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What’s your moment of learning need?


What are the 'five moments of learning need' and how trainers can apply this to their own decisions and personal experiences? Bob Selden explains.

Just as some organisations manage their way through a crisis better than others, so do some people. Studies suggest that a protein Neuropeptide Y helps people stay focused in an emergency or stress event. What’s this got to do with training and learning you might ask? Well, in the current economic crisis, people are looking for support – not everyone has the same amount of Neuropeptide Y protein that enables them to cope easily. Trainers need to look at what people need, how they access that need, and importantly, when support is needed.
What does your training currently provide?

According to Dr. Conrad Gottfredson there are five 'moments of learning need' which should be addressed throughout the learning process. 

  1. When learning for the first time
  2. When wanting to learn more
  3. When trying to remember
  4. When things change
  5. When something goes wrong

The first two are areas that formal training has been addressing for years. When someone learns something for the first time they have little or no background in the topic they are about to learn. They are often highly dependent learners and can find classroom instruction quite effective in meeting their needs. Elearning and blended learning have also started to find an application here as well.

When a learner moves into the second area of wanting to learn more, they are still attempting to learn new information, but they now have a base of understanding to work from. They may still prefer classroom instruction if they can find it, but again, elearning has done a good job here.

Are your training programs and learning initiatives addressing the final three areas as effectively as you may think, or would like? i.e. When trying to remember; when things change; when something goes wrong. The last two moments of learning need are those that our people are most likely to face in today’s climate.

"When someone learns something for the first time they have little or no background in the topic they are about to learn. They are often highly dependent learners and can find classroom instruction quite effective in meeting their needs."

However, first let’s start with 'trying to remember'. As Gottfredson points out, “Trying to remember is not a learning moment as we’ve traditionally viewed it. It’s a time when a learner simply needs some form of support, which specifically targets the process or task being attempted or applied. One defining difference here from formal instruction is immediacy and context. Many traditional programs don’t address these areas as well as they should. The design of many of these programs, including elearning, attempts to train, not support. They are often difficult to navigate, and take learners out of the business context and problem they are trying to solve.”

Now, similar moments of need occur when things change, or when things go wrong. They fall on the support side of learning, and not on the training side. That’s not to say that there isn’t some training involved or needed. It simply points to a different level of access and relevance when it comes to how we need to access and design the content. In all three of these cases an organisation should consider a support framework which effectively addresses these very different forms of support.
Will the learning solution you have implemented support all five areas?

Many probably contain the information needed for the first two, which are often associated with formal instruction.  However, do they engage the learner at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way to meet the needs of the final three?

A recent study by KPMG suggests that 75% of learning now occurs as informal training. That may be no surprise.  How often for instance do you access the internet when faced with a new skill or knowledge deficit? What may surprise you, are the results of a further study by Carnegie Mellon University. Their study suggests that the knowledge we need stored in our mind to do our work, has changed dramatically over the last three decades:

  • 1986 - we stored 75% of knowledge needed to do our job in our mind
  • 1997 - this dropped to between 15% and 20%
  • 2006 - amazingly, we now only store 8% to 10% of knowledge needed

If these figures are right, then they suggest a major need for changing the way we approach training and learning. And this is particularly so when people are in panic mode or simply feel that they are having difficulty coping with the increased pressure brought about by today’s economic crisis. Because people have less stored knowledge, the skills they need now are 'access' skills and support to help them through the difficult period.

Little wonder then that there is more and more pressure on trainers and learning departments today to provide solutions that allow people to continue doing their work while they learn. There’s also the immediate learning need people have as they meet a challenge. Many people automatically now turn to the internet or social networks to satisfy this immediate need. If we are to remain relevant, we need to not only provide 'on the spot' learning, but also devise ways that show people how they can use available technology and processes to their best advantage.

In terms of addressing the final three moments of learning need - remembering, change and things going wrong - there are some simple diagnostic tools that can help you identify what to include. For example, you might ask people doing the work:

  • What are the two or three things that you have difficulty remembering?  Or. What do you need to constantly look-up when you are faced with a challenging situation?
  • Who or where do you first go when you encounter a situation you have not faced before?
  • What are the top three or four areas of customer complaints?  Or, What are the regular questions your help desk or support areas are asked?

To me, the Carnegie Melon study also suggests there may be a missing element to people’s learning – basic principles underpinning the various technical processes they apply. For example, in banking and finance, how many new starters would understand the principles of double-entry bookkeeping or the motivational force equity plays in lending? (Absence of the latter could well have been a major contributor to the sub-prime fiasco in the US which started the economic whirlpool we now find ourselves in) So, when people face new challenges or when things go wrong, they may not understand the principles upon which their work is based. How do we meet this challenge?

"When people face new challenges or when things go wrong, they may not understand the principles upon which their work is based."

Perhaps there’s also a mindset change we need to adopt as trainers.  For instance, we’ve moved from being called 'trainers' (which describes inputs) to 'learning specialist' (which describes process).  Why not go one step further and describe our role in output terms such as 'Performer Support' as Gottfredson and his colleague Bob Mosher suggest? “The learning professional's new role is becoming one of guide and facilitator. The days of owning and disseminating the knowledge within an organization are gone. The ‘new normal’ we live in today challenges every learning department to become a knowledge broker instead. Performer Support is the perfect approach to help make this all important change.”

I’ve penned this article in the hope that we can generate a robust discussion about the three issues I see that are major challenges for trainers and learning professionals today:

  1. What content should our learning and development programs contain?
  2. What support processes can we provide so that performers can access the knowledge they need to perform at their best when faced with a challenge or when things go wrong?
  3. How do we train people in the underpinning principles that support the day-to-day decisions they need to make in their chosen career field?

I’d be interested in your thoughts and experiences.

Bob Selden coaches at the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland and the Australian Graduate School of Management in Australia and is the author of 'What To Do When You Become The Boss'. For free advice on your management challenge, contact Bob at

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