Learning That Sticks

Dan White
Jan 07 2021 | Insights
A man thinking in front of a computer.

The case for sticky learning has never been stronger: business leaders need to be equipped with the skills they need now to get the best benefits.

Dan White, the director of Ezra's Impact Lab, discusses the challenges and implications of leaning into training that is really needed in order to make sure that the learning sticks.

When I look back on all of the mandatory learning sessions I’ve been forced to undergo in my career, I have to wonder: was I really learning stuff that I needed right then, or was I learning things that were no longer relevant or that I wouldn’t need for a very long time?

When I worked as Leadership & Organisational Development Director at one of the world’s largest pharma companies, these questions were prompted by a mounting frustration that we weren’t delivering the training our people needed at exactly the right point in their careers. As a result, there was some concern that we were teaching things that people weren’t really learning and applying in their jobs.

For HR professionals, this falls under our never-ending quest to find and deliver “sticky learning.”

Sticky learning is, as the name suggests, acquired knowledge, skills and mindsets that stays with us long after we leave a learning program. Learning doesn’t stick for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest is that we learn things at the wrong time and in the wrong context.

A lack of learning context means that we do not get the opportunity in the real world to practice and apply all of the things that we’ve learned in the classroom. Because we don’t retain what we’ve learned, learning out of context is a waste of everyone’s time and money.

How often does this happen? I wish it weren’t so, but we quite often misfire when it comes to both the timing and context for learning and in so doing, let down our people when they need us the most.

Like newly promoted managers.

This is a critical junction in our careers. It’s the point at which we accept responsibility for the output of others and not just our own. New managers will, at some point, be required to hold conversations about performance, provide feedback, make salary, promotion and hiring decisions, while also motivating, inspiring and developing people to reach their full potential.

And here’s the rub: even though leaders need to learn all of this stuff, they don’t need to learn all of it on day one their leadership journey.

You can prep new leaders for a variety of challenges before they take up their post, but if you attempt to load them up on the first day with everything they will need to know, all you will do is overwhelm them. It’s like helping a child figure out their favourite flavour of ice cream by making them sample all 31 flavours at Baskin Robins. Some of it will be satisfying, but a lot more will end up on the floor.

So, how and when will you be teaching new leaders to get maximum impact?

The solution I found was to separate learning into three streams: the stuff they needed on day one; additional learning they would need in the near future;  and then a range of other, somewhat advanced learning options made available so that individual leaders could access it at a time that made sense to them.

In creating three streams, HR professionals will be able to see the ways to make learning more relevant, more contextual and – ultimately – a whole lot stickier.

For example, if a newly promoted manager is asked to devote their first six months downsizing an over-sized team, when do they need to start learning about the intricacies of the hiring and onboarding processes?

The obvious answer is at some point just before they need to recruit someone. But putting them through a recruitment/onboarding program while they’re culling the herd just doesn’t make sense.

Of course, we have made some strides in recent years that has promoted the creation of sticky learning.

Technology has been a real game changer. More than ever before, we can now meet the learner wherever they are, whenever they need the learning, so they can learn in context.  We don’t need to be constrained by rigid timeslots. Virtual systems can be set up to deliver learning opportunities whenever and wherever it makes the most sense.

By planning it out properly, and making full use of the best of technology, we create the greatest possible chance for learning to become sticky. We can avoid those situations where someone is trying to apply something they learned in a seminar six months ago but can’t quite recall now.

Instead, we can create repeatable moments where you not only learn it, but then you get a chance to do it right away so that it becomes a deeply embedded muscle memory.

I like to think that, notwithstanding all the disruption we’ve suffered through over the last year, COVID-19 has actually amplified the case for sticky learning. Isolated at home, so many people are undertaking lockdown learning: musical instruments; cooking; wreath making; and lots and lots of advanced dog-wrangling skills.

Why are so many people trying now to learn how to play a guitar or properly wrangle a dog? You can bet it’s not because they plan to play that killer riff, or get a dog, in a year or so.

Those people are learning what they need and want to know right now so they can do it right away. Learning at work should be the same.

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