CEO’s Desk: A secret about the brain that could decrease the time your employees take to learn and adapt to change

I don’t watch much TV, but every now and then I get more than expected from it. One such recent case was the program, The Brain, in which Dr David Eagleman, neuroscientist, NYT bestselling author and Guggenheim Fellow shared a fascinating but little known secret…our brains are specifically designed so that we learn on the job – by doing.

Giraffe baby walksDr Eagleman explained that this is why human babies do not have anywhere near the survival skills possessed by animal babies. While a giraffe calf can stand and walk within 30 minutes of being born, a human baby is a fragile and helpless thing that doesn’t begin walking until several months after birth.

But this lack of ‘pre-programming’ in a human baby’s brain does gives humans a bigger, blanker ‘canvas’ to paint on and an extraordinary advantage: we are able to adapt to and survive in vastly different environments, even if it’s one our ancestors would have been completely unfamiliar with – because we just learn all we need, when required, on the job.

By contrast, a giraffe could not learn to survive in the Antarctic or in an environment unfamiliar to its species or where its natural food source does not exist. Its brain is simply not designed to quickly learn the new skills it needs to find food or shelter in an alien environment and so it will perish.

Dr Eagleman says this unique design feature of the human brain is obviously a significant factor in why humans are the planet’s dominant species – and from what I’ve witnessed, tapping into this ability to learn what we need as we go is a huge advantage at work where products, processes and systems are changing more rapidly than ever.

And it’s one more reason why the 70:20:10 framework for learning and development makes practical good sense. Why try to train employees on new things in a training room far from the field of work if humans are pre-programmed to learn from experience? It’s little wonder that employees struggle to absorb the information or instructions they receive in such settings because their brain, which is primarily designed to learn on the job, is unable to attach meaningful context to all this new data.

Test yourself – can you remember the mathematical principles and formulas that you diligently memorised in high school? For most of us, sadly not. But even if you haven’t done so for years, you could probably ride a bike today because that’s a skill you learned by doing.

Why not leverage this fact about the human brain and simply allow employees to also learn by doing? Provide the easy guidance they need, right at the moment of need and then allow them to complete the new task with the confidence of experts, right from the start.

L&D professionals who have successfully achieved this enable seamless and rapid business change – creating highly competent and empowered employees who consistently perform at the highest standard. You can read how here.

Ted Gannan

Ted Gannan co-founded Panviva after 20 years in a variety of senior management, sales, and editorial roles in the publishing industry, including Managing Director of Thomson Learning, Australia. Ted led the development of SupportPoint after identifying a need for an improved method of delivering ‘moment-of-need’ procedural and product knowledge to employees. He is responsible for overseeing the company’s growth worldwide.

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