Down to earth
Wright, N. (2003) ‘Down to Earth: An Introduction to Applied Learning’, Training Journal, Fenman, January, pp24-26.
Key Learning Points
· Learning leakage is a common problem following training events.
· Leakage is not necessarily linked to the quality of the training itself.
· Learning can be enhanced by providing follow-up ‘earthing’ mechanisms.
· An applied learning seminar is an effective, practical earthing method.
Ever had that experience where you walk out of a training room, filled with all sorts of new insights and ideas, only to get collared by someone asking you to come and deal urgently with some crisis that has taken place back at the office? Two hours later, you’re driving home through traffic and find yourself struggling to remember anything of what you had learned that day.
If you can identify with this experience, you’re certainly not alone. The potential for ‘learning leakage’ to take place after a training event is, in fact, so great that it’s amazing that many of our training efforts manage to make any real difference at all. It’s not just about what happens in the training room. The pace, pressure and complexity of work in many organisations means that there are simply too many things to distract us. Two weeks after the event and most training experiences remain little more than a distant memory.
If that wasn’t bad enough, ideas that work well in the training room don’t always work out that way when we get back to the workplace. Take Suzanne, for example. Suzanne attended Time Management training because she found herself persistently missing deadlines. The techniques she learnt on the course were simple and practical and could certainly help if she put them into practice. Suzanne returned to work feeling cheerful, empowered and confident.
Three months later, Suzanne’s filing trays are certainly more smartly-labelled than they were before but she still misses most deadlines in spite of knowing in theory what she should do to address this. Her manager blames the training course, “Just proves what a waste of time and money all this training stuff is”, and Suzanne feels despondent that she still seems so unable to get her priorities in order.
I believe that Suzanne’s problem wasn’t necessarily that the training was of poor quality in its own right. The real problem for Suzanne was that the course didn’t tackle those underlying personal and environmental characteristics that, in everyday practice, inhibit her willingness or ability to implement what she’d learnt. Perhaps it’s unrealistic for short courses to address these kinds of issues in any real depth but that does raise the question of where they could be tackled instead.
One method would be for Suzanne to meet with her line-manager, team colleagues or mentor after such an event in order to look at how she could apply learning in practice and overcome any obstacles. In principle, this sounds great. In practice, many line-managers feel too busy to follow up staff learning experiences or, quite commonly, at a loss to know how to do so. A polite, “I’m pleased that you found the day helpful” (for which, read: “Now let’s get back to the real work”) is the most positive response that many can expect on return from a training day.
Staff, too, might feel too busy or reluctant for other reasons to discuss learning points and potential difficulties with their line-manager or team colleagues, especially if they believe the line-manager and/or colleagues are a contributing factor to the problems they face. Many staff, too, don’t have a mentor to refer to or, perhaps, a mentor who understands well enough the real difficulties the mentee might face when trying to implement learning in the workplace.
Darren is middle-manager in an industrial firm where threats of redundancy are real. The problem that Darren faces is seeing problems arising on the shop floor that would almost certainly impact company business adversely but, nevertheless, feeling afraid to report them to his Director in case he is considered incompetent in dealing with them. Darren attended Assertiveness training to see if he could improve his ability to communicate well to his superiors without feeling overwhelmed by nerves.
The course went well and Darren certainly found ways of expressing himself more assertively within the training group. When he arrived back at work the next day, however, he found himself immediately reverting to his former behaviour as soon as the Director approached him with a minor technical query. Darren admitted feeling frustrated with himself but decided to jot down a few notes of what had happened anyway.
Two weeks later, Darren attended a ½-day applied learning seminar (ALS) that had been pre-arranged as an integral part of the original training course. Pre-arrangement in this way helps to increase follow-up attendance by removing the ‘optional’ (i.e. “Only attend if nothing else comes up”) component. The ALS was attended by all course participants and led by the course trainer; this time, acting as consultant/ facilitator rather than in training role. Participants were asked to:
· Mentally and emotionally re-visit the original course by recounting together what had happened on the day,
what they had felt like, what they had learned, what they had found difficult etc.
· Report back to the group on what situations they had faced since the course that had required an assertive
approach, what had happened, what they had felt like, what they had done, what happened next etc.
· Describe specific situations since the course where they had felt confident and effective, alongside experiences
that they had found particularly difficult.
· Help each other to explore personal and environmental factors (e.g. Darren’s fear of redundancy) that were
acting as blocks to modified behaviour, along with practical, workable strategies to address them.
The advantage of working in a seminar group like this is that participants have already had opportunity to start get to know each other, and the trainer, at the original event. This relational aspect often oils the wheels for tackling more difficult and ‘confessional’ areas together at the seminar itself. After all, to say, “I have failed miserably at applying what we learnt on the training course” takes a considerable degree of personal and professional courage.
Participants are also often able to empathise with one another on the basis of shared experience. “I have felt like that, too”, can open the group to a level of honesty where deep learning can start to take place. The facilitator’s role becomes one of enabling group members to identify and own their experience to start with, and then to move on from that place to find practical solutions together.
The solutions-orientation of ALSs is one aspect where considerable resistance can be encountered. It’s often easier for a group to stay in catharsis mode than to move on to hard questions of personal responsibility. “That would never work in my team” or similar objections to solutions offered need to be countered by the facilitator with something like, “OK – so what would work?”, possibly opening the question out the wider group for additional perspectives.
Another problem that ALSs can encounter is that participants get sidetracked or stuck if issues are raised that are, practically-speaking, unresolvable by group members or well outside of the ALS remit. In such circumstances, the facilitator can draw this observation to the attention of the group and offer to write the issue of a flipchart so that it has been noted but ceases to be a preoccupation or distraction. At the end of the ALS meeting, participants themselves have the task of deciding what they want to do with the flipchart sheet.
These points each demonstrate the importance of having a 3rd party facilitator present. Although it is possible for ALS members to facilitate their own meeting, this loses the additional input that the trainer/consultant can bring and my experience is that participants often become so distracted by content that the meeting loses focus and falls into relative disorganisation.
The converse can also be true. Some ALS groups work so well together that they decide to continue meeting periodically in the future. In such cases, they tend to transform themselves into Action Learning Groups or something similar. One group I worked with decided to open each subsequent meeting with a special time called, “Confessions & Commitments”. Although this time did have its humorous aspects, participants each agreed to report on progress and to subject themselves to fairly rigorous peer review before making new practical commitments in terms of personal work practice.
Most ALS groups don’t tend to progress to this stage for reasons such as time constraints at work. They may, however, agree to meet periodically in 1s or 2s for mutual support where peer relationships have been established. Alternatively, they may decide to meet again, say, 3 months after the first ALS to encourage one-another, review progress and problem-solve again in light of growing experience. The ALS model is flexible in this respect, its principal focus being on grounding of learning rather than its own mechanics.
If you have found these thoughts helpful and decide to try out ALSs as part of your own training programmes, I would recommend the following practical points:
· Organise and advertise ALSs as an integral part of training events (e.g. part 1 = training; part 2 = ALS; Certificate
of Attendance is gained only by participation in both part 1 + part 2).
· Where possible, involve the original trainer as consultant/facilitator for the ALS.
· Arrange for ALSs to take place 2-4 weeks after the original training event (90-minutes duration minimum, ½-day
· Ensure that the ALS retains an application-orientated, problem-solving focus.
· Run an additional (optional) ALS 3 months following the training event to review learning and revisit practice
[See also: 'Making an Impact']