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Opinion: How shiny are your goldfish?


IMAGENAMETraining often starts with a shiny, happy participant who is eager to learn – so why doesn't the shine last, asks Bob Selden? He suggests that enlightened trainees that know how they learn best are empowered to continue fishing in the right places.

A colleague of mine called Dennis Pratt once described training as 'polishing goldfish'. He believes that as trainers, we take people out of their organisational context, train (polish) them, then drop them back into the murky waters of the organisation.

The newly-trained person is at first a bundle of shiny, excited energy about applying their new skills and knowledge. Of course, soon the murky waters of the organisation start to scuff their shininess. The person starts to become disheartened (for 'disheartened' read 'slime' and 'algae' that starts to form over their scales).

This is particularly the case for training in people skills such as management and leadership. You might think this only applies to traditional classroom training. However, I believe it can even happen when the trainee is experiencing the best blended learning.

Why doesn't the shine last?

Unfortunately, too often as trainers we get hooked on teaching content over process. People can learn a lot about what to do and even how to do it through effective training. But do they learn, for example, how to identify and learn from experiences in the real world, as they happen? Do they find out what their own learning style is so that they can make the most of life's experiences?

Photo of Bob Selden"Unfortunately, too often as trainers we get hooked on teaching content over process"

How many of your training sessions, workshops, or blended learning programmes have major components on:

• How to distinguish process from content, and how to manage each?

• How to identify and make best use of one's learning style?

• How to 'learn how to learn' from work and life experiences?

Many of us design our learning experiences to cater for the various participant learning styles (perhaps based on Kolb, Honey & Mumford, and so on). But have you ever asked participants: 'Do you know how you learn best?' or 'How do you learn at work, from your successes and failures?' or 'What activities do you have in place to continually build your competence?'

I believe that one of the biggest payoffs participants can get from training is an understanding of how they 'learn how to learn'.

Process or content?

In my earlier years as a management trainer, I fell into the trap of providing people with good content. Sure, there were plenty of 'how to apply this' activities. But it wasn’t until later that I realised I was not helping participants to:

• Identify when they are applying the various skills, models and theories (ie the actual situations at work they were facing), so that they could apply them again and again

• Assess their level of performance in terms of these skills, models and theories in current work issues

• Learn the skills and processes that are transferable from one situation to another and those that weren’t

• And most importantly, help them to 'build their own model of leadership' – something that is unique to each person.

In other words, I was not helping them to develop a set of expert skills they could apply across situations, contexts and functions – ie process skills. So my current training now errs on the side of process rather than content.

How can process skills be developed?

Every time a team meets to make decisions or move a project forward, at the end of their meeting they evaluate the effectiveness of their process management. We use a simple tool called the team process evaluation. Each participant scores the following five dimensions on a five point scale:

"One of the biggest payoffs participants can get from training is an understanding of how they learn how to learn"

• Direction and leadership
• Participation
• Disagreement and conflict
• Decisions and commitment
• Evaluating progress

The team then discusses the scores and how it can improve its process management skills for the next meeting. Finally, each team member makes a commitment to continue or change some of their own ways of participating.

Learning styles – why are they so important?

Some of you reading this article will have read every word (and be starting to question some of them). Others will have skipped over much of it, picking out just the main points. Some might be looking for the pictures, diagrams or models that are not here. Others will have not read this article but merely heard some of the points discussed by colleagues.

To cater for such differences, during the workshop component of a management development programme, we ask the participants just how they like to learn. This becomes extremely useful for the facilitators, but we’ve found that it is also great for the participants and their workshop teams. Team members now start to cater for one another’s different styles and develop process skills that are transferable to the workplace.

Learning to learn – the real payoff

Once participants understand their own learning style, the next step is to apply this knowledge. We learn from our experiences. Unfortunately, it's often the bad work experiences that we learn most from. We miss many of the learning points that slip under the radar when everything is going well.

To help participants develop their own 'learn how I learn' model, they work with a partner at various times during the workshop. Through a structured process, the two participants help one another to understand what they have learnt (often content) and most importantly, how they learnt it (process).

For example, each participant will develop a 'learning log' during the workshop where they review their learning. They regularly discuss their log with their learning partner. The format for the learning process is:

• Begin with the past – what did I learn and how?

• Proceed to the present – what does this mean for me now? How is it impacting on my thoughts and feelings?

• Consider the process, the subject matter and the future – what worked for me, what didn’t? How will I apply this?

• Build in review – when and how will I review my learning?

Whilst there are many different outcomes, we’ve had some interesting follow-up stories from participants. Many say they now spend 15 minutes each morning at work going through 'three things that I learnt yesterday'. Some use the team process evaluation regularly. Others phone or email their old learning partner to discuss each other’s current learning. The great thing about all these processes is that people are consciously learning where they learn best: in the real world.

Bob Selden is author of the newly published 'What To Do When You Become The Boss' – a self help book for new managers, where readers work through the book depending on their own learning style. For details, or to obtain a copy of the team process evaluation mentioned in this article, visit:


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