Learning Lines

June 8, 2012

Investments in Human Capital

Filed under: Uncategorized — Chelsea @ 6:10 pm

I helped run an academic conference hosted by the Society for Interdisciplinary Studies of Social Imagery a couple months ago, and in the process attended a lot of the sessions. One of them particularly intrigued me. The speaker explained his research into learning techniques and described how traditional classroom learning is not very effective because it defines ‘passing’ but does not reward improvement appropriately. The analogy he used was with sports. If a very unskilled baseball player has a .15 batting average and through work doubles that average, he is praised highly for that improvement and is considered a good player. But if a very underachieving student makes a 20% on an essay and then works hard and doubles that score, he is still failing and gets no praise. Think how much better your worst employees would be if they doubled their job performance. Would they be the best employees in your organization? Maybe not, but I bet they’d become very good employees. This speaker at the conference advocated achieving this improvement by rewarding progress, instead of just for reaching a particular goal.

 

In theory, this is a great concept. We even have a term for it: longitudinal evaluation of progress. When you get into the details of applying the idea, however, it seems to me there are a lot of potential concerns. For example, if we are rewarding progress, how much progress is required for the effort to be praiseworthy. We don’t want to hand out participation medals to all our employees. As the villain “Syndrome” from the movie The Incredibles points out, “when everyone is super, no one will be.” That means we have to reward employees for reaching a certain point, but not necessarily the final point we want them to reach. But then what if they make progress toward that lower goal but don’t reach it? Do we reward them for that progress? The conference presenter didn’t directly address this question, but he did say something that I think answers it. It was the most interesting thing he said in my mind, mostly because so many people think it and so few say it. He said the problem with high schools isn’t that they have high drop-out rates, but that they pass so many people who should fail. In business terms, we can translate this statement as “the main problem that traditional instruction encourages isn’t discouraging learners and causing them to give up but encouraging students to move forward who need to spend more time learning the current lesson.”

 

I think this is a concept we often overlook in all forms of education, but especially in a business setting where time is money. The longer it takes someone to complete their training, the less time they spend actually doing the job. But isn’t it better to let our employees take a little longer to learn and then be more productive after? And if our focus is to encourage our employees to be better equipped to do their jobs and have more understanding of the underlying principles and skills, isn’t it better to tell them to take their time and understand the basic lessons before moving to the more advanced ones? We have a cultural stigma about being “held back” in school or being “slow” to learn, but people who spend more time paying attention to the details of what their training is teaching are more likely to be better employees in the future. Longitudinal evaluation may be the way to go, but be sure to apply it in an environment built to foster understanding so your employees can take the time to do their jobs better in the future. Invest today, make money tomorrow.

May 17, 2012

Speak Between the Lines

Filed under: Uncategorized — Chelsea @ 4:15 am

We’ve all heard about the importance of communication in business. Good communication skills are pushed in classrooms, reiterated in workshops to improve business performance, and sold by vendors in almost all disciplines as the one change that will fix your problems. The reason for this is simple: it really is important. Of course you probably figured I was going to say that, but let me explain before you roll your eyes and decide I’m selling something.

I’m a professional writer working in marketing to pay the bills, and what I have noticed most about the people I work with in various business pursuits is their emails. A retail store I worked at in Florida had a District Manager who had been promoted through the ranks. He was considered by the company to be one of the better Managers in that area, and when I spoke to him in my store he had good ideas, good plans for implementation, and respect for his employees. Despite that, I’ll always remember him as the man whose emails told me to “sale” more products and to not be a door “greater.” For all his business acumen, that DM was the joke of our store’s management staff because he couldn’t spell in his emails. I don’t believe this manager couldn’t spell the words he constantly misspelled; I think he simply believed it didn’t matter. It mattered to us, because we wanted to respect our district manager and to believe that having his job meant something, and he was proving us wrong. I was pretty caught up in the company’s internal sales pitch when I walked into that management position in Florida; I believed in the company and defended them to anyone I thought might not like my employer. It took less than a year for this manager to turn me from a dedicated employee loyal to the company to someone who passed up a promotion and ultimately left the company.

