ATD – The Seven Principles of Learning Reinforcement

We’re a little slower off the mark with this blog (you can blame the subsequent trip to New York for that – next blog imminent!), but here we take a look at a particularly relevant closing session from ATD…

Day three arrives and from the morning’s extensive list of closing conference slots, it has to be, “The seven principles of learning reinforcement.”

I’d decided to go before I realised this was a session to be delivered by Anthonie Worth of Mindmarker. It’s a company we’ve been familiar with for some time, and of course against the backdrop of launching our own learning reinforcement App, Minds-i, it makes sense to ‘know your enemy’ (so to speak!)

Anthonie is from Holland. As it turns out, he’s a formidable sportsman – and a near Olympic-champion in Judo, which to a fellow martial artist is ridiculously impressive. His slot begins in the same anecdotal way as many of these sessions, and he tells us about the beginnings of his Judo career when his coach introduced him to a number of core training principles.

“The same principles that apply to Judo or any kind of sports training apply to business”, he tells us. Apparently Worth came fourth in the 2002 Barcelona Olympics. “I’ll tell you why I lost,” says, “but first let me share what that Olympic training schedule was like.” The list went like this:

  1. 10,000 hours rule
  2. Results above repetition
  3. Goal orientated
  4. Measurements
  5. Behaviour change

At its core, ten thousand hours means training four hours a day, fifty weeks a year for ten years. That’s one hell of a lot of training. “We’re talking ten years of solid, daily commitment – and as with all sports, everything here is goal-oriented,” he says. “You’re striving for something, and once you achieve that it’s on to the next goal. In a landscape like this, measurement is a key part of ensuring we’re on track: we measure height, weight, speed, endurance – and then we tweak, and perfect, and practice until we get those things right to carry us to our goal.”

“In fact, it’s quite the opposite of what we see in business’ training efforts.” He’s right, of course. And not just looking at the frequency or consistency of our training programmes, but down to what we measure too. “If you imagine that you could train for years and years for the Olympics, yet when you get to weigh-in you could be a few pounds over and be disqualified”, he says, “you can see why having a real handle on every little measurement is so important.”

He tells us that now he’s been a business trainer for ten years. He talks about the way we measure our training programmes – “We’re often happy to get to the end of training days and ask ‘how was the coffee’? ‘How was the parking’? and so on, but what about impact?”

Anthonie tells us he wants to talk about changing behaviour. He says he’s going to tell us at the end why he didn’t win the gold medal, but how we can.

This is the next slide he puts up on screen:

“Don’t laugh”, he says, chuckling. “This is my first ever drawing of my reinforcement plan.” It looks a little confusing, but the peaks and troughs look familiar. Anthonie makes a nod to Ebbinghaus and the Forgetting Curve (all of which we’re familiar with), and affirms that, “just doing training and then topping it up is not enough.”

He starts chuckling again.

“In Holland, maybe the only reason training companies make money is because people forget – so businesses have to pay to constantly re-train their people. But can you imagine if we accepted this at Olympic level? If my coach wanted me to lose a match simply so he can keep being needed?! I don’t think so.”

The affirmation that reinforcement is not a replacement of your current training, nor is it re-training, rings true with the thought process that has prompted us to venture into the learning reinforcement space ourselves. We know that – much like Anthonie’s scrawled drawing – there’s a need for a second timeline running in parallel with training delivery, that’s designed to hold the interventions necessary for this newly acquired knowledge to be tested, applied and absorbed.

“The introduction of smart phones into our daily lives and indeed our pockets gives us the perfect opportunity to start utilising a ‘push’ methodology”, he says. “Not to mention that people get bored if they’re doing or reading the same thing over and over again. So variety in the reinforcement nuggets or activities is key.”

Are you able to calculate ROI?

I’ve sectioned this part off because I think it’s critical to hear this from someone else. At Unicorn we’ve talked about ROI, demonstrating impact and the two-sides-of-the-coin approach advocated by the Learning Ecosphere. We’re constantly talking to customers about the wider landscape of training that sits beyond the regimented world of the LMS – a place where the involvement of apps and less closely tracked and monitored environments is an essential part of a well-rounded and effective learning strategy. Not every bit of your training programme looks the same – some parts require an audit trail, some don’t. ROI in one part of the business might look different to ROI in another.

“Clients ask about measurement”, Anthonie says, “so, we need to measure behaviour change. But that’s tough. And it tough for two reasons – firstly, we didn’t build an assessment tool (he’s talking about Mindmarker), and secondly, who are we to say what constitutes behaviour change in a business? We’re trying to help people with this – give them the tools, and show them the way, but a lot is up to them.”

“Allegedly, 38 percent of people using some kind of learning reinforcement are able to demonstrate the impact of behaviour change within their businesses. I think that figure is high.”

I agree with the statement above. We come back to the question of ROI a lot, and mostly an organisation can’t pinpoint ROI, because they don’t really know what ROI looks like. We’re talking about behaviour change here, and too often (it’s the same with Marketing – keep an eye out for our upcoming ‘Learning Lessons From Marketers’ blog series), the part that hasn’t been scrutinised and set up properly is what factors we consider conducive to, or indicative of, success. It might well be about money – let’s be honest, it usually is – but at a more granular level we need to interrogate specifically what we want to change. The big picture might be, we want people to be better at their jobs, or be more efficient – but those are large and potentially wooly goals when it comes to calculating success and ROI. Being ‘better’ might actually mean, ‘processing 6 orders per hour instead of 5’, or, delegating more might be better imagined as ‘leaders using steps 1, 2 and 3 to do X’ to ensure maximum efficiency.

