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Short Circuit Burch’s 4 Stages of Learning

Cheat’s guide: Get your staff unconsciously competent faster!

I attended a recent Gartner Symposium/ITxpo and one of the speakers talked about the four stages of learning. I was intrigued by the discussion as it has relevance to how we learn as individuals and therefore how we perform in work teams – which in turn impacts business success. So I did a little research and found out that Noel Burch, a psychologist who worked at Gordon Training International in the 1970s is credited with defining this model – and better still, I’ve a cheat’s guide to help you short circuit the stages and accelerate your employees learning! 

What did Burch say are the 4 stages of learning?

To explain I’ve created this simple diagram and I chose a cycle because learning should always be continuous, as Albert Einstein said, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.”







Stage 1: Being unconsciously incompetent causes frustration
Being unconsciously incompetent is what I call the inertia stage. A common frustration I hear from managers is how employees create a costly mess by doing something the wrong way. But the common response from the employee is: “I thought that’s how that task was done”! Simply put you do things inefficiently and make errors because you don’t know there is a better way.

Stage 2:How do I survive this change?
Once you are consciously incompetent there is a trigger stage for learning and development. You either realise or are told (by a frustrated manager!) that what you are doing is unproductive or wrong. Sometimes this stage can be like getting shot down – it leaves you paralysed because you realise you have so much to learn and typically in business, a short time to do it.

Stage 3: I’ve mostly got this 
For many employees being consciously competent is as good as it gets. You’ve received some instructions, practiced the task for a period of time and can now perform the task to the required standard most times – although you take longer than colleagues who may have more years of practice. You do however really need to focus to remember all the steps when you’re doing the task and if distracted or under pressure you make errors – so someone needs to check and supervise your work.

Stage 4: How can I leverage my new expertise?
This stage is the holy grail. I call being unconsciously competent auto play. Most athletes at the peak of their career achieve this – they have the skill to make the shot with their eyes closed and therefore focus their attention on grabbing the opportunity of even a small change in their opponent’s game to score that winning goal, all within split seconds. Similarly, the highest performers at any work place are those for whom the necessary steps and process become easily ingrained. With this level of skill, the employee’s confidence increases and that spurs them to improve outcomes by finding ways to add value to what they do – often starting a new cycle of learning and development for them and delivering tremendous benefits for the organisation.

So how do L&D professionals get all their employees from stage 2 to 4 quickly?

In a competitive environment most businesses don’t have the time to wait for employees to become competent nor the resources to train and support every single one of their employees. But there’s a quick and affordable way for you to help all your staff become unconsciously competent and effectively short circuit the learning curve – here’s your cheat’s guide to L&D success.

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