Tag Archives: workplace learning

Iceberg…. Straight Ahead

The main focus of HRD (Human Resource Development) Departments, I’d venture to say, is creating structured learning activities; planning employee ‘on-boarding’, skill re-certifications, in-services on new equipment, introductions to corporate concepts like the world of ‘lean’ practices, etc.

It seems we are quite fond of having everyone congregate in a room (virtual classrooms was a big advancement for us) so that we can deliver a lecture with an accompanying power point presentation…… please tell me no one is still using THIS :). It’s our comfort zone; it helps us to ensure that the class unfolds exactly as WE planned, that we cover every point WE believe is salient.

However, I think we might have missed the memo…. Authors like Berg and Chyung (citing Cross 2007) have found that 80% of workplace learning occurs through ‘informal’ means. It’s the learning that takes place outside of a classroom setting – unstructured, experiential, non-institutional learning. And they report that although the majority of learning is now ‘informal’, only 20% of our investment in learning is dedicated to enhancing informal learning (p 230).

With the rapid change and supercomplexity in our organizations that I spoke of a few months back, it seems only sensible that the only way we’ll keep up and thrive is with a commitment to life long and ‘informal learning’. An impressive example, is the ability to reach out and find the definition of ‘informal learning’ recorded by Jay Cross (who I just quoted in the previous paragraph) at my fingertips via Web 2.0. It’s all part of the ‘participatory web’ that he describes. Or that an expert like Jay would be willing to share his passion for the topic via his wikiThe push/pull learning that he describes on his ‘zoom.it’, where “Training is something that’s pushed on you; informal learning is something you’re pulled into. Many a knowledge worker will tell you, ‘I love to learn but I hate to be trained.’ Knowledge workers thrive when given the freedom to decide how they will do what they are asked to do”….

Aren’t we usually the best judge of where our knowledge deficits are? Don’t we have the best sense of the educational strategy that appeals to us? Shouldn’t transference be what each of us is striving for (both teacher and learner)?

As with most occasions in life…. somewhere in the middle usually lies the truth. Accuse me of vacillating, but  I found myself agreeing with Svensson, Randle & Bennich and their claim that both formal and informal learning are needed to create innovative and useful knowledge. As they suggest:

Both formal education and informal learning have severe limitations if the ambition is to develop competent employees for the present and the future labour market. Formal education is more likely to lead to the production of abstract and sterile theoretical knowledge, while informal learning is geared to practical knowledge that it is short-sighted and instrumental. Competence, as we have defined it, is based on a combination of theoretical and practical elements; the former element contributing to the generality and innovativeness of the knowledge and the latter guaranteeing the usefulness of what is learnt. (p 776)

At present, however, the scales seem  heavily tipped with our comfort in delivering formal training in HRD. So, I’ll spend the remainder of this post sharing some potential ideas that we might incorporate to reach that balance.


An interesting finding in the research of Berg and Chyung was that as age increased, so did the interest in engaging in informal activities like searching the web, and reading printed professional magazines and journals (p 238). In my own world, access to the web is still fairly limited on nursing units and handhelds are viewed with trepidation in patient care areas  AND I’m not sure how many of my colleagues know how to access our library services on-line or which are the most user-friendly data bases….. PLUS that would mean we’d also have to ensure they have time dedicated to informal learning.

I enjoyed the idea that people learn easily and are happy with learning situations where they are not aware that they are learning. As Simons, Germans & Ruijters suggest, it’s where learning is a side effect of working and problem solving. These authors offer that it won’t occur automatically and still needs to be organized by providing opportunities for responsibility, reflection, feedback, innovation and autonomy. They also suggest that measures are needed to ensure that learning remains possible – because task goals tend to take priority and  dominate learning goals (p 45)….. So how do we ensure that employees have those teachable moments? Allow them to find the answers themselves, encourage them to share their new-found knowledge with colleagues? Encourage colleagues to pair up to take on the day’s work? Ensure that time for informal learning, isn’t time that we fill with another task. Perhaps we can ask an employee to create the new policy we need or host the next team meeting OR next time someone makes a mistake, lets congratulate them on trying something new rather than pointing out their failures. There must be ways that we can ‘sneak’ in a little learning…. and according to Simons et al, they’ll appreciate that we tricked them!

Another finding of Berg and Chyung was that ‘level of interest in one’s current field’ was identified as affecting engagement in informal learning the most. People tend to be intrinsically motivated to spend time on things that interest them and ‘monetary rewards’ have the least impact on informal learning (p 239)….. Finding what makes each employee tick is the benchmark of a true leader. I’ve always agreed with Hertberg’s motivation theory that I cover in my own class. It identifies money as a ‘hygiene’ factor….. it doesn’t motivate, but it limits dis-satisfaction. (Do we really think that the NHL players will come back to work ‘happier’ when this current dispute is FINALLY settled?)

