In challenging times for business growth, development is not a priority, right!? In fact, hardship is often the spark that ignites incredible creativity and innovation. Difficulty may be the best trigger for adults to learn and evolve. Are we helping?!
Just like Daniel Goleman was a pioneer in demonstrating the existence of Emotional Intelligence (Emotional Intelligence, 1995), Malcolm Knowles may have been the first, back in 1980, to make educated assumptions for how (and why) adults learn. His assumptions were elaborated on key differences between adult learners and child learners.
Knowles identified 5 assumptions.
- First, adults are self-directed in their learning. As such they can make a conscious decision to learn.
- Second, experience becomes the most significant learning vehicle.
- The third assumption addresses the readiness to learn by adults. This readiness is directly related to the role and responsibilities of the adult learner.
- In fourth place comes the orientation towards solutions rather than simply a subject matter interest.
- Finally, Knowles underlines the internal nature of the motivation to learn.
Since 1980, hundreds of publications have discussed the principles of adult learning. The majority seem to agree with Knowles with only slight variations. For me, the revelation came from Dr. H.B. Slotnick of the University of North Dakota. His principles were quite similar to those of Malcolm Knowles. In short, adults need a reason to learn and the learning needs to provide a solution to a current problem. Learning also has to be experiential. The main difference is this last point, the learner needs to teach back as soon as possible. I believe this last point is significantly responsible for the many successes we have had in the last 15 plus years.
Before I elaborate on this, let me summarize a number of observations from the hundreds of development programs on which I have been directly involved.
Adults fully engage when a development effort is directly and intimately associated to their daily activities and when the learning allows them to figure out solutions or new approaches to challenges they are facing. A good example of this is the work we are able to accomplish around case studies. We use a combination of existing (generic) cases as well as customized situations. While case studies in general are very effective, the value and impact of the latter often seems superior simply because situations are so close to participants’ realities. A case is created following interviews with participants and supervisors, even with customers. In our Coaching/Leadership program, a guide is provided for learners to create their own case. Each customized case is based on a current and meaningful situation… and only names and places have been changes to protect the innocents. Countless participants have reacted so positively to the learning process that they want to “leave immediately and go apply what I learned with my colleagues/clients”. With generic case studies, the results are often similar as long as we facilitate a discussion that links the learning to participants’ reality.
In the previous paragraph, I mention “allowing adults to figure out solutions”. This a critical factor. Whereas we are constantly asked to “give” solutions (identified here as the “want”) it is when participants figure out their own solutions (we believe it is the real “need”) that such solutions become most viable. While examples of this would fill pages of text, one in particular illustrates the idea quite vividly. Years ago I was managing a team of sales people. One day, one of them asked me for solutions to gain better access to a groups of customers. Even then, I was reluctant to “give” solutions. I wanted the individual to figure out best options and guide them through the process. Still, that person insisted that I share some of my ideas. So I did. And for each one, here is what I heard as a reply: “I tried and it did not work” or “that’s not my style” or “that will not work with them”. No solutions were found at the moment. About 6 months later, the salesperson in question called me, very excited to share that they had found a solution. Which was almost word-per-word, one we had discussed some 26 weeks prior. Whatever happened in that time period, the solution came from the person and as such, became much more valuable. Some solutions should be offered in development programs yet, helping participants fine-tune or craft the solutions to their specific situations is often the best way to go.
Adults participate more actively when the training initiative is put in place as a result of a needs assessment. When corporations or teams deliver on what individuals have identified and defined as development requirements, the resulting level of engagement is usually very high. Robert Cialdini would explain this in part though Reciprocity (Harnessing the Science of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini, Harvard Business Review October 2001.)
If a training program is organized by management on a topic that may not be top of mind for learners, it is necessary to clearly state the reasoning behind the choice and the expected outcomes/benefits for the efforts. It is true that learners don’t always know what will help them. It certainly isn’t the rule however, and I do believe that people usually have a good sense for what they need to improve in order to be more productive. This is especially the case in a well-functioning team. Nevertheless, a clear and value-based reasoning for any developmental effort usually increases the engagement level of adult learners.
