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How to avoid the dangers of not learning by doing

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Just as taking tennis lessons helps you to improve your game faster than simply reading books about it, learning by doing will be familiar to HR professionals as a hands-on approach to learning new skills. The effectiveness of this approach is demonstrated in the steep learning curve that often occurs when employees learn how to manage new roles in the workplace.

Learning by doing is effective because we learn from the consequences of our actions. If a particular solution results in disaster, you become less likely to use that solution again – a pattern crucially important for skill development to ensure we do not need to constantly re-learn basic skills.

However this method of learning comes with the significant and generally invisible risk of not learning by doing. This takes over when the learning curve flattens. Once we feel we have sufficient capability to meet our end-goals, we stop working on improving our skills and instead rely on the tools we have to deliver our results. To revisit tennis, once we feel we are good enough to play a whole match, we stop trying to improve our weak backhand and rely on that strong forehand to win against an opponent.


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While learning by doing acts to help us avoid failure, not learning by doing acts to hold us back from excellence. Failure is usually obvious, so it gives us the chance to look for a better way to do it next time. However, so long as we experience no evident disaster, whatever approaches or strategies we use today only become more likely to be the same that we use again tomorrow, even if they are sub optimal.

For the individual, not learning by doing results in the unmeasured opportunity cost of outcomes that could have been achieved – or achieved at a higher level. For the organisation, the hidden costs derive from the fact that employees growing in experience are not necessarily growing in expertise.

Research on the development of workplace expertise by Anders Ericsson and colleagues has demonstrated that the relationship between experience and expertise is often much weaker than we expect. The bottom line of not learning by doing is this: unless employees are required to actively improve their skill set in an ongoing manner, we cannot assume that they are improving with experience. Instead, it is far more likely that they just get better at using the same tools (like a strong forehand) to address a new challenge (such as a new opponent).

The antidote to not learning by doing is described in Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice approach. This begins with breaking a complex skill into smaller components, identifying the components with the greatest potential for improvement, and then systematically and repetitively working on those specific components to produce an improvement in the overall skill.

The approach is akin to taking a break from winning tennis matches and returning to improving your weak backhand. HR leaders can best help their organisations to avoid the dangers of not learning by doing with two main action steps:

  1. Advocate time away from the ‘performance zone’. A high-pressure work environment exacerbates not learning by doing as when we are under constant pressure to deliver results we are most likely to stick with the approaches that have worked in the past. In order to safely and effectively work on skill development, employees need time away from the pressure and risk of delivering results. The ‘learning zone’ is a safe space that mimics the performance zone but without the consequences of failure, much like a flight simulator enables pilots to practice skill development without putting lives at risk.

  2. Advocate L&D programmes that improve skills from ‘good’ to ‘excellent’ as being equally important as those that develop skills from ‘zero’ to ‘good’. Often managers think of training and development mostly as a remedy for poor performance. In contrast, working on presentations skill development should be as important for people who ‘know how to present’ as for those who do not.

Leading your organisation to avoid this phenomenon will ensure your people are constantly improving their toolkits, rather than simply applying the same tools to new situations.

 

Amanda Nimon-Peters is a faculty member and research fellow at Hult International Business School.