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Those of us in the learning professions are naturally enamored with the power of learning. This is all fine and good–learning is necessary for human survival and for our most enlightened achievements–but too narrow a focus on learning misses a key responsibility. Indeed, learning without sustained behavior change is like feeding a man who's planning to jump off a bridge. Nice, but largely besides the point. 

The bottom line is that we learning professionals must not only look to the science of learning, but also the science of behavior change.

My friend and colleague Julie Dirksen has been thinking about behavior change for years. Here's a recent article she wrote:

Here is another recent resource on behavior change:

It's good to keep this all in perspective. Science often moves slowly and in fits and starts. There is great promise in the many and varied research areas under study. You can see this most fully in the health-behavior-change field. There's a ton of research being done. Here's a quick list of research being done on behavior change:

  • Cardiac health
  • Obesity
  • Clean cooking
  • Asthma
  • HIV and STD prevention
  • College-student drinking
  • Cancer prevention
  • Child survival
  • Recycling
  • Use of hotel towels
  • Young-driver distraction
  • Hand washing
  • Encourage walking and cycling
  • Smoking cessation
  • Healthy pregnancy behaviors
  • Promoting physical activity

Okay, the list is almost endless.

One of the findings is not surprising. Lasting behavior change is very difficult. Think how hard it is to lose weight and keep it off, or stop an internet addition. So it's great that researchers are looking into this.

In the learning field, we have our own version of behavior-change research. It's called transfer. We've already learned a lot about how to get people to transfer what they've learned back to their jobs or into their lives. We're not done learning, of course.

One thing we do know is that training by itself is rarely sufficient to produce lasting change. Sometimes our learners will take what they've learned, put it immediately into practice, deepen their own learning and continue to learn and engage and use what they've learned over time. Too often, they forget, they get distracted, they get no support.

 

Summary

My four messages to you are these:

  1. Keep your eyes open for Behavior Change Research.
  2. Keep your eyes open for Transfer-of-Learning Research.
  3. Don't be a fool in thinking that training/learning is enough.
  4. We learning professionals have a responsibility to enable usable behavior change.

 

In a recent, NY Time Article, cited a paper (Executive Superstars, Peer Groups and Over-­‐Compensation –Cause, Effect and Solution) by Charles M. Elson and Craig K. Ferrere who compile research from others (see citations below) that basically shows that CEO's do NOT successfully transfer their skills from one company to another. CEO's who are hired from within tend to do a much better job than CEO's brought in from the outside.

We in the learning-and-performance field should take note. The reason this is true is because it takes real-world expertise, gained through long bouts of experience in a particular set of situations, to give people the tools they need to be experts.

This we should all know. If you want to be good in calculus as it applies to astronomy, you ought to get practice in applying calculus to astronomy. It is not enough to just learn calculus and learn astromony.

And certainly it is not helpful to learn Latin to learn math, or even to learn other languages. Anybody who has been to graduate school in learning should have learned about how unlikely it is for learning to transfer from one domain to the other. Thorndike anyone?

Donald Clark has a nice blog post on Thorndike and the uselessness of learning latin.

So, from both a training and on-the-job learning perspective, we should be giving our learners extensive opportunities to learn their areas of expertise.

This doesn't mean they should never dabble in other domains. In fact, creativity research shows that "domain-spanners" are more likely to be creative than those who only learn with a narrow focus. HOWEVER, people who are only domain-spanners (and don't know a field really well) tend to just be good at coming up with ideas–but not generally good ones. Expertise matters!

Those of you in the United States who are thinking about our election in terms of this lack of transfer from one job situation to another could have a field day…or a depression.

 

Some of Elson and Ferrere's citations showing that CEO's skills don't transfer well:

Richard A. Cazier and John M. McInnis, Do Firms Contract Efficiently on Past Performance When Hiring External CEOs? (Working Paper, 2010) (studying 192 external successions from 1993-2005 they find a negative correlation between excess compensation and future performance;; paradoxically the superstars underperformed).

Gregory L. Nagel, William G. Hardin III, The Transferability of CEO Skills, (Working Paper, 2007)

Mark R. Huson, Paul H. Malatesta and Robert Parrino, Managerial succession and firm performance, 74 J. FIN. ECON. 237, 237 (2004) (finding that “the appointment of outside successors [is] not significantly related to post-turnover performance changes in [their] regression analysis.”)

Chuck Lucier, Steven Wheeler, and Rolf Habbel, The Era of the Inclusive Leader, 47 STRATEGY+BUSINESS (2007) (finding that “experienced CEOs”, though hypothesized to bring experience in dealing with stakeholders and shareholders actually underperformed).

James S. Ang and Gregory L. Nagel, The Financial Outcome of Hiring a CEO from Outside the Firm, (Working Paper, 18, 34, 2011) (using a structural self-selection model to estimate counterfactual performance that would have been obtained if the firm hired an insider rather than an outsider and vice-versa, at all target levels of performance internal hires stochastically dominate outsiders).