In spite of what can be significant differences in learning styles, adults tend to value a structured and productive exchange of ideas between people holding similar roles or responsibilities. When adults get together and are in a position to provide each other with solutions, options and perspectives, we have to give them the opportunity to do so. When done correctly, the payback can be enormous. Since adults also need to limit their time away from their daily activities (read accountabilities), it has shown increasingly valuable to cover the more theoretical aspects or methodologies with preparation work. This allows individuals to “study” on their own and at their favored pace.
As facilitators of learning, we have to understand that people have a spectrum of reasons to be motivated (or not) to accept and eventually integrate new elements of information and skills. Over the last 12 years and following published experimental results, we have developed a better understanding (and guiding principles) on motivations. The determination of adults is based on the importance and ability for them to express their innate values, competencies and traits. For example, a person that cares about collaboration, precision, quality, integrity, and adaptability, will likely be more interested to learn when the competencies or principles covered in a program will contribute to those natural traits. The same individual may “tune out” if developmental work is oriented towards competition, rapid fire solutions, generalities or strict step-by-step processes. Recently, I facilitated a session on project management. In part because a system was already in place in the company and also because key projects were already in place, we opted for a step-by-step approach, filling each step with actual actions that needed to take place. Many participants gained from this approach, it made sense to them and helped find solutions. In the program evaluation, others expressed they would have preferred a more general discussion on project management rather than covering each step. The need expressed is based on the necessity to better understand how to manage projects and then associate efforts. We were facing 2 sets of needs based on different motivations. Humans are self-motivated either via internal needs or external factors. Internal aspects address conformity or quality of task. External motivators are either of a social nature or one of tangible rewards. Adults will learn when and if their motivation is triggered. An internally motivated person will be more interested in learning skills that will allow them to perform in a manner that is safer or more elegant rather that increase their reputation or short term impact. Unless of course reputability is also associated to safety and stability. Because learners intrinsically have different motivators, or facilitator’s approach to learning has to appeal to every participant. It is therefore our responsibility to help learners see and feel the value of the experience.
So far we have identified six essential aspects of adult learning.
- Learning needs to relate to the current role of people or at least to a relatively immediate future.
- Learning efforts have to lead to solutions. Sharing and building of adapted solutions is necessary.
- Learning should be organized on expressed needs.
- Learners often demand to fully understand the reasoning behind growth efforts (the Why).
- Learners will need activities that match a variety of styles in order to engage all of them as completely as possible.
- There are a number of reasons for learners to be motivated to accept and integrate new concepts. It is essential to address each of the motivations.
In the paragraph following the introduction, I made a point on the necessity for “teach back” and our experience over the last 15 years. Even when learning efforts are in line with the principles of Knowles, Slotnick and the 6 aspects summarized herein, deep learning and associated sustainable changes happen in earnest when adult learners are given the opportunity to put concepts to practice, get results, internalize the reasons for their outcomes and explain how their actions have generated such payback. Adults need to teach back.
Adult learners will truly commit to their learning when they have the chance to teach others. That is in large part the reason for us to continually insist on a structured follow-up program after any learning effort. Imagine a learner that is initially sceptic on some methodology and has no hesitations to say so. Then move forward a few weeks and hear the same learner explain to others in the group that they were “wrong” and how beneficial the previously vilipended concepts have since been on fixing a major issue and change outcomes for the better. The Big Fish principle explains in detail how practice, results and sharing of such results influence integration of new behaviors and propagate the solution-based evidence for others to learn. Evidence has consistently demonstrated that even the best efforts for learning cannot yield optimal results without sustained teach back. For all the teachers, facilitators, trainers and leaders reading this, you intrinsically know that teaching, facilitating, training and leading has forced you to better understand, grasp, and integrate any concept or methods that needed transmission. We owe it to adult learners to offer every opportunity to do the same.
Ideally, learning and development prepare us for challenging times and help propel the longer term planners ahead of the proverbial curve. Reality has shown that most efforts are exerted when our noses are painfully pressed on the wall of adversity. The upside of this is an increased determination to learn when the current ways do not work anymore. It is however critical that efforts are oriented in accordance to the principles of adult learning. Otherwise we only contribute to the misconstrued perception that learning efforts are an expense we cannot afford rather than an investment we have to make.