potential and accountability assigns ownership for using that potential. Accountability is both an individual and organizational priority. It is important to understand and apply the appropriate accountability system to any learning initiative.

Choice: When accountability is applied there still remains choice regarding whether or not it will be acted on. Employees who clearly understand the consequences of their choices will make better decisions.

Behaviour: Observable behaviour focused on the intended results of the development is the last stage of the learning process and indicates successful implementation of a learning and development initiative.

There are essentially two powerful mental models that guide most learning and development systems:

•someone external to us has something that we need to learn; and

•if they deliver that something to us effectively, something of value has happened.

At best these two mental models can only support increased awareness, the first step in moving learning to behaviour. Unfortunately, these two mental models have also shaped the way most professionals think awareness can be created. The primary model for the creation of awareness is still instructor driven (either human or technological) with the learner trying to absorb as much as possible in a short time frame.

It looks like a top-down power-laden model that most people would see as ineffective. Yet organizations still spend billions of dollars doing it every year in North America. Is there a different way?

Yes, and it requires individuals to question the mental models noted above. To assist in understanding these systems it is helpful to look at the science of complexity and the study of complex adaptive systems. Complex adaptive systems are diverse, connected and interdependent elements that can learn from their experiences. Organizations are complex adaptive systems, and so are the learning and development systems most organizations use. If one looks at how complex adaptive systems develop and learn in nature there are some important lessons that can be used to help organizations.

Adapting the lessons of nature: Natural systems develop to survive and flourish. There is a reason to develop in a sustainable way that makes sense to the system as a whole and to the individuals in that system. There is a clarity to this purpose that is intention based and not detail based. Most learning systems are designed with incredible amounts of detail and little attention to the overall purpose of the learning. The underlying intent of many basic managerial development initiatives is often about the effective use of power and authority. Understanding this intent can drastically change not only the content but also the methods of development.

Development is primarily incremental, not monumental: The vast majority of development in natural systems happens in small incremental steps. These steps, many almost invisible, build on one another until it becomes evident that a significant change has occurred. If this concept is applied to learning in organizations, most sessions longer than a day would disappear and those that remained would not be burdened with the expectation of creating monumental change.

Development is primarily focused on the process not the result: Focusing on results is important. Natural systems produce very hard and observable results. They do so by adapting processes that allow these results to occur. In most learning designs the needed result is supposed to be achieved through the delivery of content, when it is really the application of content, actually trying out new behaviours, that is most important.

Development requires trial and error and success: All development has these three components. Natural systems have processes that allow for many attempts to be made and many errors and successes to be learned from. Most learning designs do not have the time, or flexibility, to engage trial, error and success well. Extended initiatives that encourage these three components allow this to play out and be of practical value. Ongoing coaching is an example of a learning design that facilitates learning from trial, error and success.

Development requires feedback: To make use of multiple trials it is imperative to use the information that emerges from these trials. Natural systems have an amazing capacity to access and use feedback. Learning designs accessing multiple channels of feedback require an openness that recognizes that development is dependant on many people and things, not just the content provider and the learner.

Development occurs in whatever ways are available: In natural systems development occurs using whatever is available to assist in the process. It is not a prescribed step-by-step journey that can be repeated over and over. Learning designs focused on the intent of the development help individuals become aware of opportunities for development that might otherwise never be recognized or planned for.

It is impossible to replicate the above elements in a learning system founded on the assumptions that learning achieved through external delivery of content creates value. Sustainable development, based on the lessons learned from natural systems, assumes that content may be available and appear virtually anywhere and that the application of this content may take multiple forms and will occur over an extended period of time.

Tom Gibbons operates Pathways and Crossroads consulting Inc. He can be reached at (519) 685-6183 or [email protected]

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