Tackling Business Problems with Learning Theory and Research

7 strategies to help you keep up to date on learning theory and research.

By Giselle Springer Douglas

When faced with top brass who ask you to douse a performance or business problem by throwing training at it, you might find that training actually isn’t the correct solution for the problem at hand. But how do you offer a succinct explanation to training requesters on why, say, developing a new training class to remind customer service representatives of some of the details they already learned in new hire training probably isn’t an effective solution?

Rather than slinking off to spend your time and the company’s money developing a solution your knowledge and experience tell you won’t be effective, it’s often better to flex your scholar muscle to express why an alternate solution is a better salve.

Much recent neuroscience and learning research, and andragogical and, more generally, pedagogical theories can easily become business problem remedies, helping learning professionals to develop targeted learning solutions that cut right to the heart of business problems to inject a powerful antidote.

Theory and Research to the Rescue

One surefire way to prove a case for or against a proposed solution is to know what the research and science say about it. Science, research, and academe come with built-in credibility. Find a solution rooted in the science and you’ve won half the battle

In one case, citing the theory of learned helplessness, a condition of behaving helplessly after having been subjected to repeated challenges one cannot overcome, helped me to justify why developing overly complicated and difficult assessment questions could produce averse and anxiety-laden responses in learners, rather than the intended aim of reinforcing the importance of the training.

Offering up, “I just know that won’t work. I’ve never seen it work before,” although a reasonable retort, doesn’t hold the same water as sounding off with: “I suggest we look to constructivist learning theory and develop authentic, scenario-based, small group assessment exercises that give learners an opportunity to refresh the skills they learned in new hire training.”

With the latter statement, you’ve used theory to solve a business problem, and it’s likely you’ve proven yourself to be a knowledgeable and passionate practitioner of your craft. If your scholar muscle is weak, strengthen it by keeping up to date on learning theory and research.

Here are some suggestions on how to keep andragogically fit:

  1. Think like an MBA program graduate. Business school curricula often include the analysis of business case studies to teach students how theory can be applied in the real world. Take in a few teaching case studies to learn how other learning professionals apply theory to curriculum development and teaching. One resource to start with: “Case Studies and Activities in Adult Education and Human Resource Development.” You also can leverage case studies from related disciplines and glean useful ideas from them. A resource that would take only a bit of creativity to borrow from is “Teaching in Action: Case Studies from Second Language Classrooms.”
  2. Rifle through a new learning theory or design and instruction book a month. You need not limit yourself to corporate training and adult education books, though. There is much to be learned from our fellow educators who work in higher education, vocational teaching and learning, English language teaching, and even at the high school level. Here, again, you may have to use a little creativity to figure out how best to apply an approach used in a high school math classroom to your technical skills training classroom, but don’t be dissuaded by that. Take a gander at books such as “Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load,” and “e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning.”
  3. Check out GetAbstract.com. There, you’ll find ultra-short synopses of some of the latest business and training-related books on the market.
  4. Keep up on brain science news. A few Websites to check out: ilabs.washington.edu and http://www.dana.org. You also can set up Google Reader to get the latest neuroscience news delivered to you from Websites of your choice, or you can use Google Alerts (google.com/alerts) to have Google scour the Web and e-mail brain science news to you. “Aging and Learning” and “Neuroscience and Learning” might be good keywords to subscribe on Google Alerts.
  5. Wondering what might result if you implemented a particular solution? Search Google Scholar for journal articles on problems similar to the ones you’re tackling. Such articles usually explain the problem, solution, and results in great detail, so you can practically lift the solution off the virtual page and apply it to your situation.
  6. Join the ranks of academics and read journals on learning and education. These contain the latest academic research, theories, and ideas on our field. A few to start with: The Electronic Journal of e-Learning, Training & Management Development Methods, and the Journal of Learning Design.
  7. Maintain an active presence on online learning and development communities. Folks active in these communities are learning professionals who pose and answer questions that can inform your own projects. A good place to start: LinkedIn Groups. Search for “training” or “learning and development” on http://www.LinkedIn.com to see a list of active groups you can join.

If you arm yourself with a firm understanding of learning theories, you need not reinvent the wheel or throw everything against the wall to see what sticks when designing learning solutions. Learning theories and research are waiting at the ready for you to come upon them to put them to good use, creatively solving your organization’s business problems and, just as importantly, credibly explaining and substantiating your proposals.

Giselle Springer Douglas is an innovative specialist who is expert in providing sound andragogy and pedagogy research and theory-backed, multiculturally appropriate learning solutions targeted at forwarding business and growth objectives. She currently is completing a doctoral program in organizational leadership at Northeastern University. She can be reached at g.springer@live.com.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.