Date: 01/05/12 Duration: 00:23:30

In this podcast three experts with differing perspectives discuss whether learning and development is mostly about science or more of a strategic business discipline: Dr Itiel Dror, Principal Consultant, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Bill Parsons, VP for HR at ARM Holdings UK and Vice President L & D at the CIPD and Martyn Sloman, L&TD academic, consultant and practitioner.

Philippa Lamb: Hello and welcome to the latest in the CIPD’s podcast series. Today we're debating whether learning and development is mostly about science or more a strategic business discipline. We're recording this discussion with the rain pouring down outside at HRD, the CIPD’s annual learning and organisation development conference and three experts with differing perspectives have generously agreed to take time out from the sessions to share their ideas with us.

Dr Itiel Dror is Principal Consultant, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. He's going to be telling us about the lessons we should be taking from the inner workings of the brain in designing learning that really works.

Our second guest is Bill Parsons, VP for HR at ARM Holdings UK, world leaders in designing the semiconductors at the heart of all those electronic and digital devices none of us can function without. Bill is also Vice President L & D at the CIPD and he takes the view that learning is part psychology, part sociology and part economics.

Finally, Martyn Sloman is a familiar L & D name from his time as an adviser at the CIPD. Now he's a man with a portfolio of academic roles including Visiting Professor at Kingston University Business School and Professor at Northwest University South Africa. Martyn has written extensively on how we learn with an emphasis on how things actually are at the coalface of learning here in the UK and around the world.

Now if anyone's in any doubt about the bottom line value of L & D, they’ll be interested to hear that organisations which prioritise it in hard times are two and a half times more likely to survive a recession. That's according to the CIPD’s own research and of course most organisations do offer at least some L & D but are they going about it the right way? Martyn, is most L & D as effective as it might be?

MS: The answer to that is yes and no and that's a careful answer because my experience is there's plenty of very good practice out there but plenty of very bad and indifferent practice. One of the problems we've got is that it’s very contextual. So what works for Bill Parsons in ARM Holdings is going to be quite different from what works in a hotel or a retail organisation or indeed in parts of the public sector. There are different economic drivers. The other thing is I don't think we actually know as much as we need to practically about learning.

PL: So you’re talking about how we actually learn as human beings, well, Itiel’s the perfect man to answer that. I mean our understanding of the science behind this has really come on leaps and bounds in recent years hasn’t it? What is the research telling us?

ID: Before I tell you what the research is telling you it’s not very important what it’s telling you if you don’t take it on board and it doesn’t guide you if what’s happening in L & D is not grounded in the science and not guided by the science. So I'm not going to be as careful as Martyn and I would say that it’s far from being as effective and as efficient as it can be and as it should be and especially now when there are a lot of budget cuts if you’re grounded in science, if you hit the nail on the head, learning can be much more effective, you can get much more for less but you need to know what you’re doing and there's a lot practices out there and I think some are smart and some are very good and some are not very good. I'm saying it in a polite way, but I think it can be much better if we think about the learning. Now what do we know about learning? We know there is some good news and bad news. I guess if you’re talking about overall learning theories, there are many out there and the fact that there are many out there means none of them are right, because if one of them was right we wouldn’t have so many and also they so abstract that even if you adopt one you’re not clear how to translate into very practical and specific ways how to achieve better learning. So where I come in I'm not interested in the big learning theories but actual ways of conveying information more effectively and making sure that the people remember it and use it back at the workplace when they go back and most of the time people, if they acquire the information they don’t necessarily remember it or use it and we're talking about issues such as cognitive load. How do we make sure you form the right mental representations that are most effective for the brain to process and to use.

PL: Okay, well tell me a bit about that because I think it is this issue of, you know, what we now know about retaining learning in the brain that we didn’t know before. What’s new there?

ID: There's a lot of stuff. For example, we have very limited resource of capacity to process information and if you look at learning it overall emphasises amount of information that people cannot learn and we can help them learn by using, for example, pop out effects that cause the most important information to pop out of the brain and that the brain can very easily acquire it. So it’s brain-friendly learning…

PL: Bite sized?

ID: Yes. It’s not only the size but it has to be tasty and you may not want to have to chew it too much. So you don’t spend a lot of cognitive effort in calories in making sense of the information, it’s given to you in a format that the brain can very quickly represent and acquire in effective ways.

PL: Okay. I mean Bill, you’re an HRD practitioner. How does that chime with your own approach to this at ARM?

