Tuesday 22 March 2011

The Power of Conversations

“we tell ourselves stories in order to live”
Haruki Murakami

CIMG0007Jerome Bruner (1915- ) is one of the greatest educational psychologists the world has ever produced. He has spent his long lifetime studying learning and the human mind. Still active and in post as a Research Professor at New York University in his 95th year, Bruner has long realised the value of conversations and story-telling as vital learning tools. His research has led him to point out that ‘our world is others’ and that we need to always take this into account in our approach to learning and development.

Of course Bruner is absolutely correct. We rarely, if ever, work and learn alone. We reach our goals and contribute to our organisations’ objectives in a social context. In the maelstrom of our digital communications age the need to think ‘socially’ is more important than ever.

So if we ask what Bruner, conversations and story-telling have to do with performance and productivity, the answer we get is ‘a very great deal, indeed’.

I have pointed out previously (Training Industry Quarterly – Summer 2009 and elsewhere) that there are four basic ways in which we learn to do our jobs:

a. Through the experiences to which we are exposed

b. Through the opportunities we have to practice

c. Through our conversations with our colleagues and managers

d. Through having the opportunity for reflection on what has worked and what would work better next time

Each of these is an important factor in the learning process. As such it’s a good practice for every training and development professional to hold their learning solutions up against these four learning elements and ask the question ‘is our solution design providing opportunities in all four?’ If it’s not, then the solution should be reviewed and redesigned, or binned. Often, the solution needs little design at all but just manipulation of the environment to enable natural communication and learning to take place .

Incorporating Conversation into learning and performance design

In performance solution design, the role of conversations is often forgotten as a powerful tool for improvement. Everything from informal water-cooler conversations and informal mentoring by colleagues and managers to structured exchanges through formal coaching and expert knowledge sharing sessions exploit this power. Trainers and learning professionals should continually be thinking about ways they can do this.

The effective use of conversations is part of one of the most important challenges learning and development teams face in producing effective solutions to business problems. The challenge is to move the focus from designing learning solutions around knowledge acquisition towards those whose aim is to help development of ‘real’ learning and understanding. These are two very different things.

To achieve the latter, any solution needs to fully engage workers in the process of development and provide opportunities for them to ‘think about the different outcomes that could have resulted from a set of circumstances’ (Bruner’s words) if they are to demonstrate usability of knowledge.

Conversations are a great way to facilitate this process.

This was first published in the Winter 2011 edition of Training Industry Quarterly in my regular Performance & Productivity column.