How to improve employee learning: you are what you do

by Stephen Garcia, October 12, 2012  

Management guru, Peter Drucker, famously wrote, "The basic economic resource - the 'means of production,' is no longer capital, nor natural resources nor labor. It is and will be knowledge." Likewise, rock-star CEO, Jack Welch stated, "An organization's ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage." So learning it is important to business. But how do businesses learn?

The first thing to note when answering this question is businesses only learn when their people do. It's after employees have learned and embedded that learning in the business's processes, structure, and technology that we can say that "the business has learned." Consequently, we can refine our question to "How can businesses get their employees to learn?"


For behaviorists, learning is about changes in behavior. According to behaviorists, a stimulus, in the external environment occurs and over time becomes linked to a certain behavior. We've all heard of Pavlov's dog. Ring the bell (external stimulus) and Spot begins to drool (behavior).

Organizations apply behavioral learning theory in a number of ways. For example, the concept of spot bonuses, in which employees are rewarded with compensation for certain behaviors (e.g. surpassing customer expectations or developing a particularly innovative idea) is an example of behavioral learning in action.


The cognitivists are more self-absorbed. They dislike the idea that the brain is merely a passive circuit board that maps external stimuli to a given behavior. For cognitivists, learning is about complicated thought processes that occur inside the brain. While behaviorists focus on the environment, cognitivists focus on the individual. Executive coaching often employees a cognitivist approach: the coach partners with a client to build the client's self-awareness and establish new ways of thinking.


Experiential learning, or learning by doing, integrates the views of both the behaviorists and the cognitivists. For experientialists, learning occurs when individuals experience an external stimulus (I burned myself), reflect on why it occurred (could it be because I touched the hot stove?), integrate their insights into their internal view of the world (hot stoves burn), and then test their new-found assumptions (I'll put my hand close to stove to see if it's hot).

Not all experiences result, in learning, however. The Center for Creative Leadership describes three necessary conditions. The experience must be challenging; it needs to stretch the learner in some new way. The experience must be supportive; you can't just throw someone to the wolves or the result is post-traumatic stress disorder, not learning. And finally, the experience must also provide feedback so learners come to understand what works and what doesn't. The below figure overlays these three conditions on top of the standard experiential learning cycle.

Figure 1 - Experiential Learning Conditions

Experiential learning is often applied in organizations. Rotational programs that accelerate an employees' development by rotating them from one division to another are a great example. Similarly, training programs that incorporate real-world simulations are based on experience learning. For example, during project management training, trainees might adopt the role of project manager and practice chartering a new team with divergent interests.

While we've found experiential learning to be particularly effective in building employee capabilities, the approach has a downside: it is resource intensive. Transferring employees between roles or building high-quality training simulations that mimic the real world takes time and effort. Consequently, we reserve experiential learning approaches for specific instances in which: 1) the learning is critical to the job; and 2) the skills are difficult to master.

To compete in today's dynamic business environment, organizations must learn to adapt, change, and evolve. For a business to learn, its people must learn. And for people to learn, few techniques are as effective as experiential learning - the concept of learning by doing. Because at the end of the day, you are what you do.


Changing how people work requires an understanding of the art and science of business. Forget left-brain/right brain... We think Whole Brain. Explore our insights.

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