Learning fails in bad systems
Enormous energy is spent on developing strategies to accomplish things with comparatively little paid to the systems that they are being deployed in. A good strategy works by design and that means designing systems that improve the likelihood of their success rather than fight against them and this is no truer than in the effort to learn on the job.
A simple search of the literature — gray or academic — will find an enormous volume of resources on how to design, implement and support learning for action in organizations. At an individual level, there are countless* articles on personal change, self-improvement, and performance ‘hacks’ that individuals can do to better themselves and supposedly achieve more in what they do.
Psychology and related behavioural sciences have spent inordinate time learning how individuals and organizations change by emphasizing specific behaviours, decision processes, and data that can support action. A close inspection will find that relatively few strategies produce consistent results and this has to do less with execution, skill or topic and more with the system in which these strategies are introduced.
To illustrate this, consider the role of learning in the organization and how our strategies to promote it ultimately fail when our systems are not designed to support it.
Knowledge integration: A case study
Consider the example of attending a conference as a means of learning and integrating knowledge into practice.
Surajit Bhattacharya published a primer for how to get value from conferences in medicine, pointing to tips and strategies that a medical practitioner can take such as arriving a day early (so you’re not groggy), planning out your day, and be social. These are all practical, logical suggestions, yet they are premised upon a number of things that we might call system variables. These include:
- The amount of control you have over your schedule week-to-week.
- The availability of transportation and accommodation options that suit your schedule, budget, and preferences.
- The nature and type of work you do, including the amount of hours and intensity of the work you perform in a typical week. This will determine the amount of energy you have and the readiness to be attentive.
- The volume of email and other digital communications (e.g., messages and updates via social media, chat, project management platforms) you receive on a daily basis and the nature of those kinds of messages (e.g.urgency and importance).
- The amount and nature of travel required to both attend the event and the amount you had prior to attending the event.
- The level of rest you’ve had. Sleep amount, timing, and quality all factor into how much rest you get. Add in the opportunity to engage in an activity like walking, exercise or stretching that one might do and we see a number of factors that could influence learning performance.
- The setting. The lighting, air quality and air flow, seat arrangement, room acoustics, and access to some natural light are all factors in our ability to attend to and engage with a learning event.
- The quality and format of the content and its delivery. Speaker quality, preparation, content and overall performance will all contribute to the ability to convey information and engage the audience.
- Food and drink. Are you eating the kinds of foods and beverages that enable your body’s performance? Do you have access to these foods and drinks? Are they served at times that suit your body?
- Your level of comfort and skill at engaging strangers. This matters if you’re more introverted, dislike small talk, or are not energized by others.
These are all platform issues: those in which motivation and energy can be channeled to focus on and engage with learning content. The fewer of these factors present the greater the energy expenditure needed on the part of the learner.
Learning within systems
W. Edwards Deming noted that most of the issues of performance in any organization were due to processes and systems (estimated to be up to 85% or more) rather than individual employees. While Deming was referring largely to manufacturing contexts, the same might be said for learning.
Consider our example from earlier about the conference. We’ve already outlined the factors that could contribute to learning at the conference itself, but let’s extend the case further to what happens after the conference. After all, a surgeon, engineer, computer programmer, law clerk, or carpenter isn’t going to practice her or his craft at the conference; they’ll do it when they return to regular work.
Now consider what our attendee encounters after they have made the trip home to apply this newfound learning:
- A backlog of emails, phone messages and other correspondence that has either been left untouched, scantly attended to, or fully managed. In the first case, the backlog might be high and requires a considerable amount of time and energy to ‘catch up’ on upon return, however at least the learner was fully present to perform the many activities suggested byBhattacharya in the earlier article. In the second case, there is a higher than usual amount to attend to and the learner might have been selectively disengaged from the learning event. In the third, the learner returns to usual life without a backlog but may have sacrificed considerable attention toward the usual correspondence than actually learning.
