The Real Complexity in Learning

Written by Seth Derner
Last week, I viewed a webinar on the topic of complexity in learning. Even though I’ve worked in this field for more than 20 years, I always seek out new perspectives and ideas. The webinar was hosted by a national thought leader and was well-done, professional, and useful — to a point. The presentation covered a lot of the same topics we’ve all discussed at conferences for the past few years: the complexity of systems, platforms, and tools. Yes, it is challenging to untangle all of the delivery options, but, in the end, the webinar only focused on the complexity in delivering learning.

In 2003, I sat through the first sales pitch that talked of the magic jelly beans of e-learning. In 2012, bite-size learning modules were kept in curated libraries, so you could use any combination you wanted. Last week, they highlighted playlists as a means to organize bite-size learning modules. In 16 years, the metaphors have changed, but the lack of appreciation for how people actually learn has not.

Granted, if you’re trying to train 4,000 technicians on a process with a limited number of variants, and the skill is rehearsed repeatedly on the job, then a playlist makes sense. If you have 20,000 in customer support roles, then a custom curated library of quick tutorials is absolutely essential.

But, in an economy where A.I. is — and will continue to — diminish the need for rote skill development, the roles that become more critical to organizations require people to be creative, innovative, and collaborative. These are the types of roles to which “typical” learning and development fails to add much value. For example: sales specialists that bring custom-tailored solutions to clients, developers that solve technical challenges in new and interesting ways, marketing leaders that leverage data and demonstrate leadership to build market share for new products. Playlists and massive libraries of curated content are nice resources for people in these roles, but they don’t elicit learning.

Learning a new adaptive-type skill or adopting a new approach is an incredibly complex process — especially for highly-functional adults. It often requires helping the individual understand the existing schema they are using to make sense of situations, experiment with a new model or approach, and then continually test the validity of the new schema for long-term application and use. It takes time and a highly-skilled educator to design and facilitate this type of learning. In our experience, designing meaningful and impactful learning experiences for these types of roles includes the following three critical components.

Number 1

High-fidelity Experience That Creates Dissonance. People must feel the need to explore a new idea or new way of doing things. That happens when they have an experience that shows their current way of operating in the world doesn’t cut it. You can wait for that to happen at a time that impacts business, or you design a way to have that happen as part of a learning experience.

Number 2

Facilitated, Active, Ongoing Reflection. Adults in these roles are continually thinking about what they are thinking about. To change behavior, you’ve got to become a part of that internal dialogue for a sustained period of time. Lightning-strike behavior change is rare. Most people require persistent intervention.

Number 3

Meaningful Rehearsal With Ruthlessly Honest Feedback. There is a gulf between knowing about something and being able to do something. The only way to bridge that gulf is by attempting to perform the new task and receiving constructive evaluation of the effort from a credible coach.

Which leads me back to my reflection on the webinar — it’s a topic that deserves thoughtful consideration. The learning function in an organization is becoming increasingly complex. However, the questions, “Which roles?” “Which competencies?” “To what extent?” “When to initiate?” and “How do we ensure the organization is capable of supporting the development?” are the more important dimension of complexity in learning.

Seth Derner
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