Not only are the latter objectives more tangible, they’re also far more helpful when we’re designing interventions for reinforcement. The verb here (‘using’, ‘processing’, ‘identifying’, for example) determines the series of activities within the reinforcement portion of the learning, so any ambiguity ultimately detracts from having a concrete (and therefore more measurable) purpose in place. Choose your outcome carefully.

The Seven Reinforcement Principles  

Tangent over, here’s the list Anthonie gives us – a seven point checklist for watertight learning reinforcement:

  1. Close the 5 reinforcement gaps
  2. Master the 3 phases for results
  3. Provide a perfect push and pull
  4. Create friction and direction
  5. Follow the reinforcement flow
  6. Create measurable behaviour changes
  7. Place the participant at the centre

The five gaps are as follows:

  1. Knowledge gap – fairly straightforward, we need to make sure we’re giving people the right knowledge to achieve the desired outcomes
  2. Skills gap – people need to right skills at their disposal to be able to action what they’ve learnt
  3. Motivation gap – People must remain motivated; and importantly avoid becoming demotovatied. (What demotivates people? Too many messages, not enough variety, etc.)
  4. Environment gap – people need the right setting in which to absorb and learn to apply new knowledge
  5. Communication gap– we need to be communicating new knowledge in a way that is understood

“Reinforcement is all about brains”, says Anthonie. “We need to understand how we learn best, so as to be able to provide friction and direction in the right balance and achieve that space where we’re in the zone and achieving without really thinking about it.”

At this stage of the presentation, things start to get a little weird. Anthonie gets someone out of the audience up to the front and starts talking about Judo again. He’s demonstrating what in Taekwondo we used to call a ‘swan neck’ control of someone’s arm. The visibly nervous volunteer obeys when asked to grab Anthonie’s collar, and we’re then walked through the subtle difference between being ineffective, and gaining complete (and seemingly paralysing) control of the poor guy’s arm – all with the positioning of his little finger. “Pinky up! Pinky down!”, Anthonie keeps shouting. Here’s a photo to prove it:

Based on what comes next I’d make a sensible guess that what he’s trying to demonstrate is that an absolute mastery of a theory, but a failure of the ability to put it into practice (or, ‘apply’ it) at the right moment renders the exercise almost obsolete. Knowing something isn’t enough, it has to be second nature if it’s to be used. Perhaps this harked back to the loss-of-Olympic-medal story…

The three-part flow diagram he shows next is pretty self-explanatory. Awareness is why. Knowledge and skills is how. Behaviour change is apply.

“The biggest mistake we see here is learning programmes neglecting the ‘apply’ stage. It seems that whilst this final stage accounts for the most ‘important’ part of the programme – i.e. really getting that new knowledge to sink it – there’s also a need to ensure that the right level of learning or knowledge sharing has taken place prior to it. We have found that 72 is the magic number; a person needs to get 72% of the knowledge questions correct in order for the reinforcement to work. If in assessment people are scoring 40% there’s no point in moving on to reinforcement. You don’t want to reinforce the wrong thing.”

“We also need to be adaptive,” he says. “In 1988 my Judo coach had an ideal path to that Olympic medal. And did we follow if? No, because there are lots of factors along the way that impact that path, and you have to adapt.”

He talks a little about some stats around businesses still using computer training for reinforcement (as opposed to mobile), and then about the need for a little – but crucially not too much direction – when it comes to reinforcement. “We’re looking to create friction and direction”, he says, “often when we have ‘reinforcement specialists’, they try to over-guide people through these programmes. We need a little direction, but not too much, otherwise it’s not challenging: The reinforcement flow is that sweet spot between anxiety and boredom.”

He also tells the audience that we should be striving to, “place participants centrally. Our entire reinforcement programmes need to think about how can we help the participant, how can we make it better for them. It’s less about the enterprise than the individual.”

It’s a convoluted way of getting here, but Anthonie finally shares the end of the Olympic Judo story. It seems he reached the rounds before the final in the company of three people he had previously fought and beaten. There followed a number of details about who fought who and with what outcomes, but at the end of the day Anthonie was ruled out of the competition on a points-based decision by the judges. “There was a lot of emotion in losing my first match”, he tells us, “and my next fight was with someone I was a little scared of, before I had really had time to gather my thoughts. So I lose and my Olympic dreams fade – after all of that training! And what did my coach say? Well, my coach told me I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t do anything! I just waited and hoped that it was going to go my way, without applying what I knew.”

It seems to me that there are a few ways this anecdotal lesson could have gone, but Anthonie’s summary went like this: “Above all else, we need not to be passive. Make sure your employees do something. Help them win. Take action.”

If for any reason you haven’t already, grab your free copy of our ‘Learning Ecosphere’ whitepaper here. It explains the dichotomy of learning methods, and covers the paradigm shift needed in your attitude to learning to take your programmes to the next level.

Anything and everything else you’d like to discuss – you know where we are! / @unicorntraining on Twitter.

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About abipearsunicorn

Marketing Manager at Unicorn Training Group

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  1. Итоги ATD 2017. Встреча в CBSD - June 2, 2017

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