We're pretty excited because Arun Pradhan, an independent learning consultant, self-described "learning geek,"the winner of the Australian Institute of Training and Development's 2017 L&D Professional of the Year Award, and the creator of the amazing Learn2Learn app has agreed to speak with us about the importance of learning ability in the workplace, being a learning organization, and in particular how employees can learn to learn and become lifelong learners.
If you're reading this article, you probably already know the importance of learning at work and have a sense that it will become increasingly important in the future. Maybe you're a manager who wants to learn to improve at your own job while also seeing how you can facilitate employee learning at the same time. Or maybe you're an employee who knows the value of learning to improve your career opportunities.
Either way, we think you'll benefit from and enjoy Arun's insights, and we want to thank him very much for participating in this interview and for all the works he does in workforce L&D. Check him out at arunpradhan.com.
Convergence Training: Why is it important for workers, including manufacturing workers, to learn how to learn and/or to become better learners?
Arun Pradhan: The simple answer about why we need to learn to learn is because the world is changing and changing fast.
Just look at the company behind Apple and Samsung replacing 60,000 factory workers with robots; or Goldman Sachs hiring 200 computer engineers who maintain software to replace 600 equity traders; or the fact that over half of the Fortune 500 companies have disappeared since 2000.
The point is that advances in technology are driving unprecedented rates of change.
That means the days of studying once and setting ourselves up for a predictable career are dead. Instead, we’ll need to continually reinvent ourselves by shedding once useful but suddenly redundant ideas and skills, and quickly picking up and applying new ones.
It’s learning and unlearning, but it’s also having the learning agility to quickly adapt, innovate and perform through change.
Convergence Training: One of your tips for becoming a better learner is to develop a learning or growth mindset. You mention that this includes the importance of being curious and being comfortable with and maintaining optimism in the face of ambiguity. Can you tell us more about that?
Arun Pradhan: Certainty, security, control, predictability and perfection… these are qualities that most of us yearn for, and even cling to, and that’s unfortunate because fundamentally, they don’t really exist.
Many challenges today aren’t easily solved. They don’t have a single answer, and might even change and develop as quickly as we come up with ideas to address them. Or, disruptions that turn industries upside-down might make seemingly core challenges become redundant.
This takes a fundamentally different approach and mindset than the one most of us have been brought up with or experience in our broader culture.
It’s about embracing uncertainty and change as constants.
Optimism through ambiguity then is being able to sit with uncertainty. It’s letting go of specific outcomes and instead investing in constantly refreshing and expanding our cognitive toolkit and networks so we can handle whatever comes.
Convergence Training: Another tip you offer is to spend less time and effort memorizing things and to rely more on performance support as needed on the job in the form of digital aids, checklists, and the like. Can you explain this more to us?
Arun Pradhan: At work, learning is a means to better performance to reach personal and organisational goals. But learning is just one way to improve performance… so why wouldn’t we make use of any shortcuts and tools that can help?
Checklists have always been powerful examples of performance support. They reduce cognitive load (because we don’t have to remember stuff) and provide an organisational or even industry wide standard for behaviour that can be continually improved — just ask an airline pilot whose work is built around checklists.
Checklists will remain important but performance support is already shifting to whole new levels.
Robotics and computers are replacing jobs, creating new jobs, but they’re also radically changing existing jobs. This last phenomenon is being known as the development of ‘augmented workers.'
Augmented workers exist now on factory floors with robotic exoskeletons; as doctors using augmented reality; as packers who work in tandem with robots; or health and safety initiatives that leverage wearable tech to monitor key vitals with instant feedback and recommendations.
It’s not new; we’ve always used tools to work smart. It’s just that the tools are taking some huge leaps forward and, to stay relevant, we need to outsource basic tasks and information to our computers/ robotic augmentation/ tools, and focus our time on higher level thinking and more complex skills.
Convergence Training: You suggest spending less time and information learning facts/information, and more time and effort learning what you and others call mental models. Could you explain what a mental model is and give some real-life example?
