Tuesday, April 27, 2010

[Guest Post] How One Neuroscience Principle Can Make or Break Your Training Program

Not too long ago, our company president returned from facilitating an off-site strategy session. He was helping negotiate a multi-million dollar deal in which our company had a stake. One look at his face and we knew that he was completely exhausted. Although he spent his entire day sitting on his butt in some conference room, by the end of the day he looked like he had run two marathons.

Maybe you know what that feels like‚ you return home completely exhausted after a full workday, but you don't know why. You never moved away from your desk. You never pulled your eyes away from the computer screen. If you exercised at all, it was during the walk from your cubicle to the water cooler. Yet for some reason, you're wiped. Well, here's how a neuroscientist might explain it:
The brain, despite being just ~2% of our body's mass, actually accounts for ~20% of our body's total energy consumption.
What is 20%? To put that in perspective, that's like having a 20-watt light bulb burning in our heads. And that's when we're doing nothing. In other words, our brains are burning 20% of our body's energy while we're in our resting state.

Imagine how much more energy we'd be burning if we were trying to close a multi-million dollar deal.

As a result, because our brain demands so much energy, our brain also works to become very efficient. Have you ever seen those Energy Star stickers on new refrigerators? If our brain were a fridge, it'd feature that sticker too. It was a matter of survival, and here's what I mean by that.

How the Energy Star Brain Came to Be

Think back to our early ancestors, to a time before Starbucks and McDonald's. If they wanted food, they had to search for it, and there weren't any guarantees that they'd find something edible for days at a time. In such an unpredictable environment, our bodies adapted to conserve energy. It was a matter of survival.

Although a lot of time has passed since our early ancestors, many scientists will tell us that our bodies still behave in much the same way, conserving energy whenever possible. Hence, the Energy Star sticker.

When I was a young associate at S. L. Robbins & Associates—the management consultancy founded by Dr. Steve Robbins that trains multinational organizations (NASA, Boeing, PepsiCo, etc.) on the neuroscience of creativity—I quickly realized that the Energy Star brain had everything to do with how we learn.

And it means everything for how we approach training and development.

How the Brain Works in the 21st Century

As some of you already know, many organizations are idea-driven in the 21st-century knowledge economy. Compared to the 20th-century industrial economy where many workers were valued for what was below the shoulders, 21st-century knowledge workers are usually valued for what's above the shoulders. In such organizations, performance isn't measured by how many widgets you can assemble in eight hours, but by how many innovative ideas you bring to the brainstorming session.

As a result, many of today's workers rely on their brains more and more for day-to-day tasks. Their cognitive light bulbs are shining bright from eight to five.

Yet at the same time, our Energy Star brains are fighting back more and more, encouraging us to conserve energy. We may sense that in the temptation to take a nap, or the urge to take an extended vacation because we feel burnt out. The 21st-century workplace is a cognitive battleground, and if training and development professionals want to do battle there with their workshops and PowerPoint slides, be ready to face a lot of opposition.

For some organizations, knowledge workers simply aren't ready to learn in the workplace. Their Energy Star brains are burning like a 100-watt light bulb and they are more interested in a nap than they are interested in formal training. And can you really blame them for being disinterested? I don't know about you, but I'm terrible at memorizing things, and I need to dedicate real effort into understanding and remembering any kind of information. Even if you've got the most engaging training program ever in the history of the world, if I'm exhausted, I'll have a hard time focusing on anything but the back of my eyelids.

Smart training professionals (all readers of this blog, of course) would figure out a way to introduce learning outside the workplace. Instead of doing battle in the cognitive battleground, simply take the battle elsewhere.

People Learn When They're Ready to Learn

It can be when they're sitting on the train, commuting to work. When I'm on a long commute, it almost always feels wrong to be without a book. You know why newspaper companies often sell or give away newspapers at the train station? Because they fill a need, the need to feel productive when you're on a long commute.

Or maybe when I'm sitting on the can. Don't give me that weird look—I know you've done it before too, especially if you own a smart phone. I'm not the first person to do business when I'm doing my business; it could be catching up on industry news, watching a Standford lecture on iTunes U, or cranking through several emails. You know how iPhones and Blackberries leave that promotional signature on the bottom of your emails? Well, a bunch of my emails should probably end with: "Sent from my iPhone while I was doing my business."

TMI (Too Much Information)? I'll risk it to make this key point stick.

Harvard Business Professor, acclaimed author of The Innovator's Dilemma, and one of our company's advisors, Dr. Clayton M. Christensen, once said:
People learn when they are ready to learn, not when we are ready to teach them.
What he means is that even if we've got the workshop scheduled, flash module created, or the consultant hired, our learners may not be ready to learn. You can probably tell that he's a fan of on-demand training, a principle that our company has built itself around.

This is why I believe mobile computing can completely revolutionize training and development. It's less about the accelerometer, hardware-accelerated graphics, or the user-facing camera that's eventually going to be on the 5th generation iPhone (when it happens, remember that I called it), but it's more about providing on-demand learning at the exact moment when learners sit on the train. Or the can.

Smart training might mean pulling out of the cognitive battleground—the workplace. Instead, simply meet them when they're ready to learn. Be there for them on their mobile devices.

About the Author
Nemo Chu is the Ambassador for Bloomfire, an online software company where anyone can start a collaborative learning community and have employees teach and learn from one another for only $99 per month. He is also the senior editor of Bloomfire's Blog, which is currently featuring a series of interviews with training & development professionals, including this popular one with Scott Sutker, the SVP of Global HR at Bank of America.

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