The world changes fast, and to keep up, you need to be learning new stuff all the time. And some of that needs to be from a large and complex body of knowledge. Yet, as a working manager, your time is at a premium. So is there any way you can create accelerated learning?
The answer is yes. Over many years, we have accumulated a broad and eclectic body of knowledge about how we learn. It combines experience, practical psychology, and neuroscience. And practitioners bring this all together under the banner of Accelerated Learning.
As with so much else in psychology these days, the long cherished idea of learning styles is coming under deep scrutiny. The empirical basis for the idea was always weak, and now new experiments are finding null or statistically weak results.
Yet the ready association that many trainers and educators have between David Kolb’s name and the idea of learning styles is an over-simplification of his deeper thinking. David Kolb gives us a valuable model that should be better known among practising managers, who see part of their role as being about developing the capabilities of their teams.
David Kolb was born in 1939 and went to the private Knox college to study psychology. After receiving his BA in 1961, he went to Harvard, where he completed his MA in Social Psychology in 1964, followed by a PhD in 1967.
He took a teaching position at MIT as Assistant Professor of Organizational Psychology and Management, and left there (as Associate Professor) ten years later, to take up a chair in Organizational Behaviour at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.
In 1981, Kolb and his wife, Alice, co-founded Experience Based Learning Systems (EBLS) to commercialise Kolb’s thinking on experiential learning and, in particular, his learning styles inventory.
Kolb and Fry sought to synthesise the work of many earlier thinkers and researchers into how experience leads to learning. Kolb has said that he was particularly influenced by Dewey, Piaget, and Lewin. Their model of learning is most easily summarised as a cycle, although they were at pains to point out that this is just a simplificatiion. Because things are different on every iteration, Kolb prefers the metaphor of a spiral. Nonetheless, we will follow the commoner and easier to read metaphor in the illustration below.
The principal critique of this model is one Kolb is fully aware of. It oversimplifies a complex and more messy learning process that involves other faculties, like memory, and can proceed via different routes from this cycle.
This is a fair critique. The strength of the model, however, is that it provides a helpful framework for developing workplace learning opportunities. It is very much the basis of Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT approach to instructional design.
Kolb went on to argue that we are not all equally able or motivated in the four abilities of cultivating experience, reflecting on it, generalising it, and applying our insights. Indeed, he went on to suggest that we tend to develop an orientation towards one pole of each of the two dimensions:
Experience – Abstraction (or Feeling and Thinking, in Jungian language, which Kolb seems to like)
Applying – Reflecting (or Doing/Sensing and Reflecting/Intuiting in Jungian language)
This leads to four learning styles:
I think the empirical evidence for this is based mostly on testing of the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory and I am not competent to assess its strength. However, it does seem clear that we all have two things: preferences and adaptability. You may find some colleagues have one or another learning style preference, but you will also find that we can all adapt and use multiple styles.
This is as it must be. Learning is a whole brain activity, and if, as James Zull suggests, different learning styles call upon different brain regions, then surely the best learning takes place when all are fully integrated.
Argyris’ early academic career brought him into contact with the great psychologist, Kurt Lewin, and culminated in academic posts, first at Yale (1951-1971) and then at Harvard. He was a behavioural scientist who devoted much of his research to understanding organisational behaviour and learning, noting that:
‘individual learning is a necessary but insufficient condition for organisational learning’
His early work focused on the practice and development of T Groups; a form of training (the T of T Group) in which managers are able to learn through social interaction. These were popular in the 1960s and 70s for the success they had in shifting interpersonal behaviours of participants. However, Argyris and others became disenchanted as evidence grew that the impact of these interventions was not sustained back in the workplace.
This led Argyris to theorise that the way we behave within organisations is different from the ideas we claim to profess. He labelled the two sides of this distinction: ‘theories in use’ for what we do, and ‘espoused theories’ for what we say. Our behaviours – theories in use – are driven only partially by espoused theories, and to a greater extent by fears, pride, entrenched patterns and the need to conform. Indeed, he suggested that we don’t just behave as we do, rather than as we profess; but we are often unaware of the gap.
His most famous single contribution, articulated in his book, co-written with Donald Schön, called ‘Organisational Learning‘, was the idea of ‘double loop learning’.
Argyris argued that reasoning needs to take pride of place as the basis for decision-making. However, the prevailing model of learning that he and Schön defined as ‘single loop learning’ is an impoverished approach.
In Single Loop learning, we look at the results of our actions and re-think the strategies we chose.
