Mind Your Language
16th Jul, 2015

Mind Your Language

Instead of filling people up with knowledge, we need to talk about activating new behaviors a participant centered approach.

American linguist Edward Sapir wrote in 1929 that we are "at the mercy of language" from Eskimos' multifarious words for snow to the way Hopi speakers conceptualize time, our words influence thoughts and behavior. This is called the theory of linguistic relativity: Language guides the way we interpret the world. So in training, the way we talk about putting learning into action affects the way we design and deliver solutions.

Traditionally, learning practitioners speak about "transfer rates" to describe the extent to which learners put new skills into practice. There's a reason these rates are dismal only 15 percent of learners successfully apply what they learn, according to research by Professor Robert Brinkerhoff.

The word, "transfer," implies that knowledge is passively carried from the classroom to the workplace; that learners are vessels to be filled up with information that is regurgitated elsewhere. This line of thinking misrepresents the way in which people learn. Researchers Carraher and Schliemann argue the metaphor is so deeply flawed that we should abandon the term, "transfer,"altogether.

The job of learning practitioners is to help people change their behavior and habits so they're better able to solve problems in the real world. Instead of filling people up with knowledge, we need to talk about activating new behaviors—a participant-centered approach. The term, "activation," has neurological underpinnings when neurons fire together, they activate a neural pathway, which strengthens the response. Likewise, learning requires people to assimilate new information with prior experience, and forge new ways of responding.

By switching from talking about "transferring knowledge" to "activating behaviors," we change the way we think about how people learn. We then can introduce practices proven to increase success.

Ready, Set, Go!

At Microsoft, L&D terminology reflects the effect of language on action training is called "readiness." "We want our learners to be ready for their customers, our partners, and ready to seize every opportunity,"explains Stacey Gardner, senior Learning and Development specialist. The most successful readiness, she says, is action focused, specifying which behaviors are required and when participants should activate them.

Action oriented readiness leaves less room for interpretation. "We overestimate our ability to teach one another by talking. There's a misconception that other people automatically will understand what we want to share. It's more successful when content is based around what people should do differently."

If content is king, context is the emperor. It's too much of a mental stretch for people to apply abstract principles back in the (messy) real world. Brinkerhoff's research suggests that after a training session, 15 percent of participants don't try to use what they learned, while 70 percent try to some extent but give up. Context specific training reduces this cognitive load, making it more likely that people will be able to activate new behaviors back at work.

Microsoft's readiness pulls together account teams to work on specific customer problems. "Having the full team working on a real customer scenario makes a difference,"notes Gardner. "It's like on-the-job training, but instead of it being back on the job, it's in the classroom, with the benefit of coaching and expert help in the moment."

For Susan Connor, vice president, Enterprise Learning at Hanover Insurance Group, context is also crucial."It's an odd concept that learning takes place outside of your working life,"she says, referring to the fact that employees often are taken off-site for learning."It shouldn't be segmented. The more people think 'when I'm learning, I'm working and when I'm working, I'm learning,' the better it gets."

Bringing learning into the everyday also capitalizes on the support of managers and peers. "The more you separate learning from work, the less likely it is to stick, because there’s no support; no one cares,"says Connor. "We see the best results when we get the learners’ managers involved." Through briefing and involving participants’ managers, Connor encourages dialogue about the learning, which increases the likelihood of sustained action.

A context-specific approach works well in situations similar to those encountered in the classroom, but what happens when learners come up against new problems? So-called "far transfer"(as opposed to "near transfer") is one of the key reasons many programs fail to realize their desired impact. But for Gardner, context-specific, participant-centered readiness brings about changes in behavior across situations: "A great readiness experience helps the team work together in an effective way. That doesn’t change from customer to customer."

One of the challenges of "far transfer" is identifying the similarities between one situation and another. A mechanic might use her knowledge of engines to solve similar problems in different cars, but how could she apply that thinking to her relationships? Here the facilitator plays a key role.

"I used to have this misconception that great facilitation was about having the right energy,"says Gardner. "But through this program , I've seen the different ways to be spirited in your delivery. You can engage people without being a cheerleader." What matters is the facilitator's ability to make connections between the content, the context and the outside world. It's this synthesis of prior knowledge and experience with the content that helps people recognize opportunities to activate their learning.

Facilitator Mindshift

Shifting from knowledge transfer to activating behaviors requires a change in facilitators'mindset too."Our facilitator training shifts the way they perceive their role," explains Gardner."It goes from disseminating knowledge as quickly as possible to facilitating an experience. It also removes some of the learning burden—they're not there to teach people something, they're there to help people work a situation differently." Post event reviews further encourage activation. At Microsoft, cohorts come back together in "booster sessions" to talk about what’s working and what isn’t. "Simply labeling what's going on is helpful,"says Gardner. During these sessions, identifying the features of certain situations and where those features exist elsewhere also helps build bridges between contexts, further solving the "far transfer"(or far activation) problem. The result of this action-orientation, says Gardner, is more agile teams that can activate the right behaviors at the right time which has a proven effect on the quality of customer conversations, deal size, deal velocity, and win rate. That's a good result in any language.

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