BP: I think it chimes well in part. I think bite size learning, I think emphasising what’s critical, what’s just nice to know, all of those things I think are good practice in terms of what I would call conventional presentation skills, lecturing and so on. I would say that in a company people learn most of what they learn not through L & D interventions, training courses and things that we do, they learn on the job and therefore I think there's a slightly different take on it which is what is the role of people around you, peers and bosses, in helping you learn literally throughout the day, so at one level it is bite sized and continuous, but I think the amount that we do in terms of purposeful intervention, i.e. training courses and so on is relatively minor in the overall learning picture.

ID: I would like to say when I talk about bite sized I don’t mean to have a small bite, the idea is to understand how the brain processes information, to have a huge bite but be able to eat it and learn it anyhow. So I'm not saying decrease the learning but do it in a way where you can have what is easy to take on board you can load a lot. I do agree with you that a lot of learning is on the job but then you don’t necessarily control the examples and the situations that they encounter which are random, so you may want to have the learning to make sure the kind of scenarios and problems encountered give them the right skills that they’re able to do it effectively rather than by chance on the job encounter one problem or the other problem which may not be the ideal learning situations for them.

MS: I want to challenge some of this because the first thing I would say is context, context, context, so it’s the economic drivers that determine the pathway in which people learn. The second challenging tell is out there, do you have enough serious practical information from all the research theories to help the practical trainers on the job because I don't think you have and I've been watching this for years. I mean all we're saying is that you should be trying to avoid boredom by mixing your methods. I mean, do we go any further than that?

ID: I'll ask you a question and then give you an answer. The first one I don't know what you mean that the economic is driving the learning so I have no idea but to answer your question, yes, we definitely know a lot that affects the practical way of delivering learning more effectively but of course it’s not an academic exercise. So everything that we understand about the brain we have to translate to effective ways to make learning more effective without increasing the cost because it’s very easy to come with the fancy learning but with the same budget you can get much more.

PL: I mean Bill, you talked about this trilogy of psychology, sociology and economics. What do you mean by that?

BP: Well, I think if I start with the third of those, economics, I mean there are a variety of ways in which people learn like, as I say, I think fundamentally we learn most of what we know from what we do but some people take a lot longer than others and therefore in a practical sense you can't afford in some cases to either invest in very expensive off the job training courses, they’re just not economic for everybody. Not everybody can do a world leading MBA to learn how to lead an organisation for example and other people have different intelligences and so on, different abilities. So I think the economics comes into it in it’s essentially bang for buck, you know, for some people that are having very high impact jobs you invest more, over more prolonged periods, so I take the executive MBA over several years costing perhaps more than £50,000 at one extreme and learning how to, I don't know, drive a spreadsheet you might spend a day because it’s just a generic skill that is only worth a day’s training.

MS: Yeah, but the important thing Bill, is in your organisations people need to acquire different knowledge and skills from those that they do in the hotel, the police force, the retail. So you've got a lot of emphasis I would guess, not that I know it well, on knowledge sharing, okay? So you want your expertise to share their research across the board, whereas in the hotel it’s delivery to a formula of certain services. Now given it’s contextual, I think training and learning is primarily a practitioner art rather than an academic discipline.

PL: Well I'm interested to get to the science of that because I mean does it matter what we're learning, Itiel, in terms of, I mean from what I'm understanding from what you’re saying, you’re talking about how we take in and retain information regardless of what the information is?

ID: Some principles are not context dependent, so the general principles of how the brain acquires information, retains and uses. Other ones depend on the type of skills so if you want them to learn, for example, procedural knowledge versus declarative knowledge, procedural maybe a skill how to do something, declarative more conceptual knowledge, it’s a different type of knowledge and then it will be different ways of training people to do it. There is context dependence if I work, as I do, with the police and the medical domain where they have to act under time pressure, then training may be a bit different because a different part of the brain acts under time pressure where you perceive and evaluate information versus another domain. So Martyn’s absolutely right in the context in terms of task demands, time pressure and so on, but not very specific if you’re a police officer and you have to decide something very quickly, or a pilot, or in the medical domain, they’re all similar because the type of brain structures are the same. So the context, absolutely, but the context doesn’t mean the content of the information as much as the type of information and what brain mechanisms are involved.

PL: Okay. So I don't think you’re absolutely at odds, you and Martyn on that but I'm interested to kind of get back to ARM and how you actually do it on the ground there. You talked about the fact you need to be specific about allocating the money in an appropriate way for role and ability to learn.

