Examine modern corporate training programs, and you’re likely to uncover heavy procedure manuals, hands-on and e-training, regular supervisor feedback, and even testing. Are all these necessary for employees to learn how to do their jobs effectively?
In 1970, tennis professional W. Timothy Galloway demonstrated a new theory about adult learning, which proposes humans are intrinsically wired to learn new skills through the simple process of trial and self-correction. He took a group of people who had no experience playing tennis–in fact, many described themselves as unathletic–and showed how they could learn how to play tennis in 30 minutes with little instruction.
See the original broadcast of The Inner Game of Tennis here. If you’ve never seen this before, it’s eye-opening.
Galloway uses an analogy to explain his theory. Babies learn a complicated skill requiring significant balance and coordination entirely on their own–they figure out how to walk. A young child will observe people around him walking and running. The youngster will pull himself up, take a step, and repeatedly fall in the process, but with each failed attempt, the brain automatically considers what worked and what didn’t to improve the subsequent trial. Although enthusiastic parents may attempt to help their children in the process, they will learn to do this independently. He will keep trying until he figures it out.
As Galloway takes on his inexperienced future tennis players, he provides some fundamental instructions geared towards focusing the participant’s brain on the action of the ball and racket. This process essentially removes everything we’ve been taught to do when learning a new skill–practicing specific moves, looking for particular directions, taking criticism, and discussing errors to learn how to improve. We find that the participants unconsciously measure the speed and distance of the ball and the body movements of their opponent to figure out how to move and return the ball across the court.
In 1984, David Kolb, psychologist, and educational theorist produced his theory of experience-based learning which is very similar to the approach taken by Galloway. In experience-based learning, people learn how to accomplish something in a circular, four-phased process that repeats over and over until success is achieved:
- Concrete experience. The person engages in a task or action.
- Reflective observation. The person considers what happened and reflects on the experience.
- Abstract conceptualization. The person makes conclusions about what happened and comes up with alternative approaches.
- Active experiementation. The person tries a new approach.
Can everything in the workplace be taught in this method?
No, not everything. Some things require specific training, particularly regulatory compliance, health codes, tax laws, and accounting transactions. However, many employers put all skills into this same bucket.
Let’s look at an example. One of the biggest challenges in today’s workplaces requiring training has to do with how to use the computer system and company software. Staff members are often called upon to create detailed written procedures for every type of transaction.
Yet consider how children learn to use mobile devices, television remote controls, social media, and even make videos or create video games. They simply play with them to figure out what all the buttons do, and then they start trying to do stuff with the equipment. Children don’t worry about making mistakes, and they often spend little time considering critiques. When something doesn’t work, they try again until they reach success. Children also know there is more than one way to achieve the desired outcome and place value in the result, not the process.
Somehow adults in the workplace have forgotten this. Perhaps due to fear or maybe because they lack confidence, adults in the workplace tend to gravitate towards detailed procedure manuals and shy away from clicking on any button they are unfamiliar with. Supervisors proactively anticipate this and spend countless hours with job shadowing, monitoring, and feedback loops.
What if new employees could watch other employees conduct the work and then have ample time to practice the skills independently. Do you have a backup or training system that employees can use for this work? The hard part is to allow them to try and try again until they get it right without jumping in to direct them step by step through the process.
How different would the workplace be if you instituted more independent learning with your teams?
You already hire intelligent, qualified, and capable people to work for you. Consider operational procedures and training programs around customer service, problem resolution, product purchasing, and other areas where company preference versus legal parameters have been used to create procedures.
- What are the limited concepts the employee needs to know to understand the fundamentals of the process?
- How can the employee observe others performing this process?
- How can you create a safe environment where your employee can feel comfortable making mistakes?
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