Learning by Doing: the Importance of Contextual Learning for Leadership Development
When we think about what makes a good leader, former NFL player and coach Vince Lombardi said it best:
“Leaders are made,” he intoned, having coached the beleaguered Green Bay Packers to five victories in seven years. “They aren’t born.”
Opening up the debate once more on the matter of nature versus nurture, the football star hinted that leadership was a journey governed by hard work, rather than something that came naturally in our DNA.
However, in today’s workplace, it’s precisely this business of making leaders that has become more challenging. Part of that is down to the rise of technology – and how we adapt our skills.
We find ourselves in an era in which technology has rapidly changed the way we live, think and work. For decades, we’ve prioritised hard, technical skills at work that focus on our knowledge and expertise.
Yet our unstoppable quest for technological enlightenment has redefined the way we do business and completely altered the technical skills that our roles require. As artificial intelligence and machine learning have become more advanced, computers are able to take over some aspects of our workload – and they’re often quicker and better than us.
We’re beginning to learn a hard truth in that respect: We need to tap into our soft, more human, skills – like creativity, intuition and communication – if we’re going to successfully adapt to the challenges of a technological future.
In the modern workplace, leaders need both sets of skills to survive. However, we’ve let our creative, communicative muscle wither in the pursuit of knowledge and we’ve ended up with a leadership skills gap on our hands.
While technology has reshaped the hard skills we require, it has also become a vital tool to nurture soft skill development. Instead of leaving the office to attend a seminar, leaders can plug in to learning wherever and whenever they need to, whether that’s a micro-course on their mobile or a remote workshop on their computer.
This trend is known as contextual learning, and it allows for instant, relevant and continuous knowledge development that goes far beyond the reaches of the episodic training typical of traditional workplace learning.
In this guide, we will explain how organisational learning is moving towards a contextual approach, and what this shift might mean for training in your company. We’ll outline why championing contextual learning among your leaders is important, and how you can empower them to direct their own growth.
From the classroom to virtual learning: Changing trends in learning and development
From The Classroom To Virtual Learning: Changing Trends In Learning And Development
When we think about corporate learning, we typically envision it taking place within a classroom context led by an instructor – much like when we were at school. This didactic approach has been the backbone of most organisational learning for well over a century.
However, it’s only since the 1980s that we’ve seen a series of shifts occur in workplace-related learning, largely due to the rise of new technology and its resulting impact on the pace of business.
As the world wide web hit the consumer market in the late-1990s, businesses began to tap into its potential to foster employee growth. Blended learning tools fused traditional academic approaches with new tech upgrades like CD-ROM and internet resources, and shifted the balance away from face-to-face instruction.
Meanwhile, the development of Learning Management Systems, such as FirstClass, used by the UK’s Open University programme, tracked learning progress for the first time online, monitoring certification and delivering training.
This set the stage for new ways of learning to develop over the next couple of decades, with digital repositories like Wikipedia and Youtube. These changed the speed and frequency of how we learned, giving us access to training resources at the click of a button.
As workforces become more diverse and multi-generational, modern learning solutions need to cater for everyone, by delivering information at the right time and in the right format. That’s where technology can be our biggest asset.
Technology: The new wave of workplace learning
As technology has continued to transform our lives over the past decade, many of us have become digital natives. When we want to communicate, we turn to social media, when we need entertainment, we have Netflix and when we need a question answered, we instinctively ask Google.
This last concept of self-guided learning on demand is one that has gained traction in the business world as a result of our digital working environment.
In a recent survey, around 70% of employees reported that they actively fill in the gaps in their working knowledge using search engines at the point of need, while between 50 and 60% take an online course. Mobile-based learning has grown 5% in the past year.
In short, we can see how technology is shaping learning to become more agile, dynamic and mobile than ever before.
Talent developers have already recognised the need to back this trend. Between 2016 and 2017, e-learning for managerial skills increased by 23%, and since 2017, almost 60% of talent developers have increased their spend on online learning.
However, this transformation has by no means taken place overnight – in fact, it’s largely still in process. In a 2018 report compiled by Deloitte in collaboration with research journal MIT Sloan Management Review, almost 70% of companies surveyed reported that they considered themselves either at the beginning or developing phases of digital maturity. That leaves just 30% of businesses that consider themselves ready for the next wave of digital innovation.
What this progress does signal, though, is that organisations are opening up to the idea of harnessing technology to diversify learning.
Closing the soft skills gap in the age of technology
The rise of technology may have brought us a plethora of new ways to learn and upskill technically, but it’s also meant that we’ve let our soft skills lag behind.
As artificial intelligence and machine learning have become more sophisticated, computers have become more adept at performing some technical functions than their human counterparts. Data can now be analysed at the click of a button, and we can get customer service from an automated chatbot, all without the need for human intervention.
