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Accelerated Learning and Coaching – a considered view


A few pioneering CBT companies have moved beyond the multiple-choice quiz format to provide genuine ‘learning by doing’ for higher-order business skills. But, as in real life, users are finding they need coaching to help them generalise the lessons from this accelerated experience. Richard Barkey examines how third-generation programmes use coaching to improve the efficiency of learning, and help overcome the barriers between learning and application.

Beyond the Classroom – the power of experience

It’s almost axiomatic that while you can acquire knowledge by reading, listening and watching, true skills only develop through practice. Ask any concert pianist.
Of course, the nature of the practice required depends on the task. Relatively short, similar tasks such as playing scales or handling simple customer interactions need what one might call ‘reflexive’ skills. The learning process involves repetitive practice with constant feedback and perhaps a role model whose actions and approach can be imitated.

But what of more complex tasks such as playing an entire concerto, or developing a product strategy? These require more adaptive skills that one might describe as ‘reflective’. Intuition tells us that such skills develop with relevant experience based on a good foundation of knowledge. That combination is, after all, what you look for in a CV. This idea of ‘experiential learning’ has been developed by Kolb, Schön and others, who have indeed focused on the role of reflection in helping people to learn from their experiences (see end panel).

Accelerating the Experience

There are a few problems, however, with learning from experience.

  • It’s slow. Looking for experience is highly relevant at the recruiting stage – but it takes a long time to grow your own. Plus, how many times have we heard the phrase “your experience is no longer relevant” as another tranche of middle managers head for the door. You don’t need staff with experience of the past – you want them to have experience of the future.
  • It’s risky. Learning by doing – and failing - is less attractive when it happens in the real world. Few patients would be happy to see their surgeon reading a copy of Kolb’s treatise on “Experiential Learning”. Equally you’re probably not keen on managers and professionals “learning through failure” with real markets and real money.
  • It can be mistaken for truth. Perhaps the most important thing about what we learn is knowing when to discard it. How many managers have you seen stick to a learned idea or response despite overwhelming evidence that their learned responses have become inappropriate?
    The solution is to provide accelerated experience, so that managers can learn fast, safely, and with enough variety and guidance to ensure that they pick up new skills, not second-hand dogma.

At Imparta we use advanced computer game technology to simulate realistic situations where people can learn, because doing so allows us to reach deep into client organisations with training of consistent quality – a particular issue for large (and especially multinational) companies. But you could equally use role-playing or even hot-house projects to create an accelerated experience. The method matters much less than meeting three key criteria for accelerated experience:

  1. The experience should be positioned just at the edge of the users’ abilities – it shouldn’t focus on things they can do already. I guarantee you’ll learn more about advanced car handling in an hour on a skid pan than in a year of driving up and down the M1. Similarly, if you’re pushed too far beyond your limits, learning stops. Because users’ ability levels differ, this means the experience should ideally adapt itself to each individual. In addition, if you’re going to throw someone in at the deep end, it’s only fair that they should first be given a rough idea of how to move their arms around. Building “reflective” skills goes well beyond knowledge, but it does rest on a good cognitive foundation.
  2. The experience should be realistic - and that often means confusing and unstructured. Leading people by the hand through a simplistic process is worse than useless, because it’s precisely when they have no guidance that most come unstuck. There are plenty of people who can answer multiple-choice questions about Porter’s Five Forces or customer segmentation. There are far fewer who can use those tools at the right time, know how and where to get the data they need, can synthesise the results rather than end up with a checklist, and don’t get thrown by misleading information.
  3. The experience should be generalisable. There are a number of excellent ‘business simulations’ available on the market that give teams experience of decision-making in a fast-moving competitive environment. For reflexive skills like FX trading, they are superb. But for reflective skills, they have one great weakness: the learning is only as good as the underlying model, and users can spend as much time trying to ‘game the model’ as they do learning from it. Rather than learning from “what if”, reflective skills require you to tackle “how, when and why”, to refine your common sense and develop an approach that can be adapted and generalised to new situations.