The flaw in this, they argued, is that our chosen approach comes from a deep seated set of interpretations, assumptions, values and models. What we should be prepared to do is to challenge those and search for better, more reliable assumptions and models. This is Double-Loop learning.
Argyris further pointed out that learning comes from either a match or a mis-match. If our actions produce the desired result, then we can learn from the well-selected behaviours. If they do not, then we can learn from the mis-match either by correcting our actions (single-loop learning) or by revising the governing variables (assumptions) that led to our choice of actions (double-loop learning).
You can learn more about Argyris and Double Loop Learning on the excellent infed website.
You may also be interested in the following pocketbooks:
The correlation between management performance and organisational performance is taken as an article of faith in many quarters – not least in the training and development industry.
Management Pocketbooks has a vested interest here, too. If Pocketbook readers did not believe that reading the books and learning about management would improve their management skills and that this would improve their organisation’s performance, then Pocketbooks would become redundant.
Investors in People
Another organisation with a vested interest is the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). This is a non-departmental public body (NDPB) that describes its mission as being to ‘raise skill levels and drive investment, enterprise, jobs and growth.’
One of the tools they have to achieve this is the Investors in People (IiP) standard. This is designed to improve business performance – but does it? Like most external standards, achieving IiP accreditation is a costly and time-consuming process.
So IiP commissioned Cranfield University Researcher Professor Mike Bourne to discover whether IiP accreditation really does return a value to businesses that invest.
To do this, Professor Bourne and his team considered two questions:
The relationship between IiP accreditation and management performance
The relationship between IiP accreditation and business performance
What the team found was this:
IiP improves managerial performance
IiP improves the financial performance of the sponsoring firm
The figure illustrates the relationships that Professor Bourne’s team report. Notice that their research seems to show that managerial capabilities and performance do indeed drive reported performance – as measured by profits recorded in Companies House data.
So here’s the deal
One must always be sceptical about research that supports the agenda of the sponsoring organisation (IiP in this case) and where the results are not published in peer reviewed journals. And I have not taken the time to thoroughly assess the research methodology, nor review the extensive statistical analysis. The researchers are clear in their reports that, while they assessed IiP, it is simply one example of a ‘commitment based HR policy’.
This is to say that their research evidence shows that systematically committing to your staff improves their capabilities and performance and that these lead to measurable financial improvements in performance.
Kirkpatrick Level 4
Last week’s Pocketblog talked about Kirkpatrick’s four levels of learning. Trainers have become adept at measuring and demonstrating levels 1 and 2: How do participants react, and what do they learn? However, the value of training is in levels 3 and 4: How does training affect behaviour and what results can the organisation measure?
Professor Bourne’s work has shown that the linkage from level 2 to level 3 to level 4 is a genuine one, which he and his team have validated statistically.
This just leaves one problem:
Most trainers stop at Level 1: ‘Happy Sheets’.
As a trainer, a lot of my focus is on giving my participants the best possible learning experience. I want to give them the best, most relevant, most accurate, most practical information that I can.
My clients are often Learning & Development departments in large organisations, who tell me what training their staff need, and agree with me what I will design and deliver to meet that need. My public seminars advertise what you will get, and you turn up and get all of it and more.
As a trainer, I rarely get a chance to ‘go to the gemba’ – the place where the work gets done. And that’s a problem, because, that’s where my training has an effect…
… or doesn’t. Because, if I am not there, how can I know? Happily, I am often asked to come in and coach staff directly, but as a trainer, I am really only able to directly influence whether participants like my training, and learn from my training.
This is an excellent addition to the Management Pocketbooks collection, by regular authors, Paul Donovan and John Townsend. It offers you 17 factors that affect transfer of learning and allocates them into five stages.
This creates an exceptionally thorough analysis of how you can boost the value of any training you offer.
How Transfer Friendly is your Organisation?
The book ends with a learning transfer test to help you assess how ‘transfer friendly’ your organisation is. It has fifty questions that you score on a scale of 0, 1 or 2 depending on whether you:
0 – don’t agree
1 – Partly agree
2 – Fully agree
To give you a flavour, here are five sample questions:
Training professionals regularly participate in business unit/departmental strategic planning meetings
Our course venues provide adequate space for participants to associate and exchange
Our managers communicate clear expectations of forthcoming training to future learners
Wherever possible, learners’ managers send pairs of ‘learning buddies’ to the same course
Our trainers understand and speak the workplace jargon of the trainees
This should give you a transfer-friendliness score out of 10. For your full evaluation, out of 100, buy the book!
Other Management Pocketbooks by
Paul Donovan and John Townsend
Paul and John have, between them, written a lot of Pocketbooks on the subject of training.