While there will always be a demand for the technical aspects of any job, talent developers are now placing more emphasis on the skills that differentiate us from computers – or the attributes that make us human – in the business world.
Hard facts back up the need for soft skills. By 2022, the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report estimates that no less than 54% of all employees globally will require significant re- and upskilling if we’re going to be able to adjust to this new market shaped by technology.
This means that the focus of learning at work has changed. Rather than training for solely for technical skills, organisational learning has now become more holistic, and attributes such as innovation, analytical thinking and developing active learning strategies as well as ‘human’ skills such as creativity, emotional intelligence and initiative, are in high demand for future managers.
When we consider that over 50% of senior leaders feel that talent development does not adequately build the skills needed for future managers, we can see that now, more than ever, continuous, relevant learning has become essential to help managers on their path for growth.
This is why developing a contextual learning culture to help mitigate this shift and build soft skills among your leaders – present and future – is critical for all levels of any organisation.
The science of knowledge: Kolb’s theory of learning by doing
Contextual learning might sound like a buzzword, but it’s definitely nothing new – and you’ve almost certainly been practising it without realising since you were a child.
Originally defined as an educational theory, it’s a learner-centric method of instruction where students are able to construct meaning based on their own understanding from their life, social and cultural backgrounds.
This focus on each individual’s approach to learning means that knowledge is developed through problem-solving and collaboration, and that it’s more immediately relevant to each student.
Educational theorist David A. Kolb built on this idea when he developed his Experiential Learning Theory in 1984. Drawing on earlier research by German social psychologist Kurt Lewin and American educational reformer John Dewey, Kolb identified four stages to the experiential learning cycle that demonstrate how we experience, develop and retain knowledge throughout our lifetime.
We can see how this theory works when we apply it to something many of us did as kids – riding a bike:
- Experience: You’ve decided to try riding a bike. You get on and pedal, but you fall off – making you realise that you don’t know how to ride it after all
- Reflection: After falling off, you think about your experience and why you fell. What went wrong?
- Interpretation: Whether the saddle wasn’t quite right or you need to master the steering, this stage is about understanding what the problem is and how you can overcome it to complete your goal
- Application: This is the active phase – it’s time to get back in the saddle and test out your theories in practice
Riding a bike might seem like a simple metaphor, but when we break it down using Kolb’s model, it defines the process of how we learn by doing.
So what makes it the most effective method for learning? To cite Albert Einstein: “The only source of knowledge is experience.”
Learning by doing is in our biology. Our brains are hard-wired to remember emotions, and when we connect learning to experiences, we’re more likely to retain the information in our long-term memory. This provides us with instant feedback on what we need to keep doing, what we need to change and what we need to repeat.
The benefits for the business world are tangible. Fostering a culture of contextual learning in your organisation is the difference between sending your managers out of the office for a three-day leadership workshop, and asking them to take a three-minute subject specific micro-course.
The former provides learning at a macro level, and the latter puts the minutiae of one topic under the microscope. Both contribute to overall professional growth, but continuous contextual learning connects this knowledge to their day-to-day job, meaning that employees learn more effectively and efficiently, driving further engagement in their work.
But it’s not just theory; current research builds a strong case for Kolb’s approach. A 2017 report from Bersin by Deloitte revealed that around 80% of workplace learning happens as a result of interactions and collaboration with peers. LinkedIn’s 2019 Workplace Learning and Development report notes that 74% of surveyed employees want to learn in their spare time at work.
Learning by doing is the critical link between academic theory and knowledge development that drives more impactful, relevant learning through experience, trial and error.
How contextual learning helps managers self-direct their development
How Contextual Learning Helps Managers Self-direct Their Development
Kolb’s research laid the groundwork to show how learning by doing can effectively address the leadership soft skills gap.
When the future of business no longer depends on what we already know, but rather how we learn and adapt our skills, experiential learning gives managers a way of directing their own knowledge in a way that builds on and is directly relevant to their current skill set.
Adopting a personalised, agile approach to professional growth means that leaders can be responsive to the gaps in their own knowledge, as well as continually building on what they know.
The reason why this approach is so effective in leadership development can be shown with immersion language learning. When we’re learning and using a language in a country where it’s spoken, we can easily highlight where we need to improve and add to our own knowledge in the flow of everyday work and life experiences.
The concept is the same with learning leadership skills. Decades of research in psychology, education and neuroscience point to the fact that when training is contextual and curated, skills have a greater chance of being recalled and applied. It’s also trackable, cost-effective and can be done at any time.
So how can managers benefit directly from an experiential approach?
Learning is individualised and relevant
Research shows that almost half of millennial employees want to direct their own learning path, showing that curiosity and self-awareness of knowledge gaps are becoming key drivers to professional development.
