A Practical Script on How to Transform Training for Technical Talent

Change is rarely easy. We get stuck in ruts. We fall into patterns, and the learning industry is no different than any other. But we can still create the change our learners need. In part one of this two-part series, I discussed the danger of learning becoming irrelevant and we had the following list:

  1. Too much information is floating around at any given time.
  2. There are multiple sources and ways to get information.
  3. There is a difference between facts/data/information and knowledge.
  4. Knowledge needs to be curated and focused on maximum accessibility and usability.
  5. Knowledge needs to be made readily and easily available in multiple ways.
  6. Knowledge and performance must be connected.

Barriers to Training Transformation

In this part two, let’s take a deeper look at each point to understand how one can transform learning and development by adding a skill to the learning leader’s toolkit: curating and providing, or C&P.

    1. Too much information is floating around at any given time. Trying to find out how to do something can feel like trying to drink from a firehose. The next time you do a Google search for best practices for using a JavaScript tool, take a look at the little number in the left corner that shows the amount of info related to your query.
    2. There are multiple sources and ways to get information. These days if I want to know something or learn to do something I can read it in a long or condensed version, watch it, listen to it, call someone to talk about it, take an actual or virtual course alone or with other people, go to a chat, watch a webinar—and more. If I speak a language other than English, I can find it in my native tongue. There are many roads leading to what people need to know.
    3. There is a difference between facts/data/information and knowledge. We live in the Knowledge Era, which is driven by data; yet data by itself is useless. It takes time to transform data into facts, then facts into information and finally information into know-how.
    4. Knowledge needs to be curated and focused on maximum accessibility and usability. We need human intervention and time to transform data into facts, facts into information, and information into usable knowledge. Even then, there’s often too much knowledge to be useful. Curation can refine knowledge to produce what I call Maximum Value-Added Knowledge (MVAK). Focusing it makes knowledge useful and powerful, like when you concentrate a beam of sunlight with a magnifying glass and use it to start a fire.
    5. Knowledge needs to be made readily and easily available in different ways. There are many ways to present knowledge, and some of them work better than others. If I’m going to be responsible for my own learning, I don’t want someone else telling me how to learn; I want to decide. That is common thinking among developers and software engineers who prefer a hands-on learning approach.
    6. Knowledge and performance must be connected. Some kinds of learning really do need a push. There are times when all employees must get the same knowledge at the same time. This is often true regarding legal, regulatory and compliance knowledge, for HR, safety, etc. It’s also useful when a team of developers is learning something new.

Push training can provide a baseline of common language and definitions for conversations, communication, and collaboration. What is often missing is the ability to determine whether everyone understood the information, that everyone is using the same language, and that people can use what they learned.

To provide that missing piece, training will have to change—and quickly. Learning professionals have a lot of work to do to ensure they will be relevant and effective in the Knowledge Era, and they may need a vendor’s help to get what their learners need.

The Focus on Curating and Providing

The role of C&P will be more important to anticipate what employees might need, and ensure that employees can source knowledge at any time. Knowledge should also be available in multiple formats to accommodate different learning styles and preferences.

C&P skills learning professionals may need to develop or acquire include the ability to:

  • Treat developers as knowledge consumers; listen to what they want to learn
  • Help developers find the unknown—answer to skills gaps they didn’t know they had
  • Parse and curate knowledge to provide maximum value-added knowledge
  • Use push training to easily pivot to meet pull learning needs when self-learners are back at work
  • Ensure that knowledge is always available, accessible and useful. This includes choosing formats and languages, etc.
  • Constantly update knowledge to ensure it’s accurate, timely, relevant
  • Monitor employees to ensure they find, understand and apply knowledge on the job
  • Change or improve information as soon as necessary based on new information, learner feedback, or changes in business and employee needs

The new focus for C&P requires customization and accessibility. Learning partners need to keep an ear to the ground to find out what developers want. Invest the time to determine how busy developers need to learn.

Be creative. Stop depending on the LMS to do all the knowledge transfer work. Create a community of learners in every class, and turn those into ongoing communities of practice. Customize learning as much as possible, don’t forget to add labs, and remember different roles require different knowledge. Forget the one-size-fits-all push training model.

When employees are enabled and empowered to learn what they want and need to know, they’re happier, employee turnover drops, and the organization becomes more successful. C&P may be the next important piece in the learning leader’s role, but the mission to help people learn remains the same.

