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The Science of Corporate Learning

On first glance, neuroscientific research hasn't taught much about the human brain that can be used to improve corporate training programs. Invasive studies that attach probes to neurons are not performed on humans, and no other species matches the human capacity for language and abstract reasoning. The discipline itself is merely 30 years old and thus still in its infancy. Much of what is known about human brain functions has been deduced from pathological studies, i.e. defective brains. Tumors, injuries and diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's that take portions of the brain "offline" have been used to map cognitive and behavioral functions in much the same way that, in the 15th and 16th centuries, European explorers mapped the American coastlines.

Brain-scanning equipment available today measures blood flow and glucose supply, which allows researchers to peer into healthy brains as volunteers perform memory tasks, solve problems and make decisions. These scans are the neural equivalent of a global positioning satellite (GPS) system tracking traffic flow. They can reveal where the action is without giving insight into why it occurs the way it does. With the aid of 21st-century technology, however, one thing is becoming increasingly evident: Many of the assumptions that were made in the 20th century about intelligence, memory formation and learning processes were wrong.

One of the key discoveries this young science has made is the brain's natural plasticity, the infinite capacity for parts of the human brain to be restructured through intentional experience. For corporate trainers working to develop effective training methods and materials, brain plasticity is crucial. How memories are created and ideas generated remains a mystery, but we know intelligence is modifiable and learning is transitional because specific brain cells called neurons constantly connect, disconnect and reconnect with one another. Intelligence is not fixed but flexible, which means learning is possible. Therefore, an IQ test score is nothing more than a snapshot of a person's intellectual ability at that moment in time. As with any other photograph, an IQ number is flat and static. It cannot predict future achievements - it only can document past experience.

Brain plasticity means human intelligence is always a work in progress. That is both the good news and the bad news. It means people enhance cognition throughout their lives, and they also can lose cognitive abilities. The part of the human brain that is the most modifiable is also the most fragile.

The best news to come out of neuroscience in the last decade is that cognitive degeneration is not a natural part of aging. People do not have to lose their mental faculties as they grow older. Just as physical exercise can keep your body strong and healthy well into your senior years, mental exercises contribute to the preservation and vitality of your brain.

If you are serious about maintaining or improving your health, both physical and mental, you know an occasional brisk walk around the block or a friendly game of bridge is not enough. You need a carefully designed regimen of gradient challenges that allows you to develop progressively without the frustration of pumping more iron than you are ready to handle.

What does all this mean for corporate training At the simplest level, it means learning is possible and that employees can be trained to learn a wide variety of tasks and skills. The issue is far more complicated, however, when you get down to working with individuals. Many training programs might be fundamentally sound but ineffective in practice. Is this because the people in those programs are incapable of learning Probably not. It's that the program doesn't address how they learn.

Eight Types of Learners
Diversity is the dominant theme of today's business world. Suppliers and customer relations reach across countries, and colleague relationships span continents, as well as social differences such as age, sex and race. In order to communicate effectively, everyone must learn to walk in someone else's shoes. Effective communication demands the recognition that individuals organize information in different ways. The first step to communicating effectively is to become aware of the way we take in and process information.

As you become more aware of what goes on in your mind and in the minds of the people with whom you communicate, you'll be able to make better use of their skills. Having insight into how other people organize information vastly improves your ability to communicate with them. Misunderstanding and conflict occur in organizations because we don't recognize how someone else takes in information. While recognizing your thinking style is like uncovering a treasure trove of information, the process is a formidable one because the majority of our thinking happens at a subconscious level - seldom do you think about your thinking.

Paradoxically, higher education tends to specialize and narrow perspectives. Consequently, many intelligent people have difficulty communicating their knowledge and effectively influencing "outsiders." They fail to get the results they want because they don't recognize how others organize information or interpret agendas.

The notion of different types of learners and learning styles usually refer to "auditory", "visual" and "verbal." While these distinctions are valid, there is a different way to think about this: in terms of how people think about their goals.

When people first confront complex problems, they tend to identify their goals in comparative terms: They want to make things better or safer, they want to be happier or richer. People want things to be different but are not clear on how or to what extent they'll be different. In other words, they haven't a clear vision of the result they want. Studies in decision-making processes demonstrate that when people have precise goals, the visual cortex of their brains is activated. Complex problems have elements or can produce results that are hard, if not impossible, to visualize. When you deal with complex issues, you want to have specific goals in mind while recognizing that you might need to modify them.

For some, altering a goal is the equivalent of admitting failure. And they will never admit failure. Once they've set their sights on a goal, they will try to move heaven and earth to achieve it. They will run a business into the ground. They will risk divorce and alienation of family and friends. They will ruin their health with long hours at the office. Perseverance is the way they get things done right.

These people can be called "bottom liners." They focus their attention on the bottom line: What will it cost When will it be done They want definite answers and guarantees. Don't bother them with details or raise issues after the course has been set because they'll interpret your concern as disloyalty both to the cause and to them personally. Although they make good team captains and excel at planning strategies, they ignore facts that conflict with their expectations because the goal is so clear in their minds that everything else is irrelevant.

