Assuring Sustainable Learning

If you are a leader in an organization and you are responsible for developing others (and of course you are), there are some ways to assure that the learning of new skills becomes sustainable. When you are investing time and money into a workshop or learning event, what you don’t want is for your staff to head back to the office and put the learning (figuratively and literally) back on the office shelf.

So how do you make the learning continue – i.e. become sustainable (to use a popular buzz word)?

As a person who believes in the power of practice for learning new skills, I must admit that I’ve been reluctant to endorse the concept of “workshops”,”off-sites”, “team building”, or “retreats” when the learning is delivered as a one-shot deal. I deliver a few learning events myself every year.

At the very least, I always make sure that participants walk out of a workshop with an action plan and a commitment to connect to someone in the room (with contact information and a scheduled date and time) to review what they learned and how they are using it in the workplace.

So you, the leader, must also consider how to make learning “stick” for your employees. Consider that when the following conditions are present, value and sustainability of the learning are enhanced:

The new skills are practiced in the learning event in a substantial way, in small groups or dyad’s. I have a personal bias against role-playing. However, having the participants come prepared to discuss their own real-life situations seems to work well after they are warmed up and comfortable with each other (they must feel safe if they’re bringing in their personal scenarios).

There is plenty of discussion in the class, led by a skilled facilitator; this could be you, someone on your staff, or an outside facilitator. This allows participants who “think out loud” to do so, and encourages learning from each other.

Individual action plans are created at the learning event, allowing participants to consider where they should concentrate their efforts with the new skill once they leave.

The learning is supported and continued afterwords. Setting up a “community of practice” or learning group is helpful, as is simply providing a structure and process for class participants to team up and practice or discuss their “wins” or “challenges” with the new skills. If you hire an external facilitator or trainer, ask if they make themselves available at some point in the future for class participants to lead a discussion on topics learned in person or through webinar or teleconference.

– If you lead a team or an organization that has just gone through a learning event, you can also hold your team or organization accountable to keep the learning alive and sustainable. Follow up with group discussions or one-on-one dialog about the action plan that was created; encourage ongoing learning teams (
communities of practice); or set up mentor relationships around the learning. ASK your employees or team how they want to assure that the learning is sustainable, and support their ideas. Then hold them accountable to their decisions for keeping the learning sustainable.

While you are at it, when you meet with your staff 1:1 or as a team, ask them what they are doing to reinforce new skills they have learned for themselves and their staff. This is not a one-time question – they’ll stick to it and know you mean business if you ask intentionally and consistently. Finally, let them know what you are (personally) doing to reinforce learning for yourself.

Anything less than using some of the above techniques is akin to throwing your money and your time away. Make sure you ask the consultants or facilitators whom you pay to conduct the workshop what they do to assure that the learning is sustainable for class participants. Don’t hire them without it.

Readers: what kind of processes you put in place, or have worked for you to assure that learning is sustainable?

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

14 comments on “Assuring Sustainable Learning

  1. Welcome back, Mary Jo! Great thoughts here. I think the key is the organization needs to have a very clear idea of what it needs and why it needs it. The organization and the leaders and other individuals in it must assume responsibility for their own learning. Trainers like you and are are a tool, part of the equation, but not a panacea. We should never sell ourselves that way. We can show up and teach them things but they have to assume responsibility for leveraging the learning. No spoon feeding allowed.

  2. Mary Jo, The simplest way to retain learning is to invest in sending people to workshops that excite them. Intrinsic motivation makes retention of learning much easier. And, just as importantly, the learning is wider and deeper.

    Forcing someone to participate at a workshop that doesn't interest them typically results in narrow and shallow learning. Extrinsic motivation generates just enough learning to pass a test that the person never wanted to take.

  3. Hi Mary Jo: I'm a firm believer that we learn what we need to know. How many of us have taken a class on some piece of software only to totally forget how to use it later when we decide to pull it out of the drawer. At the same time, how many of us have struggled through a manual, some You Tube videos, and lots of help from friends to learn how to use some software we needed right away.

    For me that means don't begin training your team if you aren't ready for them to implement what they are learning. In addition, be sure to build in time for practice and shared learning after the official training day or days are over.