David Grebow is an author, speaker and workshop leader who, with his co-author Stephen J. Gill, wrote the bestselling “Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy.”

Stanford University researcher, Mark Lepper, and his team conducted a significant research study in the early 1970s, concerned with the impact of extrinsic rewards on performance.  Specifically, Lepper was interested in whether prizes influence behavior in young children.

A brand-new activity was introduced to the children at a nursery. The teachers issued the children with creamy white artist’s drawing paper and brand-new marker pens; the children were given time to draw with these novel materials. They had never done drawings with marker pens before. Predictably, the children took to the activity with relish. But after exactly one hour, the materials were whisked away to the disappointment of the children.

Several days later, one of the researchers returned to the class and randomly divided the class into two groups to continue the new drawing activity. One group of children were taken to another room. They were given the opportunity to continue their drawings, just as they had done before. After an hour, the researcher thanked the children in this group and took away the art material and their drawings.

The second group of children was offered a prize for drawing their pictures. It was explained to this group that some special prizes would be given to the children who draw good pictures. The children took to their task, anticipating they might receive a prize for their picture. This control group was given the same amount of time (one hour) as the other group to complete their artwork.  At the end of the session, the researcher thanked the children as he’d done with the other group. But this time, he handed out a prize to each child in the control group.

One week later the researchers returned to the classroom. The afternoon period consisted of ‘free time;’ the children could choose what they wanted to do with their time. The special paper and marker pens were placed on the tables and easily accessible for the children. However, the children had other options too. They could go outside and run around on the playground. They could play with the toys in the classroom. Or they could return to the drawing activity. The researchers observed the time the children spent on their chosen activities. To what extent would the prizes given to the children in the control group affect their choices and behavior? The researchers assumed that the children in the control group, who had received prizes, would spend more time on the drawing activity.

But that didn’t happen!

The result was one the researchers didn’t foresee. Their findings challenged conventional wisdom about parenting and education. The children who received the extrinsic rewards for their artwork chose to spend less time drawing than those who weren’t rewarded. Conversely, the children who didn’t receive a prize chose to spend more of their discretionary time on the drawing activity. The children who were rewarded seemed reluctant to continue with the activity without the promise of a further reward. The initial reward paradoxically reduced the children’s motivation rather than increased it.

But what was even more surprising is this: The artwork of all the children was evaluated by a group of independent judges with no knowledge of the experiment. The result was that the pictures drawn by the children who were rewarded were evaluated as less competent than the pictures drawn by the unrewarded group.

So, in summary: The children who received an extrinsic reward spent less time drawing when given a choice and when they were rewarded, they put in less effort too.[1]

Extrinsic rewards are limiting in promoting higher levels of performance. In some cases, they’re even demotivating. Most people want more from their work than promises of a bonus. Work can offer more than a source of subsistence. For many, it is a vehicle for personal growth, wellbeing, cultivating a sense of belonging, and fulfilling purpose and direction in one’s life.

When incentives are used to improve performance, it can unintendedly take the employee’s attention off the work the reward is designed to enhance. The promise of a bonus shifts the employee’s focus from the task to the prize.  The work, in other words, becomes the means to the outcome—a reward. Extrinsic rewards can reduce—not increase—performance! With a bonus top-of-mind, it’s common for the employee to cut corners, do whatever it takes, or even cheat, to get their hands on the prize. As well intended as extrinsic rewards are—and as effective as they can sometimes be—they can back-fire too.

Using monetary incentives to induce greater performance is, however, part of the DNA of the work-setting. Workers were once viewed—and perhaps still are in many ways—as small cogs in a large factory machine.  Bonus pay is still used to entice workers to perform their work in a prescribed way, to a time-limit. Cogs in a factory machine perform a relatively narrow range of activity. Work conformity was—and still is—the name of the game. The carrot and stick are the levers to reinforce orthodox work practices. We have continued these motivational strategies for the past century, believing it was the answer to extracting higher performance. We still endeavor to motivate employees with a suite of inducements and apply sanctions when predetermined behavior is not met. Work has transformed. But the way we kindle performance hasn’t fundamentally changed.

[1] Yeung, R. (2011). I is for influence: The new science of persuasion. London: Macmillan.