"Left-to-righters" have a similar leadership style to bottom liners in that they want guarantees from their staff, although the results they expect aren't always articulated. Personally, they appear well-organized and like to do things in a step-by-step, orderly manner - any deviation from the norm makes them uncomfortable. While bottom liners bristle at the suggestion of failure, left-to-righters just don't see how they could have done things differently. They had been so careful to do everything right that mistakes couldn't have been made. But if they were made, someone else was at fault for not providing the left-to-righter with precise information in the prescribed way. Unlike bottom liners, who can consciously visualize their goals, left-to-righters are rarely aware of visualizing, but their behavior suggests their self-image closely is tied to their achievements and success.

Bottom liners and left-to-righters are particularly good at solving problems that require established routines. People look to them as natural leaders because they seem to know how to get things done right. Their strength lies in achieving simple, short-term goals. Complex problems are dynamic, though - conditions can change without warning and for no apparent reason.

The concept of a dynamic system suggests there is a "method to the madness." Much like gears and belts in a machine, if we can determine how the pieces work together, we can predict what will happen next with some degree of confidence. Of course, sometimes belts snap or cogs break off gears. Then the whole process comes to a smoking, grinding halt. That's one of the unknown variables that has to be factored in and makes the prediction less than perfect. But people are not always looking for a solution on which they immediately can act - sometimes they just want to understand the "how" and "why" of the complex problem. The result they want is a clear picture of the issues and the resources they'll require.

Pattern detection is the forte of "central shapers." If you could project an image of their minds at work, they would look like Swiss watches: complex, interactive mechanisms that are a delight in accuracy and detail. As with bottom liners, central shapers can clearly visualize a desired result. They are less interested in the result, however, than they are in finding an elegant means of achieving it. Even after the problem's been solved, they will go back over the details, looking for a better way to solve it the next time. Their obsession with crossing all the T's and dotting all the I's is the way central shapers try to do things right next time.

As the name implies, "direction changers" do not adhere to a specific goal as strongly as bottom liners and left-to-righters. Like central shapers, direction changers can quickly perceive patterns of behavior, but they do so on a subconscious level. They have an almost eerie ability to predict cultural changes or read the boss's mood. Their underdeveloped visual skills prevent them from acting on their intuitions in a timely manner. Consequently, most of their efforts involve doing things right by not fully committing to anything at all.

Central shapers and direction changers are particularly good at defining problems. They are the "know-how" people in an organization. They can sense what is relevant and how the pieces work together, but they tend to get bogged down in details and lose sight of the goal. Because they recognize complex problems almost immediately, they might feel overwhelmed and their self-esteem threatened. They seek relief by focusing their efforts on minor issues they can control.

Complex problems have an elusive quality - it's like we're viewing something moving through a fog. Here and there the fog might thin, offering a glimpse of something solid and definable. But we never clearly see all of it at one time, only bits and pieces. From the detailed parts, we need to construct a viable whole in our mind's eye. By visualizing how the visible and invisible parts interrelate and influence the whole, we gain insight about what it will take to solve the complex problem.

Unlike central shapers, "random connectors" don't have to fill in all the missing pieces before arriving at a conclusion. They are result-oriented, provided the result is maintaining the status quo. They have more of a feel for how the pieces fit together than a conscious visual image. Masters at networking, they think they've done things right if they have the "right people" on their team.

As with random connectors, "disconnectors" have difficulty visualizing future possibilities. They might be highly knowledgeable on a specific subject - their minds are virtual data banks of information, just waiting to be tapped. They cannot translate their knowledge into doable actions, however. Consequently, for disconnectors, doing things right means keeping everything in its preordained place.

Random connectors and disconnectors are particularly good at explaining how things are. They'll say what other people want to hear and think their responsibility ends there. They easily can overlook missing pieces because they have a feel for the operation as a whole. But in a complex system, small changes can have major consequences. Complex systems seem like only so much static until people turn their attention to them. Then, like tuning into a radio frequency, they began to exhibit form and substance.

"Outliners" have a knack for "flashbulb" thinking. Their minds work like cameras, snapping the big picture and capturing the moment. They recognize opportunities when they see them, but by not having time to focus, the images are often blurred. Their visualizations and their verbal explanations frequently lack detail. They make up for their shortcomings with great enthusiasm, however. Doing things right, for outliners, means getting everyone on board the bandwagon.

"Creators" are also "of the moment" people. Nothing excites them more than a new opportunity - they are innovators capable of quickly sketching out the next big thing. Just don't ask them to get into the details or how they expect to get from here to there. For creators, doings things right means coming up with something new to do.

Outliners and creators are particularly good at ad hoc thinking. They have an intuitive sense of what might work at a particular time, but they are always fuzzy on specific details and the rationale for doing something. Provide them with too much information, and they'll go off on tangents that, in their minds, keep getting bigger and better.

Given the brain's plasticity, it's possible for any brain to organize information in any of these eight ways. Once individuals' underlying assumptions are revealed, they broaden their ability to perceive and respond effectively to diverse problems.

As corporate trainers, it's important to be aware of these paradigms and use them as a guideline to incorporate the thinking process and behavior into the training, explicitly identifying goals and discussing the organizational mechanisms that best allow the learners to reach that goal. Great communicators connect with people by using meaningful analogies and examples with their audience. By talking about the thinking paradigm each person uses, enterprise educators provide the foundation for unprecedented interdisciplinary communication and geometric corporate growth.

© Copyright 2006 Donalee Markus, Ph.D. & Associates