Does Your Business Need a Behavioral Scientist?

Such an approach looks forward, simplifying the environment to remove barriers before they deter learning and allowing a company to fine-tune its course content and integrate personalization into module-based learning.

“Education doesn’t necessarily change behavior,” believes Charlotte Blank, chief behavioral officer for marketing and advertising firm Maritz. “Our environment, however, has an enormous effect on our behavior. Therefore, we can use policies and systems to nudge us in the right direction.”

That means you might want to consider having a behavioral scientist on the Learning and Development (L&D) staff. Policies of nudging are grounded in behavioral science, a specialty that initially was applied to sales and customer relations. Now it’s also shaping learning and development.

The results are compelling. “We see people connect to material faster, ask better questions, and continue using concepts longer when they are presented in the ‘language’ of the learner,” says Hugh Massie, chairman and president, DNA Behavior International. That translates to a 23 percent increase in the adoption of (learned) solutions and a 40 percent performance improvement.

Such improvements are why English Blinds, a custom blinds manufacturer in England’s West Midlands, relies on behavioral analysts to review its existing and historical learning programs and to shape future efforts.

“Behavioral analysis helped us identify where and why we might lose the attention of a proportion of trainees, the knock-on effect this has, and if it can be recovered,” says CEO John Moss. “The process also identifies why certain approaches result in high levels of engagement for some learners, but are ineffective for others.” In effect, this approach looks forward, simplifying the environment to remove barriers before they deter learning.

“By undertaking assessments of this type, we’re able to fine-tune our course content and integrate a degree of personalization in module-based learning. That enables trainees to have some influence over how they learn because it supports different learners progressing at different paces,” Moss elaborates.

“Overall, this improves productivity, gets people up to speed faster, and helps streamline training.” He says it is vital for cutting costs because it reduces the need for retraining by making the initial training more effective.

Consultants Are Still Preferred

Creating behavioral sciences divisions is a growing trend, and the focus is turning now toward employees. “We are seeing many more papers on this topic by the likes of the McKinsey Group and the Harvard Business Review, and we are seeing more companies go down this path,” Massie says.

Capital One, for example, has a “People Analytics” organization that works closely with HR and business partners. This group performs quantitative and qualitative analyses for use in developing (as a recent job posting stated) “behavioral nudges to help Capital One associates be the best versions of themselves.”

Most organizations are not establishing behavioral sciences divisions, though. Instead, “organizations are using behavioral science to customize services, often under the banner of another area, such as big data or information,” Massie says. “Consequently, L&D may be a subset of a behavioral sciences division or approach,” focused around employee engagement or productivity, for example. By learning what makes its organization’s employees and customers tick, L&D becomes the catalyst for customized learning experiences in terms of training content, pace, format, and approach.

Another approach is simply to turn to consultants. John Hancock, Sprint Wireless, Emory University, Chicago’s Midtown Athletic Club, The Technology Association of Georgia, and the U.S. Air Force each have contracted with consultants to integrate elements of behavioral science into their L&D endeavors.

Uri Gneezy, professor of behavioral economics at the University of California – San Diego, is doing this for a large pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. “The goal of this project is to help its employees think more like their clients,” he explains. Here, this involves ensuring that the people the company is targeting—typically the purchasers for large healthcare systems—will give the pharmaceutical sales force the attention it needs. His role as a behavioral scientist is to help the team explore the drivers behind their clients’ behaviors and then help the sales and marketing team deliver complex messages about specific pharmaceuticals’ medical and economic benefits quickly and succinctly.

Business Models Have Changed

Behavioral science continually evolves. “What you studied in graduate school may no longer be valid,” Gneezy says. Traditionally, business models developed in the 1950s and 1960s assumed that people were selfish profit maximizers. “They didn’t account for the human side of things,” he notes. In the mid-1990s, organizations were beginning to apply some degree of Emotional Intelligence to move past those simplistic models and understand how people really behave.

How supervisors talk with employees about their performance evaluations is a good example of how behavioral understanding can affect outcomes, says Jasmijn Bol, accounting professor at Tulane University. “Research shows that if the system creates a feeling of unfairness, regardless of whether it is unfair, it will lead to demotivation and higher turnover. Connecting poor performance to what went wrong helps people feel better about their evaluation. Their emotional reactions were less strong, helping them think cognitively rather than emotionally.” Following up with an action plan for improvement signals a commitment to their continued development.

“It’s all about signaling,” Gneezy explains. And, increasingly, the signal is about more than money. Financial incentives for altruistic actions typically backfire. “Imagine your boss offers you $20 to work the weekend. The low dollar amount signals the boss doesn’t value your weekend.” The extra $20 becomes an insult. But if you were asked to work the weekend to push a product launch, acquiescing could be considered altruistic—sacrificing for the company’s good. If the company catered lunch and dinner, you might feel valued even if the meals only cost about $20.

Clearly, Gneezy says, “people have preferences and drivers beyond money.” Incentives linked to attainments, such as recognition for achieving key certifications, tend to be effective. Organizations may deploy social incentives, too, such as the opportunity to volunteer in the community or to participate in targeted training. As the world changes, understanding new incentives is increasingly vital.

Think About Behavior

The most important thing behavioral scientists do is to encourage people to think in a behavioral way. In practice, it means choosing relevant incentives, as well as repurposing content to resonate with learners despite a variety of learning styles.

Much of Massie’s work centers around helping leaders enhance their own performance. He also helps them learn to build culture and coach their teams more effectively, managing people with different talents, motivations, and communications styles. Part of his approach, he says, is to show people graphically, up front, how they will benefit from the training and what success looks like for them if they achieve their goals.

This all seems like common sense, particularly for L&D professionals, who are, after all, experts in training. So why hire a behavioral scientist?

“Imagine this was a problem in physics,” Gneezy says. “You would hire an expert, listen, and believe that expert. But in behavioral economics, you feel knowledgeable.” You’re less likely to import expertise. The problem, he explains, is that “few people know what it is they don’t know. Therefore, realizing there is a problem is a big first step. This isn’t rocket science, but still…”

Applying behavioral science to learning does require skills in analytics and the ability to apply the outcome. It also requires a deep understanding of your business, as well as the behaviors that deliver the exact outcome you want.

Regardless of whether you have that expertise on the L&D staff, you do need access to it. Companies that don’t leverage behavioral insights in training are missing huge opportunities to improve learning and development.


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