The Learning Revolution – Problem Solving In The Age of Experiential Learning

A new environment for problem-solving and a new learning challenge

The worlds of learning and problem solving have been disrupted: advances in neuro-science, 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 it requires 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.

Many organizations simply cannot afford to have people out, weeks at a time, for personal development.

At the same time, eLearning, as a result of the increase in remote work, is now fully matured, and the evolution of virtual communication platforms like Zoom, Skype, Webex and Adobe support virtual interactions that only a few years ago were limited to the traditional classroom environment, with some now allowing for virtual breakout sessions and the use of white boards.

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 lean, agile and DevOps, 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.

Produce results fast – or your initiative will die on the vine

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?

Any skill improvement that is not results-producing is likely to be thrown under the bus as we embark on “the next big thing.”

One can write many articles on this corporate challenge alone, but for the purpose of this document it is sufficient to say that 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. 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 for at least another 5 to 10 years.

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—Millennials, Generation Y, etc.—have grown up in a world where access to information is almost 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 are turning from traditional to technology-enabled classrooms.  They use the power of technology to drive home theory and provide a hands-on, collaborative, learning environment.

By the early 2000s, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics department had adopted a technology-enabled active learning (TEAL) teaching format that merged lectures, simulation, and hands-on desktop experiments.  This approach has had powerful results, with TEAL students having higher conceptual understanding of the course content than their peers in a traditional classroom.

There is no doubt that technology has been, and will continue to be, the biggest disrupter of the Learning and Development Industry.

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 work force 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 tools such as software or updated forms, 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

Most problem solving is an iterative, dynamic process so there is a natural symbiosis between problem solving and simulations. The “5 Whys” or similar, basic, linear problem-solving approaches, while a good place to start, do not represent the reality of what’s required to solve complex, or even average, operational and technical problems.

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 as people interact with them. Unlike traditional case studies, 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 to 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.

IT simulations like Apollo 13 or The Phoenix Project have long shown their value in creating a better understanding of roles and responsibilities in IT Service Management and DevOps. Pairing simulation-based training with effective methods to address business issues has also been used in environments where real life training would be very expensive or dangerous—think airline pilots, commercial shipping, military or training for missions to unknown territory like planet Mars.

The broad availability of laptop computers, the cloud and internet access in modern businesses allows for a combination of methodology training and immediate application that shortens the time for achieving results significantly.

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 the 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%.

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.

To view the complete case study click here.

About Kepner-Tregoe

For more than 6 decades, Kepner-Tregoe has empowered organizations through a proven, structured approach to problem solving. As the leader in problem-solving, KT has helped thousands of organizations solve millions of problems through more effective root cause analysis and decision-making skills. Through our unique blend of training and consulting, our clients demonstrate improved efficiency, higher quality and greater customer satisfaction while reducing their costs.

Article Contributors

Christoph Goldenstern – VP of Innovation and Service Excellence, Kepner-Tregoe

Kate Anticic – Learning and Development Consultant, Kepner-Tregoe

Stefan Brahmer – Senior Solution Architect for Troubleshooting Excellence, Sim4People ApS


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