As a marketer, I have a lot less than a year to catch the attention of my customers and build loyalty. I have something closer to three seconds to make you care what I’m saying. No room for typos, boring wording, or rambling explanations. But marketing isn’t the only place where that’s true. A long-winded training slide is likely to be skimmed at best, no matter how important the core concepts being explained are, unless it also contains carefully chosen wording to keep the reader interested. Even in places where we don’t expect careful word choice, however, it is important. I gave the example of the district manager I knew, but everyone can find an example of someone who has not been careful with their communication and as a result has alienated coworkers, bosses, or worst, customers. A business can’t afford people with under-developed communication skills. Thankfully, communication is something that can be taught. Here are some tips to use and share.

1. Write multiple drafts. Yes, this takes time, and yes, time is money. Just remember, it takes more time for your audience to muddle through an unclear message, misunderstand what you’re saying, and then be corrected than it does to carefully plan and compose a message through multiple drafts.

2. Proofread your emails, and get someone else to do it in case you miss something; you don’t want to be the laughing stock of the department you are sending it to. This takes more time than throwing something together and sending it, but my management staff lost a lot of time making fun of our DM. Do you think your department won’t?

3. Consider your intent and audience. These are often listed separate, but I’m putting them together because I think you can’t do one without the other. Before you write, you need to know what you want to get from your audience, which means you need to know who they are, what they want, and what they can give you in return for your effort. Don’t write a sales pitch to your IT department, it’ll annoy them, but never write an IT explanation to a customer.

4. Be simple and concise. Don’t ramble, however important the extra information seems to you. Include only what your audience needs to know to act, and do so with simple word choices. The more complex word is probably more accurate, but it does less good when your reader chooses not to look it up.

5. Finally and most importantly, organize your message in a logical fashion. The best word choice, proofreading, and planning available will do you no good if you jump between topics with no connections and no warning. It is easy to lose your audience if the structure is difficult follow.

May 15, 2010

Rapid Transit

Filed under: Uncategorized — Anne @ 7:31 pm

‘Aoccdrnig to a rsearch sduty at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcauseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.’ (from PositScience website.)

The brain is an interesting body part–the extent of its capabilities still mysterious and largely unexplored. Thinking about this mastermind reminds me of a speed reading course I took a very long time ago. My intent in taking the course was to lessen the time for reading requirements in college, allowing more time for other studies–or at least that’s what I maintained. While I did not learn to devour War and Peace in 5 minutes, I did manage to come away with a much greater respect for brain function.

What I did learn was that the brain is extremely capable of processing an entire page of words in a couple of seconds–that we really don’t have to annoy our mental processes by actually reading word to word, phrase to phrase or even paragraph to paragraph. Doing this is “dumbing down” the transfer of words on a page into what are phenomenally rapid brain circuits. The course instructor viewed the eye as a very efficient office scanner–or a copy machine. It is not necessary to comprehend the content of the page being scanned, not until the information is presented to the recipient. Let the brain do the work, in other words. It will then send this processed message to your mind–many times faster than you “personally” delivering the message to your brain in increments within your limits.

As I said, I didn’t learn to be a head-of-the-class speed reader, but I did learn to look at the whole page, which is, for my purposes, an overview of the content. What information I miss is easy to pick up on the second look. Speed reading became a course in trusting my brain instead of trying to control the entire process myself.

Of course, sometimes, you might just want to take the afternoon off, pick up a good book, and linger in that created world for more than a few minutes–and, to me, that’s just fine, too.

For some fun “brain” activities, as well as information, I have found the Posit Science site especially interesting:

http://www.positscience.com

May 12, 2010

To Train…To Learn, That is the Question

Filed under: Uncategorized — Anne @ 3:56 am

Whew! There are a lot of thoughts on the subject — the difference between training and learning…or if there is a difference.  A lot of thoughts, but not exactly set in concrete yet.

Among several definitions for the word, learning, in the online Free Dictionary, it is defined as the “act, process, or experience of gaining knowledge or skill.” A few other sources tend to agree. Training, on the other hand, is considered “the process of bringing a person to an agreed standard of proficiency…by practice and instruction.”

The words learning and training are often used interchangeably.  I’m sure there is a wavy line between the two, where training and learning share commonalities. The definitions do imply to me, however, that training is more specific, such as “learning” how to perform a skill or skills for a specific purpose, as well as to a specified attainment. This theory holds water when we consider business training for a type of employment or military training for a particular assignment. Only certain, necessary skills are taught to do the job.

