How do we learn best?

Five steps for learning and gaining expertise

The most forward-thinking companies are being proactive in adapting to the shift in the workforce. During other major workforce transitions, we’ve had some time to adapt to the changes, but that’s compressed today. Some companies are still pondering how work is changing, but digital disruption has been advancing for several decades now and it’s no longer something of the future—it’s happening right now.

To help people build skills, and become lifelong learners— become experts—to help them gain knowledge, it’s critical that we understand how adults learn best. Today, we know more than ever about how the human brain works and how people learn most effectively—whether they are trying to gain new knowledge, build a new skill, or change a behavior.

Here are several ways you can learn and build expertise:

1. Understand and apply the simple Learning Loop

People learn through this simple process, so make sure all components of the Learning Loop are incorporated into any learning you develop or purchase for your employees. So often companies spend significant money on workplace learning resources from vendors without knowing whether the vendors themselves understand how employees really learn.

2. Model mindset and apply the right motivators

Whenever leaders or employees jump to dictating a “training solution” at your company, step back and ask if that’s really the solution to the problem and whether employees will genuinely want or benefit from it. Let employees know that your company prefers “learn-it-all” employees rather than “know-it-all” employees, and make sure leaders and employees model this behavior. Think about the intrinsic motivations of employees, such as autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and let employees take ownership of their own learning.

3. Have employees assess skills gaps

Helping employees understand their strengths, weaknesses, and skills gaps adds incredible value. How do they know what skills they want to build if they don’t know where they want to go, the type of skills they
need, the skills they have, or the level of those skills? Degreed has added skill assessment and certification as part of its product portfolio to do exactly that.

Another way to think about skills gaps is to “identify the best exemplars.” According to business professor Dorothy Leonard, you can ask the following questions to help navigate: Who is really good at what you want to do? Which experts are held in high regard by their peers and immediate supervisors? Whom do you want to emulate? Then use the answers to assess the gap between you and them. Leonard said, “Tis requires brutal self-assessment. How much work will this change require, and are you ready to take it on? If you discover the knowledge gap is fairly small, that should give you confidence. If you determine that it’s really large, take a deep breath and consider whether you have the courage and resolve to bridge it.”

4. Encourage autonomy with your employees

People really crave autonomy. If you want to provide an environment where employees can be autonomous, it’s important to focus more on what work gets done, not how it gets done. Also, build trust with your employees. If you don’t trust them to work autonomously, then why hire them? And finally, give employees ownership over their career trajectory and provide guidance, modeling, and mentorship along the way. Tracy Maylett, CEO of employee engagement consulting from DecisionWise, says, “Who wants to be told what to do at every turn, and who wants to be the one babysitting? Perhaps there are the few that fit into both of these categories, but that doesn’t cut it with good employees—or good managers. That’s where balanced and effective autonomy comes into play.”

5. Encourage more reading and fewer lectures.

Some of the most well-respected leaders of our time are avid readers. Bill Gates learns new things by reading about 50 books a year.37 Elon Musk is a voracious reader, saying that the books he read as a child inspired him to build rockets.38 Mark Zuckerberg made a commitment to read a book
every two weeks and shares his reading list on Facebook. And the list goes on: Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey, Sheryl Sandberg, and countless entrepreneurs learn through reading.40 One more tip: stay near and emulate people you admire. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

This article is adapted from The Expertise Economy: How the Smartest Companies Use Learning to Engage, Compete, and Succeed, by Kelly Palmer and David Blake. It is reprinted with permission from Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

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