BP: Yes, very much so. I mean I started with economics there. I think really to contrast Martyn’s example with perhaps the hotel business or something, most of the people we're employing are engineers with pretty deep education going back ten or 15 years before they are expert in what they do. So in that situation I think we would subscribe more to what has become known as the sort of 10,000 hour principle which is that anyone can be an expert at anything with 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. We've had people essentially practising through the education system initially and then through practice, through designing real products. How they then learn through that process is through things like peer review. It’s more like the academic sector in that we have internal conferences, knowledge sharing is a discipline, it’s something that I look after but it’s a mixture of technology, it’s a mixture of internal conferences, mentoring schemes, a whole variety of things but very little formal training courses. That's probably the least used mechanism.

PL: Can you measure outcomes, approaching it in that way?

BP: I think measuring outcomes in learning anything is fundamentally difficult. I mean people talk about return on investment on particular training courses or particular activities, my view is unless you've really got somebody who’s prepared to do a PhD on one intervention, you’re really measuring at a macro level - is your business being successful or not?

PL: Are you seeing the results on the job?

BP: Yes because you’re not really testing for an exam very often and even if you did test for an exam, so somebody’s got a great degree at the university, or they come through with flying colours, when they actually have to apply that skill in practice, under pressure, perhaps in an emergency, then I think a whole range of other skills or abilities come into play, which it’s very difficult to simulate.

PL: Yeah, I mean Martyn would you agree that, obviously we've been training in much the same way for some time. Would you accept that now thinking has moved on and there are some sacred cows of training that we need to set aside and discard?

MS: Well, there are some sacred cows of training that we need to set aside but I don't think we've been training in the same way for some time. I would dispute that statement. I think we're seeing an enormous rise in the sort of support and challenge method of learning, coaching, mentoring, peer groups. Those are happening and what we’re seeing is a shift away generally from classroom training but let me throw in one which is why I'm always going to be a sceptic, which is e-learning. If we knew a lot about human psychology, if we really had the stuff coming in from the academic science I cannot believe that we would be doing e-learning in the way in which we did.

PL: Because you don’t think it’s effective?

MS: Well, we know it’s not effective, that we know, but everybody facing the same screen? I mean we would be customising, personalising round individual learning preferences. The technology is there but what might be called the cognitive science, I'm not sure if that's the right term, isn’t.

PL: Well, Itiel is the man to tell us. I mean would you agree with that that e-learning largely is, I mean obviously it’s enormously popular, it’s a cheap way of delivering learning but is it effective?

ID: It’s a cheap way of not delivering training and to say you’re delivering, so I agree with Martyn on that.

PL: So it’s box ticking?

ID: I totally agree but I would say that the cognitive science is there, the challenge is to translate it into specific ways, how to use the technology and I think one of the main reasons for e-learning, I don’t want to say failing but let’s say not accomplishing what it can and should, is because the technology is driving the learning and not the learning and the cognitive science. There's a new technology out there everyone says, “Oh, let’s do gaming, let’s do simulations, let’s put things on podcasts, let’s take a PowerPoint and put it on the web in flash.” This is not really e-learning. I don’t like to use this term e-learning any more. I use TEL, technology enhanced learning, because e-learning today for the most part is transcribing from one medium to the other and then you’re surprised that it’s not working, you’re not really using the technology to enhance the learning, you’re using the technology for the sake of using technology because the people on the top think it’s nice and sounds very modern and we use elearning but that's not very effective. As long as technology’s the driver you’re not going to achieve the learning. Technology can be very effective in helping achieving the learning if it’s driven by cognitive science and it’s not.

PL: What do you think, Bill?

BP: I think everything has its place. I think elearning as it is today, replicating other methods is fine for what I would describe as procedural learning. So if you want to learn about low level employment law, not what a barrister needs to know but what an average employee needs to know, it’s fine. If you want to know about health and safety within your company and so on. So anything that's basically routine I think it’s fine. Where I think it’s more difficult, and this is where I have a bit of a problem with science, is that actually we don’t know enough about each learner and so almost anything you try and standardise is, by definition, wrong for most people and the technology and the science I don't think is good enough at understanding every learner in every situation, so by definition you’re missing the point most of the time. The thing that's good about people learning from other people, whether it’s formal or informal, is that actually you’re continuously adapting and you’re adapting to what they’re saying, how they’re saying it, the intonation of their voice, their body language and so on.

PL: And the real time situation you’re in.