Building on the research above, Brake, Champion, Fuller, Gabel & Busch (citing a study of teachers reported by Lohman) found that:

To promote informing learning in the workplace, organizations should design employees’ work areas and schedules to allow opportunity and time for collegial integration and sharing. In addition, they should ensure that employees have access to adequate computer technology and the Internet, which would enable access to needed information in a timely manner. (p 348)

I’ve been at a number of meetings lately where we’ve talked about the ‘new’ design for offices and the move to open concept spaces. Where inter-professional teams are co-located and work, plan and problem solve as a team. It’s an intriguing concept…. but one that we are having a little trouble selling.

There is also a role for supervisors according to Coetzer; who suggests that we need to foster employee learning through engaging in a range of employee development interventions like providing feedback and coaching, delegating challenging work assignments, and reinforcing learning. Or as the managers interviewed by Armson & Whiteley were quoted as saying: “I could probably interact more with them [employees], make them feel like an individual and not a number, chat with people, encourage them with positive feedback or sometimes sitting back and listening” (p 420). Sometimes I think we make it harder than it really is….. Just last week, I asked one of my team members how they were going to approach a dicey situation and agreed that we’d ‘just listen’.

Finally, I particularly liked this idea of  Berg and Chyung (citing Livingstone 2000):

The tendency of researchers [is] to compare informal learning to an iceberg, explaining that while a small portion is observable, the vast majority of it takes place in subtle forms that are not easily observed and documented. We suggest other researchers pay attention to this hidden phenomenon in workplace learning and use ethnographic research methodologies to uncover variables that may be crucial to developing a learning organization (p 240).

Observing and documenting our practices as teams; trying to uncover more than just the superficial practices that work presents, may prove to be an exciting and interesting research opportunity. We need to find out more about what makes informal learning so successful? And how might we create our own ‘invisibility cloak’ for workplace learning practices.

What have YOU seen out there? How did you trick someone into learning lately?


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Is your practice ‘deliberate’?

As a former pianist and ‘wanna a be’ competitive sports person, I found myself ruminating over this week’s readings and speculating that a higher level of performance could have been mine if ONLY I’d known about and focused on ‘deliberate’ practice way back then. Although….. the fact that I’m still reading and studying would suggest (according to Ericsson, in Dolcy et al 2011) that I’m perhaps in the class of continuous learners – those who never seem satisfied, but want to perfect their performance and those who always try to improve on their current level and reach ‘expertise’ (p. 6). (That made me feel only slightly better – since being a rock or sports star could have been quite fulfilling)….

As I read more on this theory, it once again seems like common sense; the recommendations seem so practical. It’s potentially a strategy to assist us in escalating our transfer of learning in the workplace from the 9% that I spoke of last week. It could create opportunities for relevant and repetitive practice and supervisor support which research suggests will improve training transfer.

I stopped and re-read this passage of Ericsson’s a few times:

The primary task of most professionals is to complete job-related tasks on time…. most professionals reach an acceptable level of performance during the initial phase of their career and then stay at this level without serious attempts to develop beyond the proficient execution of routine tasks. Only some individuals surpass this level and succeed in their continuous efforts to develop themselves as they become recognized as outstanding professionals in their domain. (p.6)

It seems so harsh….. that most professionals reach a stable, average level of performance, and then they maintain this ‘pedestrian’ level for the rest of their careers (Ericsson 2006, p. 685). I have colleagues who are doing a great job – but who are still doing the exact same job that I left 23 years ago…. they are proficiently caring for those with cardiac disease. I’d be lucky to have them care for me if I was ill. They certainly have put in the required time to achieve mastery (approx. 10 years).

BUT, there is the possibility that they have gotten too comfortable in their roles, that their performance is now  ‘automated’ and they’ve lost some conscious control over their execution. These are the people we likely refer to as ‘experts’, but according to Ericsson’s work – there is limited research to suggest that these professionals perform at a higher level than their colleagues; that they show a reliable superiority over novices…. simply with added experience. In fact there are some studies that have shown that performance decreases in accuracy and consistency with the length of professional experience after the end of formal training (p. 688)

Ericsson (2004) encourages us to rethink how we consider ‘expertise’ and to seek out individuals who consistently exhibit superior performance, whether they are socially recognized as experts or not (p. 71). That years of service does not automatically equal ‘expertise’.

