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Posted by on Dec 9, 2013

The Workplace Wisdom of Christopher Robin

how-winnie-the-pooh-works-5A few weeks ago, my wife and I were finally getting around to cleaning out the coat closet when we stumbled on our kids’ baby books. As we leafed through the pages of memories, I ran across a snapshot of my son carrying a Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal.  I was reminded of how central Winnie, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and the rest of the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood were for several years of our lives. 

Thinking back on that time, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes when Christopher Robin said to Pooh,

“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

The coincidence of turning up this memory, while at the same time reading Clive Thompson’s recent book, Smarter than You Think (perhaps Thompson is a Milne devotee), jump started an interesting chain of thought. 

In his book, Thompson sets out to counter the “alarmists” who insist that the prevalence of technology is negatively impacting society’s intellectual capacity and abilities

Building his argument from extensive anecdotal evidence, Thompson makes the case that technology is enabling us to outsource cognitive processes that can be limited and inefficient, to grow the tacit knowledge that is embedded in our social networks, and to benefit from increased multiplicity by connecting us more readily with others who share our niches of interest and expertise. 

While Thompson lacks strong empirical evidence to support his premises, the points he raises about technology’s impact on learning should prompt training and learning professionals to examine how their training programs have changed (or should change) in response to the growing use of technology.

The emergency of the “common core” and a focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in the primary education system has opened up a wide ranging discussion on how we educate children. But that conversation has yet to really translate into the world of corporate and, especially, Federal Government training.

So, here are a few tips that will help you build a training program that considers how technology is changing the way we think about intelligence and training.

  1. Take advantage of technology’s capabilities  
    We’ve all been through training courses where we’re forced to memorize chapter and verse of one particular policy or another. Now that most people have smartphones with more computing power than early computers (TRS-80, anyone?), there’s rarely a need for rote memorization. Instead of focusing on storage and retrieval of information, teach smart search strategies and “library” skills so learners can more readily navigate the vast amount of online information and efficiently locate the salient information they need to execute their job responsibilities.
  2. Focus on networking and relationship building skills
    Training events offer a great opportunity for participants to make new connections. Building connections in the workplace has numerous benefits ranging from increased engagement and reduced turnover to improvements in collaboration and team performance. As the workforce becomes increasingly diverse and distributed, building relationships with coworkers and developing professional networks that can augment individual expertise can be challenging.  Take advantage of the power of collocation during your training events and intentionally teach the skills and techniques for building productive work relationships.
  3. Minimize problem solving and maximize problem definition
    While the ability to solve problems is important in most workplaces, I believe a more important skill is the ability to describe the problem you are facing in a way that allows you to take advantage of the collective resources of your networks (formal, informal, social, and professional). This orientation shifts the focus away from individual ability (and intelligence) to knowing how to best formulate a problem statement so that the right group of individuals can apply their collective ability (and intelligence) to develop creative and innovative solutions to sticky problems. 
  4. Flip the classroom
    Techniques such as recording lectures, posting presentations, or assigning pre-reading or videos, are easy to incorporate into a training event and enable all participants to come to class with a baseline set of knowledge on a topic. Instructors then become facilitators, designing interactions that allow participants to explore and expand their learning through collaboration and interaction with their peers.
  5. Take time to turn off the technology 
    While technology provides many positive benefits to the training environment, the core work of learning requires deep thinking and focus. Technology provides a rich set of distractions that can be hard to ignore – from Facebook status updates, to Tweets from your favorite pseudo-celebrity, and the ever growing list of unread emails. Training events should offer a respite from the pace of thought that is created in an always connected environment.  Infuse your training with challenges that require individuals and groups to spend time in deep thought, focusing on a single task, for an extended period.  While at first your audience may seem discontent with being disconnected, the benefits of encouraging focus, reflection, and critical thinking will far outweigh the initial discomfort.

One of the goals of training should be to echo the message of Christopher Robin – students are, indeed, smarter than they think. Optimizing the use of technology to support learning enables training to be learner centered, which in turn enhances the effectiveness of the training event. While changing the design of existing courses can seem daunting, the benefits to learners and the organization will certainly make it worth the effort.

How has technology impacted learning and professional development programs at your workplace? 

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