Learning, art & science — and golf


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This post was written by David Grebow and Susan Fry

When we talk about creating a learning culture, we’re defining learning as “the ability to adapt what you know and what you know how to do to an ever-changing variety of circumstances.”

To become a learning culture, an organization must understand that learning is not a discrete training event or even a series of them. Rather, learning is an ongoing process, one that occurs over time. Sharing and expanding knowledge in a culture is very different from the “rote learning” or classroom learning model that prevails in most organizations, and which rewards short-term memory.

By “rote learning,” we mean any brief, highly structured learning event that employs quizzes to provide a score intended to gauge how much the participant “learned.” The problem is that the goal of these “learning events” is  to ensure that, to be considered “successful” requires only that the attendees retain information long enough to get a passing score on a quiz or test (or multiple ones, scattered throughout the session.)

Ask yourself what the scores would be if the quiz was taken again, a few days after the “learning event” was over. A huge percentage of what was supposedly “learned” would already have been forgotten. (I’ll leave the cost-effectivemess of such training for another discussion.)

Interestingly, art and science have proved to be two areas where what we’ve just stated above do not apply.

This is because art and science require an evolving degree of knowledge from basic to advanced. Think about learning to play the tuba or conducting a chemistry experiment. This is subject matter that was always learned by apprenticing with or being tutored by a master, someone with a great deal more experience.

Would anyone consider handing a Bach score and a cello to someone who played a little guitar and expect him to master it after two hour-long seminars and a demonstration video?

Real learning is somewhat like sleeping. You do not go to sleep; rather, you go through the process of sleeping, which is completed in a number of stages. If you’re constantly interrupted, you wake up the next morning feeling like you had a bad nights’ sleep. Real learning requires stages as well and you cannot skip over any of them.

What neuroscience researchers have learned by studying golfers helps shed light on this.

They describe how learners reach a point during the adoption phase where they peak at the physical learning part of the game. After enough time has been spent “on the job” practicing the required physical movements, a point comes when it stops being necessary to consciously think about the movements.  When that happens, the brain is freed to focus on the parts of the game that require active mental thought and calculation. When you hear coaches use the phrase “muscle memory,” or tell athletes “get out of your mind” or “you’re over-thinking it,” this is what they mean.

When a golfer has mastered the essentials of the physical game, the mind becomes is table to focus on more complex issues.  And that focus is truly the key to transforming a good player into a great one. But it takes a very long time, and a lot of practice to get to this stage.

An analysis of the eye patterns of novice golfers on a green, lining up a putt, translated the players’ eye movements into graphics. What it showed looked like someone had thrown a plate of spaghetti on the green: there were lines and loops going every which way.When they graphed the eye movement of top golfers, the patterns were a few lines most of them moving directly towards the cup.

The reason why most classes offered by organizations are essentially a waste of time is because they do not include enough time to complete the learning process. The material presented is not reinforced and internalized through experience.  No time is allowed for the learner to practice the concepts or methods that have been presented and try them out in the “real world” or workplace, repeatedly, over time, until they become like “muscle memory.” Because of this, little is retained.

Now imagine what would happen if the organization provided continuous opportunities for learning, actively encouraged its members to be learning continuously, built in time for them to practice, and measured progress not by pop quiz scores, but increased productivity.

Now imagine that the organization is your organization.

Online assessment: Find out if you’re already a learning culture


This post written by Susan Fry

The question I’m asked most frequently these days (besides, “ATM or credit card?”) is “How do I start to create a learning culture in my organization?”

I’d actually prefer to start with a different question, which is “How close is the current culture in my organization to a learning culture?”

Many organizational cultures–and maybe yours–already have some of the key characteristics of a learning culture in place.  Finding out where you stand is the logical first step.

We employ a variety of tools to help organizations understand their culture because it helps makes for a smoother, faster transition from an obsolete “push/training” mode into the “pull/learning” culture.

Below, you can view a sample from one of the assessment tools we use. In the left column , you’ll see brief descriptions of key characteristics that  encourage learning; on the right, you’ll see descriptions of those that block it. Beneath the sample you’ll find instructions for taking and evaluating the assessment. new assessment captureTake a moment to answer the questions yourself.  Some of your answers are likely to be surprising.

You can view the full, printable Learning Culture Assessment here.

How to use this assessment

The assessment asks respondents to rank you organization on each characteristic by writing a number in the square at the bottom of each section.

The number “1” indicates strong disagreement with the statement, while “5” indicates the strong agreement. Adding all the  numbers in each column will show whether your organization is currently perceived to be a learning culture.  Questions that received the lowest scores indicate areas that need the most attention.

After you’ve taken it yourself, I suggest that you distribute this assessment to a group of people within your organization. Choosing as many audit participants as possible from diverse areas and levels of responsibility will provide you with more accurate information.

The survey has an additional benefit: it will communicate that you are starting to take a hard look at how good your organization is at providing learning opportunities that enable employees to do the best job possible.

This assessment was first published in Creating a Learning Culture: Strategy, Technology and Practice (Cambridge, UK; Cambridge University Press, 2004). I’m grateful to Marcia Conner, my colleague from my Peoplesoft days and friend of many years, for recently bringing it to my attention. (Check out her blog at http://marciaconner.com/

In case you didn’t note the publication info above, let me point out that this assessment was published more than ten years ago. In Silicon Valley terms, that makes it almost ancient — and yet I constantly meet people who think the “learning culture” is a radical new concept!