Six opportunities to improve the speed of learning in organisations 

I have just completed a review of a Lessons Learned and training project for a pharmaceutical company in London. I’m seeing a common theme across our benchmarking/analysis work and I want to give you an insight into the opportunities available to you to improve performance. Organisations need behaviours and processes that accelerate the rate of learning, but, far too often, the learning design slows the rate of learning and wider absorption.

Rapid learning is much more than a good search function in a SharePoint system

If you are interested in rapid-learning through training, learning and development or Knowledge Management, especially Lessons Learned, you have to be interested in how people acquire knowledge. Ask yourself, what opportunities to improve Safety, Time, Innovation, Quality and Cost (STIQC) are being missed because people are missing the cognitive perspective within their work.

For example, the most common problems I see with Lessons Learned projects are a result of a lack of consideration for how people actually learn (e.g. The need to show people how to create patterns or order within the information presented to them, in such a way that it can be hooked to past experiences, while also presenting insights into future performance created by the acquisition of the new knowledge). Lessons Learned programmed that do not do this are disrupting and slowing the learning experience. So what? Well, think about the lesson being learned and it’s impact upon STIQC. Now think about the future impact upon STIQC where people fail to learn – not because they aren’t accountable or responsible, but because the material presented to them didn’t enable the knowledge acquisition process. Who is to blame for failure, the learner or the learning designer (Lessons learned manager)?

So what opportunities exist to improve, to accelerate learning ? You can start by considering the six principles of knowlwdge acquisition. The following is taken from learning science (I recommend, Hattie and Yates, 2014):

1. Learning requires time, energy (resource) and motivation: learning is a slow process requiring time, goal-focus, feedback, accumulation of successful practice, frequent review and material needs to be meaningful, and presented by a trusted source. Learning, therefore, is not a purely about the capture and presentation of information in a document, as with the vast majority of Lessons Learned projects.

2. The mind wanders: the mind will begin to wander after 15-20 minutes. Therefore, learning needs to be presented within that timespan or learning becomes lost to mind wandering. Consider what this means for a two-hour Lessons Learned event with 90 PowerPoint slides!

3. Distributed practice is more effective than high-intensity singular events (the spacing effect): in the majority of human learning environments, considering cost-benefit, blocks of 15-30 minutes of learning are most effective. Think about how you would set out to learn a new skill (e.g. Playing golf). Would you learn best through a single two-hour lesson or six, 20-minute sessions spread across six days? So, how can a Lessons learned programme that looks to share learning through a single, three-hour event, be expected to be successful?

4. Don’t underestimate the power of prior knowledge: what a learner already knows will impact the new learning experience. If the material being presented is not hooked to existing knowledge, there is a high probability that it will be quickly forgotten. Prior knowledge can interfere with learning, where misconceptions from previous experiences impact future learning. Here, there is a need to introduce the learner to patterns, as well as ways to order and summarise the information being presented to them. How many learning events that you know of end up with the learner saying, “Ah ha, now I know!”

5. The mind loves multimedia: the brain likes multi-modal material (audio, video, images, text) – e.g. Strong learning material incorporates words and images, linked to prior knowledge, which is highly powerful. Take a look at Lessons Learned material, I would predict that the vast majority of the Lessons Learned consist of pages upon pages of text. It needs to be asked, is the learning material being designed in the best way to enable rapid absorption?

6. The mind has to be active: learning has to be meaningful, where the learning provides a stimulus to actively do something with it. Where the learning experience accounts for previous knowledge, real world context and future impact, the experience becomes memorable. If you have a Lesson learned project that focuses on information transmission, as opposed to a learning experience, you have an opportunity to dramatically improve the speed of learning (design through to absorption).

How does this fit with fast cycle or rapid learning in your Organisation?  First, think about demands for improved cultures – process improvement in Lessons Learned nudges behaviours, where improved processes, behaviours and structures improve culture. Second, consider the impact of not taking action, where you know that processes slow the rate of learning in your Organisation – what is the impact on Safety, Time, Innovation, Quality and Cost? Are you really happy with processes and behaviours that slow your rate of learning?

3 thoughts on “Six opportunities to improve the speed of learning in organisations 

  1. Well done David! Most of the time, prescribed info is gonna be very useful for the managers who are actively operating in the real life sector. Congrats! 💪

  2. David, I love your logic, because it is usually spot on. I worked on Lessons Learned in the oil and gas industry and wrote many that sound like the kind you are referring to, but not all were like that. I remember a couple that were really simple, short but effective e.g. “When placing crated items in the lay down yard, make sure the contents label is uppermost, because later, when the workers come to look for the crate, it could be under one metre of snow.” A second: “If you hire workers from poor countries to work on your construction site, give them new tools, because the tools they bring with them are of poor quality and break all the time, sometimes damaging what they are working on.” There were many good lessons like this, but not passed on I believe due to managerial mishandling.

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