It’s precisely these traits that drive learning of real value to leaders in the workplace. When self-driven, learning is underpinned by both need and personal interest, resulting in better retention and recall of knowledge over time.
Kolb came to the same conclusion while working on his study on experiential learning and examining the different ways people learn. After analysing 800 managers and managers-in-training, he found that they tended towards four distinct learner profiles.
Within these subtypes, Kolb was able to understand how each required particular conditions to learn and grow within their career paths – and equally how differences in learning styles could be detrimental to overall organisational learning if all employees were subjected to the same methods of training.
Kolb’s research shows that organisations need to meet managers where they are in terms of learning and development. Whether that means webinars, micro-courses, a few minutes spent on Youtube, or – more likely – a mixture of all of them, training must be individualised and delivered at the point of need.
At larger organisations, this personalised approach may not be possible to scale using solely face-to-face teaching methods. This is precisely why contextual, self-directed learning can be a powerful tool to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of learning and development initiatives.
Supporting a culture of continuous learning
It’s an often-repeated maxim that the brain is like a sponge. However, research tells us the opposite – on average, we forget up to 70% of everything we’ve learned within a 24-hour period. It’s called the forgetting curve, and in business it could have real ramifications.
The average leadership training course delivered in a face-to-face format in the UK might cost around £1,500, for three days of targeted instruction. That cost is far greater when you consider the amount of time spent out of the office – and greater still when your manager is unable to immediately apply what they’ve learned.
This is where continuous and contextually relevant learning can help bridge this skills gap in a meaningful way. When leaders are able to learn in the flow of work with content that is directly relevant to them, they are more engaged and readily able to apply this information to their day-to-day work.
It’s an approach that Amy C Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, supports.
“Learning is not a one-time event or a periodic luxury,” she noted in Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. “Great leaders in great companies recognise that the ability to constantly learn, innovate, and improve is vital to their success.”
Workplace data backs up this sentiment. A study by Deloitte reveals that organisations with an established continuous learning culture are 92% more likely to innovate, 37% more productive and 58% more prepared for the future.
Technology makes this continuous learning process more affordable. Instead of spending that £1,500 on a three-day course, talent developers can invest in targeted resources, such as micro-courses, that can help upskill managers when they have the time and need to learn.
Supporting a culture of continuous learning at your organisation not only empowers your managers and their teams to drive their own growth, but also fosters knowledge development that works towards your company’s overarching mission and strategy.
Learning goals are achieved in less time
The demands of the modern workplace can often mean that learning takes a backseat beyond what’s deemed as ‘essential’ – like compliance training. With meetings, deadlines and targets to cram in to a 40- to 50-hour week, it’s normal for employees to prioritise their workload before they work on their own skills.
The time poverty problem is one that is systemic at all levels of the workforce. For example, a recent survey reported that 94% of respondents said they’d like to learn more at work but don’t have enough time to do so.
Factor in that the average employee has around 24 minutes a week – or just 1% of their total time spent at work – to learn, and it’s easy to see how carving out time to learn can become a real issue.
For leaders, who are balancing the demands of their employees with those of the C-suite, this time poverty can become detrimental to their own growth.
However, making time for learning is not only essential for their own development but their performance, too – as well as those of their teams.
When contextual learning forms the foundation of your learning and development strategy, it means you can enable your leaders to implement an effective, relevant training plan that not only mitigates this time crunch, but also leads by example for their own teams.
How to implement a culture of contextual learning at your organisation
How to Implement a Culture of Contextual Learning at Your Organisation
So how can you make contextual learning provide a greater return on investment for your organisation? Here are three takeaways you can implement to help your company become more learning agile.
Help your managers identify areas of need
Learning can only be self-directed and contextual when it serves a purpose. To help your managers understand how to learn more effectively, you may need to guide them in the right direction.
Whether this entails looking over the results of your latest engagement survey or just a general informal chat, help them focus in on what they need to know and how they prefer to learn before assisting them to create a plan for their own growth.
Use technology as an enabler
Technology can be a powerful tool to encourage relevant and engaged learning, but it can also serve as a distraction.
Whether your managers prefer a podcast or a micro-course, helping them identify the ways that they learn best will unlock which resources they can tap into to reinforce their learning through technology.
Reinforce a culture of learning
Learning is important at every level of an organisation, and as the link between C-suite and employees, managers are best-placed to continue this message to their teams.
We know that 70% of the variance in employee engagement is tied to managers, which includes drivers like growth and meaningful work. Moreover, skills development is the second most important attribute of a job according to employees, behind the nature of the work itself.
Managers can lead by example by helping their teams identify their own areas of interest or need for learning and providing the time and resources for employees to upskill as the world of work continues to transform.