Arun Pradhan: Our brains are incredibly efficient to the point that they avoid thinking whereever possible. Instead they’ll leverage mental models to quickly interpret and make assumptions about our world.
I define mental models in their broadest sense, to encompass theories, concepts, world views and frameworks that allow us to interpret and act in the world around us.
One of my favourite mental models is the ‘desktop’ on computers. Interacting with a computer using this metaphor allows us to quickly understand how to interact with computers, including using documents and a folder structure.
Other mental models might be tools like John Whitmore’s ‘GROW’ for coaching, which works through goal, reality, options and wrap. Industry specific ones for learning and development professionals includes 70:20:10, ADDIE or the five moments of learning need.
In each case they’re simplified short cuts that allow us to interpret and act on the (more complex) reality around us.
Convergence Training: You also warn to be aware of the positive and negative ways that we unconscious thoughts can affect learning. On the negative side, you suggest we be aware of our own built-in biases and try to look past them, and on the positive side, you suggest “slow thinking” to take a bigger-picture view. Can you tell us more about each?
Arun Pradhan: In his best selling book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell highlights the positives of this, citing the tennis player who can intuitively predict a fault before it happens, or the art expert who has a gut feel about a forged painting.
In both instances, they are bringing tacit mental models to bear. These are complex formulas that leverage pattern recognition born from vast experience.
It was Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman who popularised the negative side of this as unconscious bias. As I said, our brain constantly looks for shortcuts, so it leverages tacit mental models without us even being aware.
Similarity bias plays out in recruitment, where we implicitly try to surround ourselves with people who are like us. We might talk about diversity, but unless we slow down our thinking and bring awareness to what’s happening, our gut reaction will recruit those clones.
Or there’s anchor bias, which means that the first piece of information we receive influences what comes next. For example, one study asked people if Ghandi died before or after the age of 9 to one group, and the other was asked was it before or after the age of 140. The first group guessed the age as 50, the second as 67.
Again, the only way to prevent this is self-awareness and slowing down thinking so our brain doesn’t just to those short cuts. This is effortful, exhausting even, so it needs to be done strategically.
Convergence Training: One aspect of learning is creating new connections between ideas and another is in changing previously held beliefs. In this context, you discuss the importance of learning how to unlearn information, beliefs, and mental models in order to learn new or revised ones. Can you tell us why this is important?
Arun Pradhan: Once those mental models take hold, and especially serve as well, they’re very difficult to get rid of. I love Marshall Goldsmith’s quote at this point, where he said, “what got you here, won’t get you there.”
This is crucial because when our external circumstances change, and it is changing at an accelerated rate, then the mental models that were previously useful might be redundant. The classic example is Kodak.
It was actually a Kodak engineer who invented the first digital camera, yet Kodak’s management grasped onto their old mental models despite the evidence that things were changing.
The ability to unlearn based on evidence, or even signals of change, represents true learning agility and the ability to adapt to new situations.
Convergence Training: It’s a bit of a cliché that the development of expertise in a given topic—playing piano, being a scientist, playing in the NBA, etc.—takes a lot of time, and you’ll often hear the figure “10,000 hours” tossed about in this context. However, you mention the importance not just of practice or study time spent, but of something called deliberate practice. Can you tell us what deliberate practice is and how it can speed up the path to mastery or expertise?
Gladwell’s claim was based on Ericsson’s research. And Ericsson has since made pained efforts to explain that, more than putting the time in, it’s about investing in deliberate practice.
The deliberate aspect involves practicing, then leveraging expert feedback to identify gaps and weak spots. Then ensuring that future practice focuses on those gaps.
It’s not a case of going through the motions; it’s a conscious process of seeking out feedback and relentlessly looking to improve areas of weakness.
Side note: Read our article on Deliberate Practice and the Anders Ericsson book Peak.
Convergence Training: There’s a social aspect to learning, and that includes collaborating on team projects and something you and others call working out loud. Can you tell us about these?
It’s a simple but powerful concept that is built on the fact that collective intelligence and ‘who you know’ is a powerful advantage.