    It also likely means you'll have to do the training more than once because everyone won't be ready at the same time.

  4. Wonderful post Mary Jo. Historically, most training in business is based on either the university model or the Army technical training model. Both stress delivering lots of material in concentrated classroom sessions. Both assume that written materials will provide a reference and resource when people return to the job. Neither takes any responsibility for helping learners apply lessons in the real world.

    Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan studied the progress of 88,000 managers who had been to leadership development training. The people who returned from the training, talked about it, and did deliberate work to apply their learning were judged as becoming more effective leaders. The ones who didn't showed no improvement.

    I'm hoping that, in the workplace of the future, we'll change our "supervisor's" job to include a major component of training/coaching/development. I hope we'll combine that will more JIT learning, saving classroom learning for those subjects that are best taught in groups in a concentrated period of time.

  5. Bret, I like the "no spoon feeding allowed" phrase. Good one!

    Steve, I agree intrinsic motivation is important. Togeher with methods to make the learning sustainable, new learning can be powerful.

    Wally, I see a lot of the university and Army models out there. I've also seen some statistics that when learning is delivered in that way, only a fraction is retained (darn, I wish I could find them). I love your future vision! See you there!

  6. Mary Jo,

    Thanks for the post. I love the practicality of sustainable learning.

    It's so easy to assume that great feedback and an inspiraional moment lead to learning. But what's going to matter most is what happens when the feelings of inspiration or great teaching go away.

    I especially love the idea of practicing during the event.

  7. Hi everyone
    I love Mary Jo's blogs and tweets, they really keep me fresh.
    I have been struggling with this issue as well.
    It goes to the heart of that perennial bugbear, How can we know if training & learning are aligned?
    One thing I have done recently is e-mentoring.
    I am thinking this might be a way to sustain professional & leadership development, and I want to investigate this in various contexts – business sector, for example – to show how online mentors can facilitate ongoing learning through virtual project collaboration, for instance.
    ANother thing is active learning using action plans. The active learning can take place online and build an online community around the face-to-face workshop 'expert', and make participants comfortable with building a knowledge network together, to drive an organisational strategy and operations.
    This way, the spoonfeeding is reciprocal, as people help each other develop content knowledge and transfer skills to grow as a network.
    Mary Jo, I have some figures, let me know if you might find them handy.
    To sum up, I think the online bit can become very important in sustaining learning, if we change our learning theory to keep up with the times.

  8. Paul, great point. Thanks for the addition!

    hour9,what do you do when the feelings of inspiration go away?

    Gurmit, e-mentoring is an interesting concept. There is plenty of technology to support it now! I agree, action plans (written) are important, and something I use it all of my clients. However, they are only useful when taken out of the drawer (or folder) and reviewed and updated regularly.

  9. That's a great question. I'm actually struggling with this right now…declining inspiration.

    What I usually do is talk to other leaders that I trust to help "reinspire" when I'm feeling most frustrated. Blogs like these really help also, thanks.

  10. Mary,

    Great thoughts, I think this is a really important topic and believe the continual learning of employees is vital. Many of my co works and approach these work shops with a closed mind and really miss out on the many benefits. How would you approach those types of employees and keep them engaged?

  11. Mary Jo,
    In the right setting I think it is appropriate for staff, who have recently attended a learning event, to report and present the most relevant and useful information. Presentations can be directed towards other staff or even the presenter`s manager. This provides a reiteration of the skills learned for the presenter. Of course this will be most useful in organizations that practice double loop learning and take pride in learning from their employees.

  12. Mary Jo,
    The most important thing for sustainable learning is to let them know what skill they really need. They maybe find out from their experience in workplace, or from challenge of different work that you gave them, or from knowing what you really expect for. It will give them strong motivation to learn a new skill, and what a leader has to do is to give them help, tool, or reward.

  13. Mary Jo, interesting post. I think that forcing employees to go to a work-shop of seminar is only beneficial if there is something striking or relevant to the attendee.

  14. Mary Jo –
    Great post, you nailed it! Required reading for anyone responsible for training, and for managers who want to get the best possible ROI for their training investment.

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