In his work with the medical profession, Ericsson (2011) found that to maintain professional expertise, physicians need to incorporate new developments in their field  – that they need to continue to practice deliberately. He recognized, especially in healthcare professions, that learning at work is less than optimal. In a study of 60 physicians in the Netherlands:
The results showed that learning in medical practice was very much embedded in clinical work. Most relevant learning activities were directly related to patient care rather than motivated by competence improvement goals. Advice and feedback were sought when necessary to provide this care. Performance standards were tied to patients’ conditions. The patients encountered and the discussions with colleagues about patients were valued most for professional development, while teaching and updating activities were also valued in this respect. In conclusion, physicians’ learning is largely guided by practical experience rather than deliberately sought. (p. 81)

So, is Ericsson trying to tell us that the thing that we are the most proud of – providing high levels of patient care – could be holding us back from doing exactly that? Do we need to take a step back from what we do automatically and start asking the ‘why’ question again? Rather than spending all of our time focusing on the condition in front of us, and reactively reflecting and problem solving, perhaps we should be discussing our performance standards? How did we get to this point? What if we had tried X instead of Y for this case? Was this the optimal outcome we could have achieved? What did you see that I might have missed? Let’s go to a safe setting and rehearse alternative treatments and outcomes. As Ericsson suggests: “doctors, who bear a great responsibility for patients’ wellbeing, do not extensively engage in the type of deliberate practice that professionals in more competitive domains would do to stay at the top of their games” (p. 93).

So how do we practice ‘deliberately’ ? Well, I don’t think that healthcare is unique in this regard. I believe that there is a lot that we can learn from the competitive domains such as sport, music and chess. There is a lot of great advice already available on blogs and web sites like ‘The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned from Playing the Violin’.  As Noa suggests, we need to deliberately monitor our performance – both in real-time and on video. We need to stop to analyze what went wrong and how we can produce different results next time…..

Ericsson (in Dolcy et al 2011) suggests there are 7 principles for developing expertise:
  1. Informative & immediate feedback is fundamental in order to refine knowledge and skills;
  2. Measuring & analysing current performance is cornerstone to improving it;
  3. Practice activities need to be specifically designed to improve performance aspects that need improvement;
  4. Practice activities need to be repetitive but also allow for reflection on outcomes and processes;
  5. The motivation to improve performance is a prerequisite to achieving expertise;
  6. Time & effort need to be invested; and
  7. Teachers and coaches play a crucial role in guiding individual development.

Interesting to me is that much of the advice is very similar to what I read and wrote about last week when I spoke of eliminating scrap learning. The two concepts seem to go hand in hand. The key difference being that perhaps developing expertise is not as dependent on cognitive/physicial abilities (unless you are 5’2″ and wanting to play pro basketball) and more related to a continuous aspiration to learn and improve.

For once, I could hardly wait to get to the end and tell you where I can play a role in deliberate practice…. our brand new simulation centre is just the place to: practice, reflect, video tape, review, increase the complexity, repeat…. you get the picture. It was created exactly for this – I just didn’t have the terminology that I now have to describe it.

The centre has already become a busy environment – mainly with those new to our professions who are at the early stages of expertise and who are trying to develop/refine their motor skills. The challenging part will be to shift our more experienced culture….. the team who is focused on patient centred care and reactive problem solving. We need to motivate these teams to think differently about what we do and who we call ‘the expert’. For my part it will start by encouraging them to visit our centre and we’ll need to make that first visit memorable…. that’s the opportunity ahead of us.

So, what might you do to ensure that you practice ‘deliberately’ and maintain your focus, rather than just going through the motions? Thoughts? Comments? Advice?

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Eliminating ‘scrap learning’….

Learning 1 by kathyschrock, on Flickr
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This week I decided to delve into the topic of ‘training transfer’.  Knowing what we do about the complexities of our work environments, it seems that ‘working to learn’ or ‘knot working’ that I’ve written about in the past few posts will only be possible if we are able to successfully transfer what we learn in the workplace today into the evolving skill sets that we’ll need next week and next year.

So what is ‘transfer’? As Blume et al (2010) reported in Transfer of Training: A Meta-Analytic Review, originally transfer was described as the “extent to which learning of a response in one task or situation influences the response in another task or situation” (p. 1067). But more recently according to the authors, the definition has been evolved to better address our modern workplaces.  I could   relate more easily to these new terms like ‘lateral transfer’ (when skills are spread over a broad set of situations of similar difficulty) and ‘vertical transfer’ (when an acquired skill affects the acquisition of a more complex skill) or ‘near transfer’ (when tasks are applied almost immediately and/or perhaps at the same location) and finally ‘far transfer’ (when tasks are applied in a much different location and/or months or years later).

