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Dear Workforce How Can We Use Adult Learning Principles in Our Training?

My company wants to build a training format and structure than can be standardized for all our learning efforts. What exactly should such a structure include? How do I determine essential elements for our entire employee training?

September 7, 2011

An absolute for high performance is to ground an organization in solid learning principles and action. Learning is the foundation of success for all organizations. The more structures that organizations have in place for learning, the more they will drive their mission and competitive advantage. When people learn new knowledge, skills, tools and techniques, they leverage their position to achieve goals. The key is that people must apply what they have learned to areas important to them at work.

Most organizations fail miserably at getting people to apply new skills. Typically, employees attend a training event (spending time away from their jobs) only to return once again to face the same pressures and problems they faced earlier. Going away for training does not mean our work goes away. In many ways, applying new knowledge is revolutionary thinking because so many organizations do not have the right system in place to engage short- and long-term skills application.

The field of adult learning was pioneered by Malcolm Knowles in the 1970s. While times have changed, not much has changed with regard to how adults learn. Knowles' work is based on psychology, which focuses on cognition (they way we think), motivation (the things that get us going) and behaviors (the things we do). In order to ensure a successful learning strategy and execution, there are a number of key adult learning principles that Knowles has identified as being fundamental. In this context, the principles are universal and can be applied for all areas of learning, including those in the technical arena.

Knowles' Adult Learning Principles

Learning is autonomous and self-directed. People want to feel a sense of independence and practice self-direction in achieving their learning. The implication is that opportunities must be made available for people to get involved in their learning. Instead of lecturing, facilitators must engage people in the learning process. Learners must be active participants, using simulations, case-study analysis, team projects, blended learning and stretch assignments.

It leverages people's experience and knowledge. Adult learners bring a significant amount of experience and knowledge to the table. They will filter new knowledge and skills through this lens and make judgments accordingly. If information is against what they believe, they will be resistant to change. However, if new insights are aligned to their interests and preferences, they usually will engage in acquiring new skills.

It is goal-oriented. By nature, most people are goal-oriented. As a result, it is important to pay attention to adult learners and their goals. By structuring learning early on to assess participants' goals, you will find that people are better able to link learning that is meaningful, exciting and relevant.

Relevancy is important. Adult learners will maximize their new skills acquisition significantly more when they find the learning relevant for them. People need to see how the learning relates to their job, department, goals and organization.

Focus on practicality. If the topics are outside the learner's comfort level or learning ability, the learning will fail. Take time to ensure the curriculum is structured in such a way to match the audience's ability to learn and apply principles.

In beginning a new learning program, the principles of adult learning can help guide the structure and curriculum. In addition, it is also important to consider other areas for the program. These include commitment from senior leadership, alignment to business, core competencies, measures of assessment, values integration, coaching and mentoring, external collaborations, learning alumni network, learning accountability and establishing a learning culture.