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The Learning Revolution – Problem Solving in the Age of Experiential Learning

Woman engaged in online training at home

A new environment for problem solving and a new learning challenge

The worlds of learning and problem solving have been disrupted: advances in neuroscience, behavioral economics and technology have made for a perfect storm, opening up new opportunities and challenging the conventional wisdom of how we learn and solve problems.

We now have a better understanding of what is required for humans to not only retain learning, but also turn learning into actual behavior change. The established assumptions and models for learning, including the relevance of learning styles, have been put into question or even found largely irrelevant.

Finding the Time

The work environment of learners has changed as well. The general growth in the complexity of knowledge-based work – largely technology-driven – and the continued pressure to do more with less have led many companies to reduce employees’ time away from work for learning, especially consecutive days. Many organizations simply cannot afford to have people out, weeks at a time, for personal development. Yet they expect faster results and measurable impact from their learning investments.

And then there is problem solving.

In the age of “agility” and flat hierarchies, old functional structures are increasingly obsolete, reflecting the shift towards end-to-end responsibilities of teams for entire processes, products and services. In this environment, technical troubleshooting and problem solving have become universally required skill sets. They are applied throughout the life cycle of a process or product instead of “event-based” skills used only when something breaks down or underperforms.

The new challenges around learning come at a time of ever-increasing organizational impatience. One perception of technology-enabled learning is that it must produce results faster; technology speeds things up, right?

Demands for evidence of training effectiveness have accelerated, from months to weeks or even days. There are so many competing initiatives and organizational change projects underway in most companies that any skill improvement that is not proving to be effective and results-producing is likely to be thrown under the bus as we embark on “the next big thing”.

The generation mix – no more one-size-fits-all

Today’s businesses are also facing a generational challenge.

Employee generations entering work life prior to the late 1990s have primarily experienced the requirement of classic education: a period of studying at a university or doing an apprenticeship, followed by a fairly stable job environment, with long periods with the same employer. Today’s employees – Generations Y and Z – have grown up in a world where access to information is universal and learning is focused on accessing information just-in-time. The ability to find, process and apply information is part of their daily life.

Large organizations with a generational mix of employees have to satisfy diverse learning needs and provide more dynamic engagement to support new skills. They will also have to provide an environment where individuals can collaborate in effective and efficient ways. Maximizing the productivity of these diverse employees provides organizations with a valuable competitive advantage.

Interactive learning solutions

All of the above dynamics have led to a major shift in the role the learner plays in his or her skill development.  Learners now take on an active role, no longer just learning by listening and internalizing; they learn by doing.

To enable this type of learning experience, organizations and educational institutions alike have largely turned to “technology-enabled classrooms” – no matter if the training is in-person, virtual or hybrid. They use the power of technology to drive home theory and provide a hands-on, collaborative learning environment.

The adoption gap – building confidence under pressure through simulation

As technology changes, organizations around the world struggle to keep up, spending millions of dollars on training every year. In the age of talent management, they realize that it is knowledge and skills that can offer lasting competitive advantage. Yet while the ongoing development of their workforce is critical, too often training investments yield disappointing results. The expected change is simply not happening or not happening fast enough.

The gap between the classroom and the real world is too large. There simply isn’t enough time to practice new skills

The “human performance system” is often at least partially to blame. This “system” is the sum of the organizational factors that need to be aligned to support a newly learned skill or behavior in the workplace.  These include specific behavior-based expectations and metrics, supporting workflow tools, consequences that reinforce new behaviors as well as feedback and coaching. Without this support system, most skill development efforts are essentially a waste of money.

Also jeopardizing learning success is the learner’s “internal journey” of learning and adopting a new skill. Especially with new capabilities that need to be applied under pressure, standard training is usually not enough; the gap between the classroom and the real world is too large. There simply isn’t enough time to practice new skills.

This is where simulation comes into play. Simulation helps to “soften the landing” by providing an opportunity to practice a certain skill in a “safe-to-fail” environment and gain confidence through constant iteration before the learner is dropped back into “the real world”.

Just as athletes train to build muscle memory, it is through repetition that we internalize new behaviors and, to a certain degree, “automate” them.

Simulating problem solving

No matter what skills ranking you look at, problem solving and critical thinking can be found at the top of the “most relevant skills companies need in the future” lists.

Unlike traditional case studies, simulations provide learners with consequences for their actual behavior.

If we want to practice problem solving in a meaningful way, we need to expose learners to scenarios with multiple information sources as well as scenarios with incomplete and changing information. Unlike traditional case study approaches, simulations provide learners with consequences for their actual behavior and introduce new and perhaps conflicting information as learners work through the environment. The sense of reality increases dramatically.

As mentioned earlier, the cultural shift towards agile, team-based approaches and structures places a new emphasis on collaborative problem solving. Simulations provide more flexibility in practicing collaborative behaviors, e.g. by assigning different roles and information (pieces of the puzzle) to different people and forcing them to work together to get a complete picture and experience the problem solving journey together. This allows individuals to experience how they behave under pressure and to observe others as well.

Case in point: Global Telco uses troubleshooting training in combination with simulation

Incorporating simulation in learning design has myriad benefits. Not only does it directly impact learners with increased collaboration and knowledge retention, but it can have positive impact on the organization’s key metrics.

An example of this type of achievement is a global telecommunication company that used a multi-level, instructor-led training program of classroom sessions and simulation training plus ongoing coaching to deeply embed troubleshooting skills. The approach dramatically shortened the learning curve and resulted in beating their annual key performance indicator goal (mean-time-to-resolve) by 300%.

View the complete case study

Perfect practice makes perfect

The famous football coach Vince Lombardi once said: “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect”. If you want to perform at your best, you must train as an athlete does – under as close to reality-type situations as you can. At the end of the day, it’s all about confidence. Simulations build habits (and confidence) faster through experiential learning.


Article Contributors

Christoph Goldenstern – Regional Managing Director, KT Europe (at the writing of this article, VP of Innovation and Service Excellence)
Kate Anticic – Learning and Development Consultant, Kepner-Tregoe
Stefan Brahmer – Senior Solution Architect for Troubleshooting Excellence, Sim4People ApS


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