As someone who has been involved in academic and workplace education for years, my first thoughts were, well isn’t this what we do each day? Aren’t these the skills that we are equipping our students with for their first jobs? Isn’t this the role of every good workplace facilitator? I was taken aback when I started looking at the data, but quickly dismissed what the research papers were quoting, as it was data from the 1980 & 90’s –  I was sure things have changed….. our profession has evolved and is much more contemporary. So I went searching for more current data, which came from industry and was gathered in 2010. Knowledge advisors spoke with approx. 160 individuals involved in training in large organizations and found that only 9% of learners actually apply what they learn with positive results AND only 11% of leaders held their teams accountable for applying training……You know its pervasive when it even has its own term – ‘scrap learning’  (learning that was delivered but unsuccessfully applied and is therefore wasted). This makes it rather difficult to defend the $125 billion that is spent on training (US data – reported by Salas) each year. I started to understand why so much has been written on this topic.

I was now left looking for answers – hoping that I’m part of the 9%, part of the solution and not part of the problem. As I mentioned, a great deal has been written on the topic, but as I read further, it seems that we are having trouble quantifying the issue. Researching in a manner that can clearly identify cause and effect.

I found a great article… The Transfer of Training: What Really Matters where Salas et al spoke about the importance of training transfer and how it can yield higher productivity, improved work quality, increased motivation and commitment, higher morale and fewer errors. This group completed an extensive analysis of the research to date and came up with 11 key factors related to the transfer of training:

  1. Cognitive Ability: higher cognitive ability leads to more success in processing, retaining and generalizing trained skills;
  2. Self-Efficacy: those with higher self-efficacy have more confidence in their ability to learn and apply trained competencies and are more likely to persist with difficult tasks;
  3. Motivation: trainees must believe that they are capable of learning, that their efforts will change their performance and that change will lead to a valued outcome;
  4. Perceived utility of training: trainees must believe that the training is useful, a clear link between required performance and outcomes that they value;
  5. Behavioral modeling: trainees see the behaviors modeled by those in the culture and have opportunity to practice both positive and negative models;
  6. Error Management: trainees anticipate potential issues, practice problem solving and outline negative outcomes that can occur if training is not transferred;
  7. Realistic Training Environment: training occurs in an environment that resembles the workplace;
  8. Transfer Climate: cues are provided in the workplace that prompt the trainees to use the new skills,
  9. Support: for trainees from supervisors and peers (supervisor seen as more NB);
  10. Opportunity to perform: trainees need the resources and opportunities to apply the new skills; and
  11. Follow Up: formal training period is followed by additional learning opportunities – goal setting, job aids, debriefing, coaching, etc

Most of the list seems logical. We know that cognitive skills, self-efficacy and motivation have an impact on performance, but do we consider these traits when we are screening for hiring or to select applicants for a training program?  Perhaps it is something to consider – and it’s certainly a list that I can’t do justice to in one blog post. SO I guess I have more research and writing to do…..

Barbara Carnes in Make E-Learning Stick echoed the findings listed above and highlighted the importance of follow-up. Barbara suggested that approx. 50% of training’s effectiveness comes from follow-up and she highlighted how training is a process, not an event, and that sometimes we over focus on the event and not the process before, during and after.

So now the hard part of reflective learning…. and potentially an opportunity to ensure that it doesn’t become ‘scrap learning’. How might I use this new information that I’ve gathered this week to change my own practice? What one thing might I do differently? Hard to pick just one or two because they all seem so important BUT here goes……

I’ll start with one example of a change I’ve already made in my classroom – and that’s to start each class with a discussion/slide that speaks to WIIFM (what’s in it for me). Often times, we get caught up in the concepts and theoretical underpinnings of an issue and forget the practicality supporting theory – concepts that are evident to us, but likely a bit abstruse for our students.  A simple discussion and a WIIFM can help bridge the gap and assist in setting the stage for the dialogue of the day. I find this most often meets with nods and the willingness to travel the journey with me. And now I see that there is research to support my actions :).

And finally, what resonated most with me from this week’s readings was the need for support (from leaders and peers) and opportunities for learners to try out new skills. This is an area where I have an opportunity to influence. I have the ability as a leader to remind my colleagues of the amazing training that their staff has just participated in. I have the capacity to ask them to seek out their employees to talk about the highlights of a recent training event, engage learners by sharing their own stories as experts in the field, try to find opportunities on their unit for the trainee to actively utilize the new skill…. it really could be that easy. I commit to making one call this week – a small step to eliminating scrap learning.

That’s what I plan to try…. which of the 11 strategies above might prove helpful to you?

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