Attention-Span Myth and Real Learning

The New York Times Magazine published a thought-provoking article on the Attention-Span myth. The subtitle is “Can technology erode something that doesn’t exist.” The article argues that “attention-span” is not an isolated brain function, but exists in relation to the type of activity and individual preferences. Jerry Seinfeld, the comedian, agrees that there is no such thing as attention span, “only the quality of what you are viewing.”

Learning professionals also appear to agree, dating back to the 50’s. “Attention-span” has never been the make or break of a successful learning experience. Gagne defined a nine step process which covers the start to the outcome of the learning process. In the process the learner should become engaged in the learning experience, free from distractions.   In my view this push factor ensures that the content engages the learner by following a sequence of instructional events.

Learning however will not occur unless there is a pull towards learning. No matter how entertaining the content, or well designed the instruction, learners need to be motivated to integrate and apply the learning.

Here are some best practices:
*Always include the WIFT(What’s in it for them) in any introduction to a formal course, or invitation to join company wide social networking tools. These days especially, learners must be motivated to contribute their knowledge and connections to a company wide wiki, or online data based of best practices.

*Link the WIFT to company goals and mission statements. Through continuous repetition of core business goals, learners can strategize how to meet these goals through learning and work.

*Link learning and involvement in communities to the overall assessment of employee performance. Performance reviews should include a definition of learning goals in relation to business needs, the method of arriving at these goals, and how each goal will be measured.

Wait a minute.. how did I get distracted from attention-span to performance reviews… I must have a short attention span!

Other ideas? Would love any feedback or comments.

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New Hire Orientation in Congress

Welcome to the new load of freshman who have descended on congress. Like typical new hires, they will go through a sharp learning curve to become effective in their jobs. This is commonly known as “on-boarding” “getting up to speed” or “learning the ropes”.

As learning professionals know, typical new hires face the challenges of becoming comfortable with a new culture, policies and procedures, while avoiding information overload.

While trial and error often helps new hires solve issues, there are other tactics that can speed time to productivity.

  1. Make “need to know” information immediately available. Immediately after elections, newly elected congressmen had a 144-page book mailed to them called “Hit The Ground Running” with all the nuts and bolts of life in congress. While this is useful, and perhaps necessary before joining congress, this medium is bulky and outmoded. I pity the congressman carrying his manual around campus looking for answers. All critical information should be available on-line in an easy to search, and find format.
  2. Set expectations. When there is a big intake of newcomers into an organization, I embrace the idea of face-to-face meeting to set expectations, explain big picture processes, and teach newcomers how to find the information they will need in the coming weeks and months. An initial all day meeting should not however drown the newbies in a sea of  information. In the next week, Congressmen will attend a two-day NHO session. As quoted in the Reporter.”Everyone has told me expect more information than you can possibly digest, but just take good notes,” said Rep.-elect Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, one of the few Democrats who will be attending.
  3. Create a community of newcomers. Since new hires will immediately become busy with their own responsibilities, new hires should continue connecting and learning from each other in  an  online forum, which may include a discussion group, or any application with social networking abilities. I hope Washington is providing this critical tool for their new hires. This may help them to find digs and stop using their offices and hotels as bedrooms!

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Presidential Learning

Today’s New York Times shows President Obama, appearing on the verge of tears, explaining the lessons he has learned from the Democratic party’s whipping at the recent elections. This process is a fairly typical response to a loss or defeat in politics, sport and business.

I question to what extent lessons learned are actually applied in the future. One barrier to applying lessons is the depth of reflection itself. Many commentators noted that Obama did not have the depth of reflection appropriate to the loss. Reflection is a critical thinking and development skill.

A learning/training technique appropriate for developing reflection skills, as well as embedding learning in doing, is Action Learning (AL). This has been defined as a continuous process of learning and reflecting while participant try to solve a work related problem. Through this process problems are immediately addressed and the team is able to apply lessons to upcoming problems. AL is a results-driven learning process. Furthermore, it teaches participants to ask the right questions, rather than relying on answers that may be updated!

Often a learning coach is employed to support the AL process by helping members learn how to learn from the process. I am prepared to donate some of my tax money to finance this position in the white house!

I would like to get feedback about other barriers to implementing lessons learned.

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