THE LARGE majority of learning and development programs are ineffective because they cram too much information in for the brain to physically handle, according to a leadership development expert.
“In many ways we’re still lying shooting in the dark at issues like ‘How much can someone really learn in a day?’ and ‘How much can people change?,”said David Rock, CEO of Results Coaching Systems.
“Some of the really basic issues about how people learn are still not really understood, and the result is that many programs pack far too much in than is physically possible for people to learn,” Rock said. “So you get disappointing results.”
In learning something new, Rock said, it takes a degree of effort similar to trying to multiply or add two sets of complex numbers in your head. Repetition also helps, and Rock said that doing the same equation four or five times in a short period of time makes the process easier.
“It’s similar when you’re trying to change behaviour. You need a similar degree of focus and people need to be completely engaged and focused on the ideas until they become hardwired,” he said.
“But the process requires immense focus, and the brain is not built to do that for hours on end. It’s biologically not built to handle this.”
Speaking ahead of 2008 NeuroLeadership Summit in Sydney, running from 9-11 September, he said that many companies were trying to cram too much information into learning and development programs.
“There’s this enormous pressure on time now. We’ve kind of got a perfect storm where there’s more to learn than ever before – but there’s less time to learn it in than ever before.
“Put those together and you see that many learning interventions that should be taking weeks are packed into half a day and that’s a really problem,” he said.
Instead, Rock said companies should be taking a similar approach to learning how to drive. “You might try for a few hours, then leave it and come back,” he said.
“The brain needs consolidation time. This is really important. Do this enough for just a period of weeks and then it’s actually a permanent part of your circuitry.
“But if you try and learn to drive in just one day, what happens is about halfway through the day you start melting down and hitting things, because it’s too much for the brain to handle,” Rock said.
A recent American Society of Training and Development study found that the follow-up to any learning and development programs accounted for 50 per cent of any behavioural change, compared with 40 per cent for the actual delivery of a program and a further 10 per cent for pre-work.
“This supports this realisation that there’s only so much you can learn in a block of time. So we need to rethink how we learn,” Rock said.
“So much work today is about thinking, so not getting into the physiology of thinking kind of seems crazy. It’s like you know your job is to race cars, but you never get under the hood.”
Rock also said that managers and executives learn much better when they believe a development program will progress their leadership status.
“Most executives would love more mental power, so you need them to be in what’s called an ‘approach state’, so they’re interested in some kind of change,”he said.
“This state opens their mind up dramatically more – it literally perceives more information, it’s more optimistic, perceives more variables, has many more insights and uses different parts of the brain.”
As an HR leader, Rock said it is important to find out what’s important to executives and explain the benefits of learning and development programs in plain English.
“Find out what they want to achieve and be their partner in their development,” he said. “Rather than pushing hard or trying to trick them, find something that the leader is interested in moving towards and make a connection that way.”