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Worplace learning and development – time for a new appraoch?

When was the last time you thought about a theory of learning? To be fair, Learning Psychology is not the first thing most of us consider when we are building skills in the workplace. We are looking for L&D outcomes, ROI, ease of implementation and other practical benefits. But a theory of learning, lies beneath every L&D intervention or system. In fact, it is usually the same theory (didactic), which many L&D experts think has held the sector back. Many experts think the time has come to look again at Experiential Learning as a way of improving learning outcomes and productivity.

This article explores:

  • Why many L&D experts think Experiential Learning should form an essential part of a workplace learning programme
  • Why a single theory of learning has dominated the status quo, and the pros and cons
  • Our research collaboration with Professor Chris Davies and Professor William Scott-Jackson from Oxford University
  • How iLeader (ileader.app) is the first cost-effective, easily scalable Experiential Learning platform, and why it is finally enabling L&D to use Experiential Learning to embed learning and maximise ROI

“Learning is no longer just about content and knowledge. Learning is about experience and application”

World Economic Forum

The majority of mainstream workplace education today comprises classroom training, e-learning, or online libraries. These all use a didactic approach – they provide content to impart knowledge. Of course, nowadays we know that a purely didactic approach is not that effective in embedding knowledge (think rote learning in school), so the better examples of workplace learning add problem solving, example scenarios and similar methods to encourage knowledge retention.

Didactic techniques, delivered well as described above, are a good way to introduce concepts in a focused way, but experts argue that we also need methods that relate more closely to the situations we face in the workplace. Why do they say that? Well, didactic methods place a heavy burden on the learner to recall the content when they need it (at some point in the future), then correctly apply it to a situation. This would be fine if only that content were needed, but workplace situations are never that simple.

We never just need to apply a single piece of knowledge at once, such as negotiation, or conflict management, or team management. Workplace situations are complex, requiring the use of multiple elements of knowledge, skills and techniques simultaneously, and often under pressure. The didactic model expects learners to have assimilated each element of their learning – possibly delivered in separate modules at different times – recall the relevant parts, weave them together and understand how to apply them to their current situation, then execute well (remembering the relevant policies and procedures too). That is a big ask.

So what else should we be doing? Experiential Learning holds a key

In 1974, Professors David Kolb and Ronald Fry developed the Experiential Learning model, which aimed to provide a conceptual framework the way we learn most effectively – through an iteration of knowledge-gaining, reflection and experience. The model has stood the test of time and remains well-regarded, which is quite rare in educational psychology circles.

Kolb and Fry’s Experiential Learning model has four stages, shown in the diagram below (credit: Henton). The model codifies how we learn in the real world – we do something, think about it, work out the pros and cons of what happened, then do the same thing next time or do something slightly different depending on how well it went. In early childhood, this is how we learn to walk. In the workplace, it is how we learn to deal with complex situations, not least those relating to people.

In work, we gain our Experiential Learning over time through exposure to situations and the resulting experimentation, often in the form of trial and error. If we are lucky, we get an ‘experience boost’ from a more experienced colleague or manager who guides us and speeds our journey through the Experiential Learning cycle – increasingly rare in these days of lean organisations and remote working. If we are really lucky, we have a mentor or coach who helps us learn experientially through ‘reflective conversations with another’ as the academics put it. Too often though, we are left to learn slowly (and unreliably) through trial and error, supplemented with didactic training – part of the answer but with limitations.

So why are we all not using Experiential Learning methods now?

We can all relate to how we learn from experience, and it is becoming increasingly apparent to L&D leaders that combining the traditional didactic approach with Experiential Learning methods can improve how learners can apply their learning in the workplace – with clear potential to improve L&D ROI. But there are two factors that have prevented widescale Experiential Learning adoption:

  • Until now, there has not been a cost-effective, IT-enabled Experiential Learning solution
  • Perhaps partly as a result, Experiential Learning has not had as much exposure or recognition in the workplace, though that is changing as L&D experts increasingly recognise the value

Everyone is familiar with traditional learning methods, we have all been to school, been on training courses and used e-learning. Their use in the workplace is well understood. And existing solutions (electronic and face-to-face) are well understood and easily deployable. So far, this has not been true of Experiential Learning. It is not as widely deployed in the workplace, so there’s less research or case studies. And whilst there are some very good role-play providers in the market that deliver great Experiential Learning solutions, these can be quite expensive and hard to deploy quickly or at scale.

At Oxford HR Technology, we are solving both of these issues. With Professors William Scott-Jackson and Chris Davies from Oxford University, we are progressing research into Experiential Learning’s impact in the workplace. We want input from L&D leaders and innovators, so please get in touch.

On the solution side, iLeader (www.ileader.app) is the first cost-effective, easily scalable platform to embed skills, behaviours and actions using a mixture of Experiential Learning and didactic methods to ‘make learning real’. Building on the Experiential Learning model, iLeader turns learning concepts and techniques into easily configurable job-specific workflows, giving learners a way to practise skills, gain confidence, absorb behaviours and comply with policy while producing output that helps them do their jobs better – just like a mentor or coach accelerates learning and supports execution, but automated. L&D leaders are telling us it is a great way to embed learning and maximise L&D ROI – we’d love to hear what you think.

Next steps – realising the benefits of Experiential Learning in the workplace

In upcoming articles in this series we’ll be looking at further developments in the application of Experiential Learning in the workplace. We welcome any ideas or input you have.

To find out more about our research, or to find out more about iLeader, contact me directly at scottd@oxfordhrtech.com and see www.ileader.app .

Thanks for reading

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