BP: And the real time situation and you’re drawing from an eclectic range of experiences which is almost difficult. I mean it’s the relationship between the learner and the teacher, if you like and they can be drawing on their entire world view or their entire learning history and that's just technology isn’t that good. I mean I used to work in artificial intelligence, I actually moved away from artificial intelligence to real people because actually computers are ultimately stupid. They’re things that you programme, they’re lumps of silicon with software running on top, we haven't yet been able to replicate human beings and I think we're a long way off that.

ID: Let me disagree with some of the things you say. First of all, health and safety and diversity training is very easy to put in elearning because the organisation doesn’t care about it, it’s a legal requirement and they want to do it as quickly as possible and if somebody gets injured they said they did health and safety and they got it off the table. So it’s not effective, just a way to say you've done it. But in terms of the actual challenges that you really want to teach people, technology doesn’t have to be very intelligent but it’s adaptive. So it can be adaptive and that's one of the good things about technology. When you teach a workshop or a class and in front of 20 people you’re kind of trying to find the average learner, when the technology works, it can adapt to the pace and the style of the learner and you think they’re a) learning and b) a lot of their brain mechanisms there's a lot of individual differences in the learner but there are some very, very basic things that all humans share if you have a brain, which we all do. We're far from exploiting them. After we exploit them we need to move to the next stage of the individual learning which we can start doing in small steps, but right now we so far have the most basic stuff and a lot of the elearning, a lot of it is really fancy animation that doesn’t help the learning and the learner, in fact it distracts many times from what you’re supposed to learn because it looks so nice but you have to keep the objectives of the learning in it and be guided by cognitive science and then technology in some cases, not in all cases, can be very helpful.

PL: Okay. Martyn?

MS: Okay. I want to just do some specific challenges, practical challenges. Do we know enough about the following? One is individual learning styles. The second is the left brain, right brain argument which seems to have been going on in academic science forever and never getting anywhere. And thirdly, do we know enough about national cultures and the differences they make? Now I'm going to argue that with all of those we don’t. We're actually coming up with nothing and it comes down to the individual trainer, the individual learning and development manager making a judgement call based on their experience.

PL: I mean that is the point, isn’t it, that Bill was making, that learning is a subtle business and the interaction of people with specific other people in different situations is the way in which you can make it most effective on each occasion. I mean, I'm interested and what Itiel has to say is fascinating stuff, what I'm interested I suppose to grasp, is how much L & D practitioners really need, or can, understand about what you’re saying in order to bring the merits of it to bear on the training they’re delivering because they can’t all be experts like you?

ID: Absolutely, but I do think that there is things that they can quite easily learn about the cognitive system and how the brain functions to really affect their work and I agree with Martyn, talking about the left and right brain and culture we don’t know enough and if we know it’s very hard to translate but if you’re talking about cognitive load which we have mentioned how people allocate the tension, cognitive consistency, cognitive engagement. There's a lot of certain things that we do know that have far reaching implications and you don’t have to be a cognitive neuroscientist and study for 20 years to know some of the principles of those skills, how we retain information, how we store information, that can have a real impact in making learning more effective and efficient. So not everything we know or don’t know about psychology and the cognitive system really is going to help learning but certain parts definitely are very important and are being ignored and can really help.

PL: Are you sold on that Bill? Will you be finding out more?

BP: Not at a practical level.

PL: Okay.

BP: I think it’s good to appreciate all of these things and be mindful of all of these things but things like learning styles, I think most companies have been using learning style questionnaires for probably 20 or 30 years. But whether someone’s a theorist or a pragmatist or whatever, if you've only got the money and the time to run one training class, it’s rather like Grammar schools and Comprehensives. Now whatever your views on them, you’re either hitting the mark for one group or missing the mark for every group. So I think it’s more about being mindful of these things when you’re designing training programmes but also recognising that there's a limit to how much is practical, given how much money you've got, how much time you've got.

PL: We are coming to the end of our time but I think I probably would like to give the final word to Martyn. I mean, will there inevitably be this conflict between people who are looking at core business objectives and not seeing the value of this more nuanced approach of Itiel’s?

MS: Well, I think the more nuanced approach needs to prove itself and then it will be taken more seriously by organisations. I keep coming back to this which is effective training is a practitioner discipline, effective training and learning is a practitioner discipline rather than the theoretical approach. So that would be my view.

PL: Well, I think if we've learnt anything from today’s discussion it is that there is much more to know about this subject but thank you very much indeed for sharing your views today and we appreciate it. Bill Parsons, Dr Itiel Dror and Martyn Sloman, thanks very much indeed.