- A backlog of meetings. Scheduled meetings, calls or other events that require a co-presence (virtual or physical) that were put off due to travel are now picked up.
- A backlog of administrative tasks. Submitting receipts and conference expenses, regular accounting or administrative tasks are all things that either was left untouched or, in the case of submitting expenses, unlikely or impossible to do until the trip has returned.
- Fatigue. Sitting in a conference can be exhausting, particularly because of the conditions of the rooms, the volume of content and the break in the routine of every day (which can be energizing, too). Add in any travel issues that might arise and there is a reasonable chance that a person is not in an optimal state to take what they have been exposed to and apply it.
- The usual organization processes and structures. Are there are opportunities to reflect upon, discuss, and process what has been learned with others and spaces to apply those lessons directly with appropriate feedback? How often have we been exposed to inspiring or practical content only to find few opportunities to apply it in practice upon our return in enough time before the details of the lessons fade?
It’s not reasonable to expect to have optimal conditions in our work much of the time, if ever. However, as you can see there are a lot of factors that contribute to our capacity to learn and the required energy needed to take what we’ve been exposed to and integrate it into our work. The fewer of these situations in place, the greater the likelihood that the investment in the learning experience will be lost.
An organization or individual requires a platform for learning that includes systems that allow for learners to be at their best and to provide a means for them to take what they learn and apply it — if it’s valuable. Otherwise, why invest in it?
This isn’t to say that no good can come from a conference, but if the main focus is on actual learning and the application of knowledge to the betterment of an organization and individual why would we not invest in the platform to make use of that rather than discarding it.
Rethinking our systems
When I was doing evaluation work in continuing medical education I was amazed to see how often learning events were held at 7 or 8 am. The rationale was that this was often tied to shift changes at hospitals and were the one time of day when most physicians were least likely to have other appointments. This was also the time when physicians were either highly fatigued from a night shift or having battled traffic on their commute to work or were planning the rest of their day ahead — all circumstances when they might be least focused on actually learning.
This choice of time was done for scheduling purposes, not for learning purposes. Yet, the stated purpose of continuing education was to promote learning and its various outcomes. Here, the strategy was to expose medical professionals to necessary, quality content to keep them informed and skilled and doing it at a time that appeared most convenient for all is an example of an idea that had logic to it, but ultimately failed in most regards.
How? If one looked at the evaluation data, typically the results suggested this strategy wasn’t so bad. Most often post-event surveys suggested that the overall ratings were consistently high. Yet a closer look at the data yields some questions.
For example, the questions asked to assess impact were things like: did the presenter speak clearly? or did the presenter provide the content they said they would? In most cases, participants were asked if the speaker arrived on time, presented what they said they would, were intelligible and whether there was a chance the learner might find useful what was presented. It had little to no bearing on whether the content was appropriate, impactful or applied in practice. This is because the system for evaluation was based on a model of knowledge transmission: content is delivered to a person and, assuming the content is good, the lesson is learned.
We know this to be among the weakest forms of moving knowledge to action and certainly not something suited to more complex situations or conditions, particularly in health systems. This is still what prevails.
Design for learning
If you’re seeking to promote learning and create a culture where individuals across an organization can adapt, develop, and grow learning requires much more than simply sending people to conferences, hosting seminars, providing books and other materials or watching some instructional videos. Without a means to integrate and promote that new knowledge as part of a praxis, organizations and individuals alike will continue to get frustrated, lag in their efforts to anticipate and respond to changing conditions and will ultimately fail to achieve anything close to their potential.
Designing for learning is as much about a curriculum as the context for how that curriculum is delivered and how learners are set up to engage with it all in their organizations and everyday lives.
*This is literally the case because the volume of new articles being published daily is so high.
If you’re looking to create learning systems in your organization, visit Cense to explore what it can do for you in shaping your strategy and evaluation to support sustainable, impactful learning for complex conditions.