A lesson from Experience: Accelerated Learning Needs Accelerated Coaching

Imparta is one of a handful of companies around the world that has developed training products that embody these principles. We have been fortunate to be able to coach and observe in person over 2,500 users from a variety of organisations working through exactly the kind of accelerated experiential learning described above. As our approach reaches maturity (we’re developing our third generation of product now), the one glaring lesson from our own ‘experiential learning’, is that people learning this way need help – or more precisely, they need coaching. A great coach can:

  • Intensify the learning experience. Anyone who has used case-study-based learning knows that often it’s understanding the case study, rather than getting the learning, that takes much of the time. A good coach can help to extract learning points from even prosaic tasks like reading an Annual Report, and can help users to feel satisfied by making explicit all the almost subconscious learning that takes place while working on a real problem.
  • Facilitate the learning experience. Learning from experience is actually quite difficult. Certainly, the processes of ‘critical reflection’, and ‘active experimentation’ require an ability to ask the right questions. Someone outside the experience may be better able to do this than someone immersed in it.
  • Adapt the learning experience. As we have already noted, keeping the user at the leading edge of their ability is crucial to maintaining the pace of learning (some writers have described users in this state as being “in flow”). Different learners have different “sweet spots”, and it’s the role of the coach to tune the experience to suit each user – just as an instructor in a flight simulator will fail the engines just as you start to get comfortable.

As you might expect, we’ve pushed our artificial intelligence to the point where the program itself has a built-in coach that does indeed adapt itself to the user’s learning patterns, and helps them to reflect on their learning. But perhaps contrary to expectations, we also believe that there is still very much a place for people in this process.

Multimedia’s early promise of improved efficiency has been overshadowed by the huge gains in effectiveness that can be achieved when you combine an accelerated learning environment with expert coaching. At the risk of offending some readers, simply putting a few CDs into a learning centre is still a risky way to build advanced business skills – a critical part of the ‘reflection’ process involves discussion with the coach and with one’s peers. The real potential comes from linking what computers do best, to what certain highly-skilled people do best – coaching.

The joy of being an ‘accelerated coach’ is that your time isn’t spent using PowerPoint slides to explain basic concepts. Frankly, the software can do that far better, more consistently and even in a more Socratic way than most lecturers. Instead, trainers in an accelerated environment can spend their time at the individual level, helping people to understand, interpret and learn from what’s going on around them. It’s far more exhausting than leading a normal case-study discussion, but a great deal more rewarding for all involved.

Extended Coaching: From Learning to Application

Jeremy Bullmore, one of the great minds in advertising and a non-executive director of WPP, said recently: “it’s not what you sell that matters, it’s what people buy”.
Certainly, companies may sell training, but what people actually buy is improved performance on the job. And quite a few people are disappointed when they open the box.
Good accelerated learning goes a fair way to bridging the gap between learning and doing, because it has already confronted the user with the uncertainties, pitfalls and “noise” that awaits them back in the real world. But why stop there? There is a huge opportunity to continue the accelerated learning process in real life. This partly involves reinforcing the learning that has already taken place, through reference tools, decision-support tools and ’10,000 mile check-ups’. But the biggest impact by far must surely come from extending the role of the coach to that of a true mentor, continuing to help the individual tackle, solve and reflect on their experiences throughout their career.

There are, of course, resource constraints that make this difficult. Finding an individual coach for each employee is a daunting task, and the most obvious choice – their own line managers – are often unable or unwilling to take up the challenge. Perhaps, as with accelerated learning, the answer lies in using technology to leverage the skills of a smaller group of highly skilled coaches. Whatever form that technology takes – and it seems inevitable that the Internet will have a part to play – this is the new frontier. But even as we strive to realise this new potential, there will continue to be a role for accelerated learning, to kick-start skill improvements at key moments in an individual’s career. There will also be a role for coaching, to help adapt, facilitate and intensify the real learning that comes only from experience.

The Theory of Experiential Learning

Up to the 1950s, the predominant learning model was behavioural. As with Pavlov’s dogs, learning in humans was seen as a combination of stimulus and response (most akin to the model of ‘reflexive’ learning defined in this article).

However, the stimulus/response model was unable to explain Jean Piaget’s observations that development in children bears no relation to external stimuli. In the wake of this insight, Piaget, Chomskey, Bloom and others started to investigate how the brain itself actually participates in the learning process, each making huge leaps forward.

However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Freire and Mezirow introduced the concept of ‘reflection’, noting that the way we process experience lies at the heart of all learning. David Kolb refined this idea by adding the idea of abstract conceptualisation, resulting in his “Experiential Learning Cycle”.

The four stages of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle

Critical Reflection
Active Experimentation
Abstract Conceptualisation

Richard Barkey is the CEO of Imparta Ltd., a London-based company dedicated to building key business capabilities across client organisations. Imparta has strong links to academic and commercial thought-leaders, and is currently developing Strategy CoPilot - an integrated software/services bundle aimed at building strategic decision-making skills for both internal and client-facing staff. Other practice areas are Major Account Selling/Relationships, and Brand Communication/ Strategy. Richard can be reached on 0171 610 8800.


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