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Written by David Lyon

Transformation of Learning – Enhancing stickiness through learning in digital environments

It’s been long known that learners forget. Ebbinghaus’s theory postulated that 50% of learning is forgotten by the 2nd day. While this is hugely generalized, the concept still rings true. Learners do forget the majority of what they learn and do so quickly. In general, most commentators agree that within two weeks of completing a learning course, only 20% of what was learned remains. This continues to decline until nothing is left, but a warm, fuzzy feeling of having been present – and free doughnuts.

For a Chief Procurement Officer or a Chief Supply Chain Officer, that means that two months after a 2-day, $25,000 face to face training, the net benefit for your team is worth no more than a box of glazed and jam-filled confectionery. I exaggerate, but within the exaggeration is a germ of truth. Training, if unsupported, is hugely wasteful.

Learning and Development teams focus on how to reinforce and operationalize learning, but you often cannot put theory into practice immediately (i.e., big negotiations are infrequent), and refreshers require even more investment of time and money. Training is a one-hit-wonder; it vitalizes the team, but as soon as it has finished, the benefit fades. 

Many attempts have been made to work with the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve to make learning more sticky. For example, six weeks after the original course, the learner does a mini-version of the same course. But there are better ways of doing this; it requires a transformation of how CPO’s and CSCO’s approach people development.

Initial Learning 

To be sticky, good learning requires:

A simple-to-understand communication of key points delivered in a non-threatening way but also in a way that resonates with the cognitive side of the brain. What does that last sentence mean? It means that a learner’s brain can immediately derive an example that they can retain.

Memory experts use Memory Palaces and can perform amazing feats of memory. They do this by creating a visual pathway in their head and then creating a visual storyline.

Let me give you a personal example:

Six years ago, I got in the car with my 8-year-old daughter for a long journey to the beach and asked her to remember the time we left the house: 9:43. But I also gave her a visual example. “Nein, warty trees”, (she grew up in Switzerland).

I’ve just checked – she’s 14, and she remembers it – “NO, Warty Trees!”

To get into the brain, you need learning to resonate. How many training classes have you been to that start with a theoretical model and a definition? 

Can’t remember? I’m not surprised!

Applying Knowledge

To be effective, the learner should put the education into practice as soon as learning is complete. Six weeks later, it is much too late. Coming back into the office after a day-long course, most managers I’ve ever worked with (at best) asked how the holiday was. At worst, it was straight back into catching up with the backlog of outstanding work.   

If there is one thing that is bound to make the forgetting curve steeper, it’s a full email inbox.

So good application of practice needs to be:

  • Immediate (within two days) of the end of a course
  • Realistic to the learner’s personal situation
  • Assessed to make sure that the learner’s understanding is correct.

What you therefore need are safe environments where learners are asked to enter a real-life situation and apply the learning. Learners need immediate feedback on where they got it right and where they got it wrong, but they need to have the freedom to make their own judgments.

Reinforcing the Habit

Learning does not become second nature until you’ve practiced the skill several times. 

But like eating an apple, the marginal utility of a repeated action rapidly becomes a blocker. Your 1st apple is great, the 2nd, you can get some enjoyment. But by the time you’re asked to eat a 3rd apple in a row, you need a break. So most companies schedule breaks. Six weeks or six-month refreshers – and yet again, WAY too late.

If the 1st apple was great, offer the learner chocolate next time, and then some chips, and then a tomato. The point is; humans require variety and can consume vast amounts of learning, but it needs to be varied.

Good reinforcement requires:

  • Rapid re-visiting of the key learning points,
  • Self-determination of where the learner does not feel comfortable,
  • Content that self-references, but is in a different format.

With modern LMS’s (Learning Management Systems), you can schedule webinars, e-learnings, assignments, manager reviews, articles, anything you need to educate your staff in a way that builds competence. 

As long as your systems rely on the same diagrams, models, and language to describe a topic, the range of potential content is massive. Your problem as a manager is curating these toolkits so that they reinforce rather than contradict the previous learning.

Getting on the bus

Next is the benefit of peer learning. Some L&D teams set up Action Learning Sets (ALS); small groups of managers who have been on the same learning course and come together to see how well it is working for them in the real world.

A great idea (in theory), but highly ineffective in practice. Scheduling teams to meet, contribute, and come to a productive outcome often means that Action Learning Sets fall apart after a couple of meetings.

What’s needed is a method to ensure that everyone is learning the same things. And for some, these things all need to be discovered at the same time. So it’s not just the individual and their application that matters, nor is it the 3-4 people in the ALS. It’s when your whole team shares the learning that you build critical mass.

If you want to change mindsets and embed new practices or improve processes, it’s most useful when the whole team has to do so at the same time. Everyone is on board the same bus, at the same time, working on the same problems, using the same language.

A CPO needs to outline “The problem we have to solve is: {insert problem here}”

  • I want you all to re-do the best training on this subject.
  • We’ll discuss and determine how we want to apply the learning.
  • We’ll monitor and hold each other to the successful implementation.

Such a group learning experience can be transformative in itself. From repositioning how procurement works with stakeholders to mergers & acquisitions, shared learning with a shared purpose is seldom ever forgotten.

That is stickiness!

Learning Transformation

So in this world of Digital Transformation, CPO’s and CSCO’s should sit down with their L&D counterparts and should lay out what they want to achieve: 

  • Learning has to be cost-effective.  
  • It has to be self-referencing and straightforward. 
  • It needs to build and reinforce the learning,
  • It needs to be converted into the real-world. 

This should be done gradually through practice and the step by step application of what’s been learned – at first in a non-threatening environment and then in increasingly challenging situations.

I want to propose that Technology can help a CPO or a CSCO. E-Learning has come a long way and is no longer a PowerPoint deck with a voice-over. Digital Learning has the power to transform skills, technical knowledge, and even mindsets.

David is a CPO with experience across multiple industry sectors. Having started his career in textiles and retail, he has since had senior roles in the Electronics, Pharmaceutical and Financial sectors, including Global Head of Corporate Procurement for Pharmaceuticals at Novartis Pharma AG. David led the Cancer Research team that won the 2015 Procurement Leaders award for Transformation and has since delivered "Transformation of procurement" in several well-known multinationals. David is a multilingual professional with over 25 years of Procurement and Supply Chain experience.

David Lyon

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