One contribution to the “debate” is this distinction:  “Learning is something you do for yourself; training is something you do to someone else.”  If, however, you are the recipient of the training, you wouldn’t look at it quite that way. If you are being trained, there is transference of knowledge — in some form. Normally you would be utilizing this training for yourself, to better your job skills and abilities.

Therefore, learning seems to encompass training. But, let’s consider, when we are shown how to do a certain job in training, and then repeat the action in the manner expected — are we mimicking, memorizing, or have we learned it? Do we actually gain knowledge when memorizing a set of events or actions? Is knowledge a necessary factor in implementing a skill?

I perceive learning as the large picture where training is one subset. Other subsets or forms include environmental experiences, intuitive learning, and conceptual thought. Each of these subsets contain further divisions or characteristics. While it may be possible to “learn” predominantly from one subset, it is usually the case that we learn a little bit from them all, incorporating these influences into the final image.

  • Training involves specified information transferral. This may include learning a process or skill by memorization, repetition, or “copying” an action. It typically does not involve teaching conceptual understanding of the information.
  • Environmental experiences include the senses, such as tactile, auditory, visual, as well as scent and taste. Here we find a lifetime of informal learning opportunities, with individualized experiences which shape each of us.
  • Intuitive learning is a bit more abstract, so much so that there are dissenters who feel it has no place in the learning category. Intuitive learning, as its term implies, does not possess the tangible mathematical formula, the hot stove that burns the finger when touched, nor does it instruct you how to install Windows 7. Possibilities, ideas–this is the dreamer aspect of learning. This subset formulates ideas into knowledge by creating solutions before they are formally derived.
  • Conceptual thought brings understanding, and thereby reasoning, into the picture. Concepts provide the ability to connect other learned information together which expands the scope of knowledge.

Whichever the stronger subset our brain chooses determines the type of career or life work we feel the most comfortable with.

Learning vs training? Training is just an integral part of the whole…

April 29, 2010

Right Here

Filed under: Uncategorized — Anne @ 7:33 pm

Being right may seem to be the ultimate attainment in business and personal achievement. Yet, standing on the lofty mountain of rightness may find one …alone.

Where does right get you?

Right is an ambivalent word, full of innuendos, connotations, and meanings. It is, most assuredly, overused. However, despite its diverse meanderings in our language, it remains a potent force in communication as well as an integral part of cultural philosophy.

Right can run a gamut of definitions. Among others, right means correct, truth, the opposite of left, an inherent permission to appropriate one or more actions, or a term to denote what should or should not be.

The problem with right is that what is right to one is not necessarily right to another–what is right to one culture may not be right to all cultures…or how one perceives certain rights may differ between individuals.

In this sense, right is a relative term that indicates where we are mentally, academically, and culturally in the age in which we live. If sought earnestly, it is first individualistic, and contains the capacity to change or transition. Yet, how do we exist together, if there is potential for multiple rights on the same issue? Groups must, eventually, come to some terms of agreement if they are to coexist–a compromise if you wish. And so, with this in mind, society and standards are formed. Institutions are constructed to teach academic concepts as right and philosophical concepts, in some aspects, as both truth and rhetorical inquiry.

And then, we learn–learn what has been learned before, to continue this knowledge learned in ages past, knowledge learned as right. It is easier to teach this, more than reason. For with reason, we must question the concept of right, while society hopes (and in a measure to maintain conformity, demands) the reasoner’s conclusion will be the same conclusion it has adopted–to confirm what has been accepted as right, that what is comfortable and reliable, actually is…right.

Some are secure in the knowledge of perceived right, while others continue to search for and assess the true right. Einstein stated: I think and think for months, for years. Ninety-nine times the conclusion is false; the hundredth time I am right.” Right may be what seems to make the most sense, and for Einstein, what seems to explain the physics of the universe, discovering the conclusions that are the right fit. Yet, Einstein knew that his “right” conclusions were not infallible. They may have been mostly right, and certainly right in the eyes of most. His theories constructed the bridge for future generations to discover what may be even more right.

Right is right only in that it provides a premise to listen to and to consider other rights before making a choice. In the end, we find that we value decisions not so much in that they are right, but that they are not wrong.

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