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Using neuroscience for L&D

How to use neuroscience for learning and development

The past few years have seen an increasing amount of discussion about neuroscience, and how it could be used by HR.

Based around understanding how the human brain works – and how people are programmed to respond in certain situations – the concept could lend itself well to learning and development initiatives.

In 2014 HR magazine looked at neuroscience and its potential uses. But, while many academics and psychologists were happy to talk, it proved difficult to find many examples of organisations actually using it. Now, though, neuroscience seems to be finally filtering through into practical applications. We take a look at some of the most innovative examples.

Imperial College NHS Trust

The initiative

Neuroscience and brain-friendly learning has played an important role in helping leaders at Imperial College NHS Trust cope with a major organisational change programme.

“The way we’ve designed the programmes is based on creating the right environment for learning,” says Beverley Aylott, former head of leadership development at the Trust. “We know that people learn better when they’re in control and have choice over how they learn.”

This has meant splitting programmes into bite-sized chunks and presenting material in different formats – including TED talks, YouTube videos and interactive sessions – as well as incorporating review points and the use of coaches and mentors.

“With leadership, which is very personal and individual, you can’t send someone on a one-day leadership course and expect them to behave differently,” says Aylott. “Our programmes are very light on content but heavy on personal responsibility and reflective practice.”

Why neuroscience?

Aylott brought the use of neuroscience and brain-friendly learning to her job at Imperial when she joined two years ago, having previously used it to create a range of learning and development programmes at Guide Dogs for the Blind.

“I’m very keen to be on the front foot and look at what neuroscience is telling us about our current practice and what we should be changing,” she says.

The result

So far around 200 people have been through the programme, and everyone has said they would recommend it to a colleague.

The organisation has measured outcomes by asking people to keep “reflective journeys”. “We have lots of qualitative evidence from those statements,” says Aylott. “We’re hearing people say ‘I’ve completely changed the way I manage or lead’.”

The programme has also been shortlisted as a finalist in the Healthcare People Management Association 2015 Awards.


The initiative

In recent years the focus at BT has been on changing the leadership culture and it recently introduced a behavioural change programme based on the principles of neuroscience.

The business also used neuroscience in determining the type of behaviours it wanted to see from leaders.

This then evolved into understanding how the brain connects patterns of thoughts, which could create the conditions needed for innovative ideas. “If you capitalise on that quickly you can get people to set far higher aspirations than you could if you were trying to do it for them,” says director of leadership Hugh Hood.

Why neuroscience?

Hood and his team were particularly keen to explore the concept of neuroscience because of the nature of its employee base. “As a group of engineering and finance people we thought it would connect much better with people, and it did,” he says. “It gave a rationale that psychology didn’t.”

The results

“We look at how confident leaders themselves are in the changes they’re making, and also the perception of leadership in general at BT,” says Hood. Most feedback has been that people believe their own leader has changed, but are not always convinced this is the case more broadly.

The business also found the impact lessened the further down the leadership chain it went. “We started with the top 600 people and their direct reports would see some change but that weakened as we went two or three reports down,” explains Hood. As a result it is now rolling out a modified version to 11,000 employees with leadership responsibility.

Fitness First

The initiative

Gym chain Fitness First is currently undergoing a rebranding and business transformation process, as it seeks to make outstanding customer service a point of differentiation in a crowded market.

Central to this is the need to have motivated, engaged and inspirational employees, so it turned to neuroscience to help make this happen, drawing on methods outlined in John Medina’s Brain Rules.

“We had sessions with our management teams around those principles, looking at what they mean to all aspects of work and our employees’ experience,” says Niall Cluley, HR director, global at Fitness First.

“We could see a fundamental shift in changing the format of meetings and briefings, of eating better and promoting better sleep. We’ve come at it from an organisation, team and manager leader level, as a learning and development team, and then what that means individually.”

Why neuroscience?

The starting point was the work the company had done with Loughborough University’s Professor Stuart Biddle to try and understand why customers would join a gym but then quickly lose interest.

“He brought to the table developments in social neuroscience and theories around motivation, showing that things such as autonomy, social relatedness and a sense of progression were all key factors,” says Cluley. “That gave us the opportunity to think about how it applies to employees.”

The results

The learning and development programmes have contributed to a wider initiative to engage employees, which has seen levels increase by 20% globally says Cluley.

In turn, this has led to a significant increase in the number of members feeling they are inspired by staff, which has helped demonstrate a return on investment.

“We know in terms of pounds and pence the impact that improvement in engagement is having on business performance,” says Cluley.

Staff turnover has also reduced; in some countries falling from 100% to 25% over the past three years, he adds.