JMReid Group Blog

John Reid
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Are your employees tabula rasa?

In the 21st century marketplace, innovation and evolution are constant imperatives. The acronym VUCA (Volatile, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) has been coined to describe our current environment. Companies need to establish an agile culture to successfully navigate this landscape. Survival requires continuous employee development that drives a targeted change in the employees’ behavior. 

Too often, training companies use the principle of tabula rasa or “blank slate” to shape their designs. Treating employees like an empty vessel waiting to be filled with knowledge is at odds with of our current understanding of the human mind. All accepted educational theory has dismissed this model, and yet it continues to influence the design of corporate training. Workplace development research confirms that adults have a specific set of needs in an educational setting. In our client work at JMReid Group, we are laser-focused on those needs and use them as the lens through which we design our training.

Learn why traditional training doesn’t work

The Six Things to Know About Adult Learning

The “three-pound universe” of the human brain is the most sophisticated system in the world, and it never operates in isolation. We are constantly embedded in environments, relationships and practices. The brain learns and develops in supportive social contexts, and learning never ceases. Research shows that there are several features of adult learning that can be usefully summarized and applied to workplace practice.

  1. Learning is a natural process, like breathing. It can be either supported by its environment or hindered by it. Workplace employee development programs must be constructed to support natural learning processes. Employees thrive in environments where they feel challenged and supported. Consistent, meaningful feedback creates a background that can help your people excel.
  2. Learning is constructive. People actively make sense of information and experience in light of what they already know and do. As a result, training programs must be contextualized and tailored to present levels of performance. Employees should be assessed and offered opportunities based on their existing skills and knowledge. We have written about the benefits of designing to your mid- and high-performers, as their strengths should not be devalued by reviewing skills they have mastered.
  3. Learning is cyclical. It is not enough to experience challenges or receive new information. It is also necessary to reflect on experience: try out solutions, analyze results, and try again. Isolated development activities are less effective than integrated programs. Combining courses, mentoring and stretch tasks around an objective supports a complete learning cycle.
  4. Learning is situated. It takes place in real contexts, and does not generalize across contexts as easily as previously believed. Adult learners need to see the authenticity in the design and be able to apply the new methods immediately and directly in order to retain the knowledge.
  5. Learning is interactive. It requires dialogue with others to enrich one’s perspective. Great training allows us to access the scaffolding one needs for constructing and consolidating new understandings and behaviors. Excellent training companies help employees understand how to foster key developmental relationships with superiors, peers and reports across contexts, enabling dialogue and insight. These multi-lateral connections provide the company with an invaluable strength.
  6. Learning is transformative. Of course, we build new skills through our existing knowledge and learning styles, but these can shift through the learning process. With this understanding, we encourage the use of rigorous employee assessment to determine how to build on what someone already knows, measure progress towards a goal and identify challenges someone has not yet faced.

Understanding these six tenets of adult learning helps ensure the design and delivery of training that delivers on the full promises of your investment. The adult learner cannot be fully engaged using pre-packaged training that tries to meet the needs of various contexts and corporate cultures. Adult learners thrive on supportive, authentic and integrative training methods.  

What has been your experience in leveraging adult learning principles?

Read Adult Learner Design Principles