SEEK’s National Client Training Manager, Hamish Coutts, chats with the neuroscience and positive psychology-based trainer on how to get the most out of organisational training, achieving true behavioural change, and developing learning and development programs that are business and ROI-aligned.
Q. Anna, you’ve had some amazing roles and experiences in your professional life. Tell us a bit about your background.
The common theme that continues throughout all my work is a passion for helping people achieve their potential through positive, intentional change; change that’s going to benefit themselves and their organisation.
Before joining SEEK Learning in 2014, I’ve been very fortunate to enjoy a long career delivering training solutions for a range of clients, including Google, Qantas, Macquarie Bank, and government agencies in Australia, New Zealand and East Timor. I’ve also sat on advisory committees, boards and consortia, including the Sydney 2000 Olympics’ ‘Language Planning Consortium’, which provided services and support for athletes, officials and tourists. On the odd occasion, I’ve also lectured for the Master of Arts (Applied Linguistics) in Testing and Evaluation, at UNSW, which I really loved.
Q. How do you define success from training?
This is such an important question. Organisations know that they need highly capable employees to stay competitive, and that learning programs generate greater value for the organisation when the content reflects key business performance metrics.
This is supported by a recent McKinsey Quarterly survey, where 90% of respondents said that building capabilities was a top-10 priority for their organisation. Yet, only about 25% said that their programs were effective at improving performance measurably, and only 8% track the programs’ return on investment.
So the challenge is to determine how organisations can make the most of their investment for training by understanding what creates business value and how.
Training best practices can vary depending on the specific situation, culture and maturity of the organisation. But the best programs ensure they identify the learning needs before implementing any initiative, and taking a long-term view of learning, remembering that it’s a continuous process.
Q. What’s your advice for setting up training programs for success?
Training and development programs need to be strategy-driven and in-line with the organisation's strategic goals. This means partnering with relevant business areas to ensure alignment between learning and business objectives.
Set clear and agreed criteria and timeframes to define success, so that you can measure training against specific metrics and encourage a return on investment within agreed timeframes.
Support learning programs with key strategies, systems, structures, policies and practices, so that learning aligns with and is supported by organisational structures, lines of authority, decision-making, values and other business practices. This is great for establishing boundaries and reinforcing the desired outcomes.
Drive learning through multiple channels. Use different platforms to reinforce learning outcomes and ensure that people get the right skills at the right time, in the right way and at the right cost. This could include group or one-on-one training, on-the-job application, e-learning, and access to other technology and support tools to match learning modality to people. Consider the multiple benefits of each approach as part of a total solution.
Establish shared accountability. The best programs help people maximise their potential through self-directed learning and development. When we identify our own needs, create our learning plans and look for learning opportunities, we own our learning and apply it at work.
Yet, getting people to engage with corporate learning is at times a challenge. According to a 2014 Bersin by Deloitte survey, 66% of learning professionals have trouble getting people to engage in programs.
By tying the learning closely to key performance metrics and then measuring its impact on them, organisations can generate greater value from training and gather useful data and insights to continuously improve programs.
Remember that if the organisational culture isn't set up for any behavioural change, learners aren’t going to be able to apply what they've learned.
Many organisations measure the success of learning using the Kirkpatrick Four-Level Training Evaluation, which is based around reaction, learning, behaviour and results. The model is very flexible but can be resource-intensive. Yet, by going through and analysing each of these four levels, you can gain a thorough understanding of how effective the training was, and how it can be improved in the future.
Q. What are best practices for creating and delivering training that result in lasting skill and knowledge uptake, and permanent behaviour change?
We know that organisations need to get more from their learning programs; there is more to learn than ever, with faster business innovation cycles, while training budgets are getting tighter.
If organisations want to foster a learning culture, they need to provide easy access to learning tools, opportunities and collaborative learning practices. For example, on-demand video, extension e-learning, collaboration in online forums, coaching for change, and providing learners with the means and opportunity to continue learning is the first step in creating a learning culture.
Neuroscience can provide insights and guidelines to enhance learning and development practices. The brain is, after all, our primary tool for learning, thought, memory, consciousness and emotion. So it makes sense to match our learning design with how our brain functions.
Lila Davachi, Associate Professor of Psychology at New York University, offers the framework AGES to highlight four key criteria shown to be necessary for effective learning:
Attention – concentrating on the task or concept without distraction.
Generation – encourage learners to interact with the learning task so they generate their own thinking and connections.
Emotion – create emotional cues associated with the learning task so that it’s embedded.
Spacing – creating adequate time gaps so learners can digest, consolidate and rehearse new learning.
Q. How much repetition is required to form a new skill set?
Spaced repetition learning, combined with assessments and quizzes, offer the best value for rapid learning, with studies showing that it increases learning by up to 50%.
Research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has proven the key role of dopamine – a neurotransmitter – in the learning process. This is the brain’s chemical reward and is triggered by things like positive feedback during learning, so we are wired to embed learning.
Taking the power of forgetting and the power of transformational learning into account, we use a variety of techniques to leverage repetition as a learning instrument. Spaced repetition combines spacing and the generation of learning over time. Repetition happens through various techniques, such as priming, reviewing or testing the content during new learning generation.
Q. When does behaviour become a habit?
Habits are fascinating. They are behaviours wired so deeply in our brains that we perform them automatically. The value of a habit is that you don’t have to think about it so it frees up our brain to do other things. But it doesn’t free up all of it. Parts of our cortex still has some control over thought and planning, and moment-by-moment control of which habits are switched on at a given time.
To form a habit, you need to create enough rewards to encourage and embed the new behaviour. For a memory to really stick, you have to be reminded of it at certain intervals. This is where spaced repetition works because we have evolved to focus only on what’s really important to us – this is what sticks in our brains.
Q. What are the main reasons for training to fail in a workplace?
Learning is a dynamic and complex process and it’s much more effective when we build on what we already know, so we can strengthen our neural maps and retain the information.
There are many factors that can limit its effectiveness. Broadly speaking, the top three potential barriers to learning are:
Content – we need to engage with the learning, to really focus our attention on it. If we don’t concentrate enough our neural networks are weak and fail to form, so we can’t embed the learning.
Incentive – what’s our WHY for learning? We need to align our learning to our motivation. When we don’t see the value of learning, or if we’re not interested, or feel overwhelmed, or when we’re fearful of change, our brain’s natural reward system, such as dopamine, do not get activated to stimulate and reinforce learning, so is unsuccessful.
Social – we have a social brain so our interactions with the people involved in our learning, how supported we feel, the quality and quantity of communication, etc, has a significant impact, both positive or negative, on learning. Think about our best teachers, coaches or mentors, and how they inspired learning? From our personal experiences we also know what happens when we have been in unsupportive environments or unproductive teams – we know that learning outcomes are compromised.
These are just some examples that trainers and employers need to be mindful of when creating learning environments for successful learning and retention.