Friday, February 27, 2009

Assignmentology: learning from experience by design

The goal of a developmental assignment is not merely to gather knowledge or skills; the goal is to extend new knowledge or skills into personal actions that result in improved performance. The most common model for understanding this type of learning application is Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. The cycle refers to the process by which individuals, teams, and organizations attend to and understand their experiences, and consequently modify their behaviors. It can be a powerful guide for managers who wish to fully realize the return on investment for employee developmental assignments. Using this model promotes accelerated results.

The failure of many developmental efforts results from making repeated mistakes or the inability to learn from experience. Left to chance, learning by trial and error can result in performance that is extremely off target. The learning cycle is based on the idea that the more often we reflect on a task, the more often we have the opportunity to modify and refine our actions. The learning cycle contains the following four stages:

1. Experiencing or immersing oneself in the "doing" of a task is the first stage in which the individual, team or organization simply carries out the task assigned. The engaged person is usually not reflecting on the task as this time, but carrying it out with intention.
The manager’s role: Learning initially occurs when a person encounters a new concrete experience and deals with it in terms of observations, feelings, and reactions. The most profound way to promote Stage 1 learning on the job is by providing the learner with exploratory tools (e.g. concrete experiences and manipulative materials). This would look like the manager reviewing the objectives of a training course or the content of a book that the learner attended or read and then assigning work that required effective application of the knowledge and skills contained in the learning material. This should be done with honest reference to why the assignment is being given and what the manager expects from the application of what was learned.

2. Reflection involves stepping back from task involvement and reviewing what has been done and experienced. The skills of attending, noticing differences, and applying terms help identify subtle events and communicate them clearly to others. One's paradigm (values, attitudes, values, beliefs) influences whether one can differentiate certain events. One's vocabulary is also influential, since without words, it is difficult to verbalize and discuss ones perceptions.
The manager’s role: As the learner observes the Stage 1 experience, the learner adds to or adjusts his or her perceptions based on previous learning. This process compels the learner to reflect on past experiences and to think about the current experience as either fitting into previous patterns or not. The manager should provide feedback to add another perspective. Feedback should cover both what was done and how it was done as observed by the manager. The ideal learning opportunity would come in the form of feedback from the person or team who was the supplier or customer of the Stage 1 experience in addition to the manager’s view. Perception is reality and a balanced reality is better than a self-determined view.

3. Conceptualization involves interpreting the events that have been noticed and understanding the relationships among them. It is at this stage that theory may be particularly helpful as a template for framing and explaining events. One's paradigm again influences the interpretive range a person is willing to entertain.
The manager’s role: If the experience fits a pattern, then the learner can form a generalization and a set of concepts to define the situation. As the learner develops these concepts and generalizations, the learner's thinking includes imagining other discrete concrete experiences that invariably raise new questions. The answers to these questions require further learning experimentation and the accompanying development of new concepts. The most profound way to promote Stage 3 learning on the job is by introducing the learner to key concepts (e.g. subject matter vocabulary and relationship diagrams). The key is to ensure that the learning is framed in the way that the lessons were intended and that faulty personal paradigms are minimized.

4. Planning enables the learner to translate the new understanding into predictions about what is likely to happen next or what actions should be taken to refine the way the task is handled.
The manager’s role: When the learner realizes that the answers constructed in Stage 3 are not necessarily complete, further testing is required. Further testing may also be required when the desired results are achieved so that performance habits are cemented in the learner. The learner proposes new concrete experiments and begins the learning cycle anew. The most effective way to promote Phase 4 learning on the job is by assisting the learner in the formulation of new situations to be tested. Additional assignments should be given that challenge the learner’s ability to apply and use the lessons effectively.

The timing of the learning cycle is particularly important. If one waits until after a task is completed, there is no opportunity to refine it until a similar task arises. For example, if you only had a single sales call with a potentially large account, there would have been no opportunity to modify how you prepared for that meeting after the fact. However, continual reflection leaves the learner spending more time on thinking than getting the task done so these must be balanced. In general, the learning cycle should be used during initial framing of a problem to see whether past experience may offer an approach; during natural breaks in tasking such as the end of meetings or workdays; when progress is noticeably going well or poorly; or when a crisis occurs that disrupts a process. Each of these situations is a viable assignment for the learner to apply their new knowledge or skills.

The logic of the learning cycle is to make many small and incremental improvements, which when done by many people, constitute major improvements over time. For example, if each day after work you reflected on your efforts and identified just one small thing to do differently, by the end of the year you would have 240 improvements in your performance. Consider the implications for an entire team or business unit! When this procedure is implemented as a habit or norm, continual improvement results.

The advantage of the learning cycle is that it enables an individual, team or organization to learn from experience and thereby improve performance. This, however, may not be sufficient when the assumptions and beliefs on which the learning is based is outdated. It is possible for one to complete all the stages of the learning cycle, while still perceiving, interpreting and acting in a biased way. Periodically, one should question the model itself; look for exceptions to the rule; and challenge the dominant paradigm to determine whether it still holds.

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