I used this in creating Learn2Learn. I crowdfunded it, by asking people to help pay for the idea I had… but more importantly I actually crowdsourced feedback and ideas constantly.
When I developed a model, or had an idea, I’d share it on my social network to ask for feedback. I didn’t share finished work to make me look good, I shared concepts and work in progress with the aim of improving them.
Convergence Training: You’re a big fan of “stretch projects,” prototyping and testing, and then using the data to either confirm you’re on the right path and continue or realize your prototype was a failure, abandon it quickly, and try something else. Can you tell us more about the importance of failing, the lessons we can learn from failing, and the importance of failing fast and moving on?
Arun Pradhan: I love failing. That’s hard to say in this culture…
But the trick is to ‘fail fast’, so you learn and can improve before you make a big investment. I talked about this earlier by the way I worked out loud and ran my half-baked concepts by my network before investing too much time into them.
Similarly the UX I used for Learn2Learn went through 9 main prototype cycles, each with about 3 to 5 variations. I tested them quickly, throwing them together in prototyping software that meant I could receive instant feedback.
For example, my initial concept for Learn2Learn was to include a large goal setting and journal component. I dismissed this idea after my initial testing showed that my users liked the idea but wouldn’t use it.
Failing fast on that saved me months of development time and helped improve the product.
Convergence Training: You’re also a big fan of reflection as a way to improve learning, which is something others call metacognition. Can you tell us what reflection is, how it improves learning, and maybe give us an example?
Arun Pradhan: Reflection is crucial to make sense of experience and draw out mental models to add to your cognitive toolkit.
It might just consist of stopping to think and ponder what has happened. It provides perspective, removing us from that ‘reactive’ mode and giving us time to see patterns and opportunities to improve.
On a simple level, I like using John Driscoll’s ‘what’, ‘so what’, ‘now what’ questions to frame a reflective session. You can use this after a difficult conversation with a co-worker. Taking five minutes to work through the question of what objectively happened, understanding the takeaways and learning from it, then creating a plan moving forward.
I talk about a more complex process of sense making in the app to support more complex investigation, but asking those three questions as part of a daily habit or routine will be transformative.
Convergence Training: Can you tell us about your current work around learning agility?
Arun Pradhan: Learn2Learn is really about developing learning agility in individuals. It’s about saying that any individual is capable of becoming a powerful agile learner using these relatively simple techniques.
My next area of exploration is looking at learning agility on an organizational level. That is, how can organizations enable people to learn and improve, constantly and quickly.
So rather than obsessing about shoving event-based training down people’s brains, this approach is about empowering people with the skills, purpose, resources and systems to learn.
It’s a big topic and I’m practicing what I preach by starting a column in Learning Solutions Magazine about ‘learning agility’. My plan is to spend this year working out loud about learning agility in organizations and encouraging an ongoing conversation so I can develop a deeper understanding about what works and what doesn’t.
Note: Arun has now published his article on Agile Learning--check it out.
Convergence Training: Can you tell us more about yourself, your interests and work, and your recently launched Learn2Learn app?
Arun Pradhan: The app was my contribution to help empower people in what can ultimately be a period of great stress and hardship. The change we’re living through is and will cost people their jobs and force dramatic change.
I hope that Learn2Learn will contribute to people developing the mindset, skills and techniques to better navigate these challenges.
Certainly, I’ve had tremendous feedback about it and I’m actually building an enterprise version of it for businesses, which will be launched in April of this year.
We hope you've found this article and the insights from Arun Pradhan to be interesting, beneficial, and inspiring. If you're an employee looking to develop new skills or sharpen existing ones, we wish you luck and invite you to check out our online workforce training courses that may be useful to you. If you're a manager or supervisor, those same online courses may benefit you in your career as well, but in addition we offer additional tools, such as a learning management system (LMS) and mobile learning apps, that may make it easier for you to play a positive role and facilitate employee learning, knowledge sharing, and performance support at work.
Finally, we invite you to share your own opinions and tips on how to learn more effectively, both as individuals and organizations, and to share your own favorite books, authors, thinkers, and resources on the topic.