We Are Learning The Wrong Things, At The Wrong Time, For The Wrong Reasons

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Hermann Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve states that we forget 58% of what we learn after just 20 minutes. There are many implications to this but the most significant would have to be the realization that the acquisition of knowledge is just not the same as the application of it.

First published on LinkedIn

My team at SmartUp.io and I just spent the last 2 weeks working on an ethics course for financial services professionals. When I told my friends about it, a lot of them went, “Wow. That sure sounds boring.”

On the contrary, I had a lot of fun working on the content. Besides transforming some of the case studies into explainer videos and designing infographics for topics like Plato’s 3 Types of Good, I enjoyed building the quizzes that’d test a financial advisor’s understanding of the principles around ethical decision-making.

But when a financial advisor friend told me she hated studying for the course many years ago, I found myself empathizing with her. I can only imagine that for an advisor with a sales target to meet, studying for such a “philosophical” subject from a black & white textbook must feel like a drain on her most precious resource: Time.

There are many reasons why a learning program isn’t working for your people. But mainly, they boil down to these 3 things:

  1. Wrong Things – This is pretty subjective especially when what your employer wants you to learn and what you want to learn can be as different as chalk and cheese. Given a choice, no one would raise their hands and go, “I am dying to learn about Compliance!”
  2. Wrong Time – Most employees aren’t sitting at their desks thinking, “Right, based on my ambitions, I should be signing up for a course in dashboard building.” To an employer, sending an employee to a course for a day or two may represent an investment in their development, but to the employee, it could simply mean “thanks, Boss, for screwing with my schedule.”
  3. Wrong Reasons – Many employees could also be learning because they have obligations to fulfil, boxes to tick off. They sign up for a course simply to make up their Continuous Professional Development (CPD) hours. In some industries, it is mandatory to clock a certain number of hours if you want to keep your license.

So, how can we make learning relevant, enjoyable, and timely? Acknowledging that people hang on to knowledge best when they go looking for it.

Without over-complicating the matter, people seek out knowledge to solve a problem they are facing, when there’s a job to be done. Maybe you never thought to try your hands at creating an infographic but it could be that one day, you find yourself wondering if your colleagues would be more engaged if your monthly email on workplace safety is on done as an infographic rather than as another text-based email. So you go off and learn how to create one!

But what if you don’t have an opportunity to apply the knowledge soon after you’ve acquired it? This is where I can testify why being a learning content creator is actually pretty awesome – especially if like me, you’re always curious about how other people do their jobs. Unless I’m considering a career change to financial services, I’m going to be hard-pressed for opportunities to apply what I picked up working on the ethics course for advisors.

But that knowledge stuck. Why?

Because there’s really no stronger real-world application than teaching others what you’ve learned.

Find a way to encourage your employees to share their knowledge by building a culture of peer-learning. The Institute of Banking & Finance in Singapore does it exceptionally by crowdsourcing the work of content creation to employees of banks and tech companies eager to share their insights with the entire finance industry. To incentivize this, creators receive credits they can add to their CPD hours. This, I feel is doubly effective as a learning tool because you’re not just picking up knowledge, you’re applying it by teaching it to someone else.

We have to find a way to measure learning beyond the accumulation of credits and clocking of hours. From the perspective of a content creator, there’s no better way to learn about something than having to create a piece of content because you have to first understand the content before relaying it correctly to someone else. How can you start?

  1. Get a learning platform that allows everyone to create content
  2. Allow employees to build a learning community of non-work-related subjects. Nobody starts off teaching something they hate or despise. Make it fun and safe for a new mother to teach other mothers in your company how to make breastfeeding less challenging!
  3. Weave a content-creation component into your courses. We have to disrupt the instructor-student dynamic! Invite students to contribute to the conversation by asking them to leave a comment at the end of your course or challenging them to solve a problem using the concepts taught in your class.

If there’s one thing my job has taught me it’s that learning is definitely easier if you go in with the intention to share your knowledge.