Imagine a sales team being trained on an innovative new product – a real breakthrough in the marketplace. But instead of focusing solely on the features and benefits of the product, a second phase is integrated into the instruction: putting that knowledge immediately into practice with mock sales presentations.
As an activity-based learning exercise, these practice sales pitches increase familiarity with the new product and improve knowledge retention. This is far preferable to using instruction to cram as much information as possible into people’s heads in hopes they will retain and use it. But that’s not all. As a group exercise, the experience of making and critiquing sales presentations builds collaboration skills, which are essential in today’s complex world.
In fact, collaboration is one of the key 21st century skills – along with communication, creativity, and critical thinking – identified by researcher Charles Fadel as being essential for success. These 21st century skills elevate the role of humans, particularly to take on more complex jobs as automation and robotics continue to make inroads into the workplace.
As part of their collaboration, the sales team would practice giving and receiving feedback, which many people avoid because it’s perceived as uncomfortable. But there is learning science that makes a compelling case for moving beyond that discomfort and encouraging team members to coach each other. In a large-scale field experiment, high school students who gave advice to younger peers became better learners, themselves. The advice-givers practiced what they preached, which led to better study habits and becoming more motivated and confident. In other words, they developed a “growth mindset.”
These findings from the experiment apply directly to the sales training scenario: as sales team members coach each other, they are likely to become better presenters, themselves. As a result, the entire team can become more effective at their jobs, individually and collectively.
The secret to success in this scenario is the combination of efficiently and effectively acquiring knowledge and then putting it to use. Research has also shown that students who are engaged in active learning learn more than they do when sitting passively in a lecture. The irony, researchers also found, is that students often perceived that they learned more from the lecture. This suggests that instructors need to encourage the benefits of active learning. In terms of ongoing corporate learning and development (L&D), activity-based learning that tackles job-specific problems and scenarios can make training more efficient, effective, and engaging.
Changing the Training Paradigm
Given the evolution of the workplace, as algorithms and robotics take over lower-level jobs, people need to be retrained and equipped with higher-order skills at an accelerating pace. The stakes are too high for the status quo in corporate L&D, which too often has meant ineffective training that failed to change behaviors or improve performance. The flaws in L&D are well-known: learner fatigue and dissatisfaction, widespread “check the box” attitudes for compliance training, and little evidence to suggest that traditional corporate e-learning results in any sustained learning.
Bersin research from Deloitte states, “Organizations must now confront a critical decision: evolve how, when, and why workers learn, or risk falling behind in a world of work defined by continuous disruption.” Going forward, others researchers agree, corporate L&D must be redesigned, drawing from “the best information science has to offer.” Training should be “viewed as a system … to promote learning and enhance on-the-job performance.”
Clearly what’s needed is an approach to improve knowledge, retention, and job performance, by seamlessly combining training and work activities. This is referred to as learning in the flow of work. Activity-based learning that is job-specific falls under this category. It helps ensure that knowledge learned in the classroom or through computer-based e-learning transfers into day-to-day practice with a higher degree of competence.
Importantly, activity-based learning differs from purely “learning by doing,” which is completely experiential. Without a baseline “learning,” the “doing” can be a struggle. Purely on-the-job learning in which employees are trained by coworkers or managers may or may not provide individuals with the support they need. As a result, there is no guarantee that actual training occurs.
In contrast, activity-based learning is designed to go hand-in-hand with knowledge acquisition to tackle real-world problems that are relevant to the learner’s job. Whether people are trying to build a better bicycle or solve a complex problem, the focus is on what needs to get done, with the learning wrapped around it.
Activity-Based Learning at Scale
As promising as this sounds, it can be challenging to roll out activity-based learning in the work environment, with personalization that is specific to learners’ needs and their jobs. What’s more, training today must be efficient to keep people productive in a fast-paced environment. Technology clearly plays a role in delivering knowledge and activity-based learning at scale, across the widest possible audience.
Computer-based adaptive learning is a cornerstone of the solution. Personalized and scalable, adaptive learning builds knowledge and skills by providing the necessary support and reinforcement for each individual. It is crucial for uncovering and correcting unconscious incompetence, a pervasive workplace problem that occurs when people believe they know something but, in fact, do not.
While adaptive learning has typically been used for individual instruction, it can be tailored to give learners opportunities to collaborate with each other. For example, in addition to questions (probes) that assess competence in specific knowledge and skills, other probes can direct learners to give and receive feedback on a project, presentation, or other group activity. This opens the door for leveraging the scalability of adaptive learning technology and the effectiveness of activity-based learning.
Time for a New Approach
This new corporate training approach will require buy-in across the organization, starting with the CEO and other business leaders who recognize the importance of making L&D a priority on the corporate agenda. The chief learning officer, with a seat at the leadership table, will ensure that training and business objectives are closely aligned. Learning engineers will be engaged with curriculum and instruction design and content curation.
The incentive for business leaders is clear: having a knowledgeable and motivated team that knows how to solve problems in a fast-paced business environment. For employees, too, there is a clear reward: to stay relevant by building their knowledge and skills to bring out the best of being human in a technology-enabled world.