Unless you are a modern Robinson Crusoe on a remote island, your life is being altered as technology changes. One of many positive aspects is that it helps older people use their brains to learn new things. Very young children, almost before they learn to talk, are comfortable with smartphones, iPads and computers. Technology that older people (age 35-plus) struggle with comes naturally to the young.
Without warning, the rate of change is affecting business and performance management. Before we master one machine or process, it is replaced by another. Executives face decisions about not just when to change but what to change to. Do we keep employees in a perpetual state of training, or do we keep older technology because employees are fluent in it and can use it to perform at maximum levels consistently? The latter course is risky, as it may favor competitors using more advanced methods.
The only solution to this problem, as I see it, is to find ways to accelerate learning or transfer of knowledge.
I am dismayed by the fact that the world is still using teaching technology more than 500 years old. The teacher lectures, assigns homework, gives tests and delivers grades. The students listen to some of it, daydream through most of it, sometimes do homework, sometimes copy someone else’s homework, take a test, get a score in a week or so, and take a final exam.
Business copies this model but often doesn’t even test. More times than not, attending training is all that is required. I have been to many companies where all that is needed to get safety clearance is to watch a short safety video. Many times, I have been left alone and could have slept during the video. Who would know?
When you understand behavior and how people learn, you will come to know that learning is an active process. By active, I don’t mean stretching or dancing to begin the class. Rather, I mean dealing with the material to be learned and receiving a consequence. As a teacher might say, “That is why we give homework and tests.” These activities are a start, and produce more learning than an online class, where the computer is nothing more than a fancy page turner. However, they produce too little interaction with the material, and rare, if any, feedback on what you know or don’t know about what was taught.
Skills training can be made more efficient when you understand the science behind learning — behavior analysis. Dr. Walter Schneider of the University of Pittsburgh has demonstrated stunning decreases in training time and increases in effectiveness in air controller training and electronic troubleshooting on Air Force jet maintenance jobs. He taught college students an air controller task of refueling jets in flight in just 40 hours, and these students quickly outperformed three-year veterans. How, you ask? Schneider provided them the opportunity to interact with four to 18 components of the task per minute and receive immediate feedback. These students knew when they were right and learned quickly when they were wrong.
As currently provided, skills training offers more opportunities for interacting with the material than do leadership or personal effectiveness courses. However, the problem is the same: Managing a workforce confronted with rapid changes requires a positive reinforcement culture, as some managers are coming to realize. Not only will employees become frustrated with change, but the natural consequence of change at work almost always brings an increase in punishment. If the manager doesn’t know how to counteract that, turnover rates will soar, labor grievances will increase and performance may grow, but at an ever-decreasing rate. Research shows that meaningful training and coaching are essential for retaining new employees, particularly younger people.
The technology to dramatically reduce training time while increasing effectiveness is known and available now. Unfortunately, it is rarely used. Why? Traditional training methods are comfortable for trainers and understood by executives, seemingly requiring less time and money and, therefore, less likely to change. It may well take performance, quality and safety problems to cause organizations to look for a better way. In the meantime, the door is wide open for the entrepreneur who is more technology-savvy and high performance-driven to create a workplace where the technology of tomorrow meets the new technology of learning, where change is welcomed and provides more sources for positive reinforcement.