How can we help people put learning into practice?

It is very easy for a learning activity to be disconnected from real working life. Head knowledge (e.g. about ways of collaborating) may not be translated into any kind of action or change of behaviour.

What can we do in the learning design to help people to activate their learning, retain it, embed the change and sustain it? I’ve come up with five practical steps in the learning design guide for our organisation which are all about helping people to activate their learning. See what you think, and I would love your thoughts on what I’ve missed (in the comments).

  • Keep it real
  • Remind them
  • Make the full content findable
  • Support the change
  • Plan to gather insight from people who have activated their learning

Keep it real

The learning environment can feel distant from the real working environment. It is important for learners to sense that what they are learning is “real” so they can relate it to their own experiences, understand when the learning could be put into practice, and actually remember to do something about it. How can this be part of the learning design?

  • Put the learning into practice yourself. Practice what you preach (and make sure any other presenters are doing that as well). Incorporate your own personal stories about how it worked for you into what is presented.
  • Include real stories of colleagues – show their faces, give the context, include quotes that convey an emotional impact.
  • Base a course activity on the learner’s own real situation. For example, in a benefits masterclass I ran, the activity was to draw a benefits map for the work each learner was doing at the moment.
  • Include opportunities to practice in a real technical environment (or a “sandbox” which is real except that it is not live data). Ideally the learners will be able to continue using this environment when the official learning activity is over. Simulations, particularly in CBT environments are rarely convincing enough to help actual users, and it is important to overcome all the start-up issues that happen with first use of a new system.

Remind them

After people have used the learning environment you’ve designed, what will remind them to put what they learned into action? Your plan could include:

  • Embedding. Reminders written in to the flow of their work.
  • Favourites. As part of the learning, include a step for the learner to put helpful links where they’ll find them when they need them – eg browser favourites or a page in OneNote.
  • Job aids. Prompts included in the main guides they follow to do their jobs.
  • Pin-up. A summary to pin on their wall.
  • Action learning plan. Ask them to say what they’ll do differently to the group – a public statement gives a sense of commitment (but only if unforced).
  • Survey. After 3 months, ask them whether and how they’ve put the learning into action. The act of asking will prompt activation.
  • Drip-feed reminders. The classic example in BT is the ‘speaking with one voice’ campaign, who send regular emails (eMoments) with an interesting new tip or technique on the subject to everyone who’s taken part in one of their workshops.

Make the full content findable

When the learner starts to put it into practice, they often realise they have forgotten some details and want to refresh their memory on what they learnt. That can be difficult if the event had no supporting materials, or if the replays is too lengthy or if the CBTs are locked away in the Learning Management System, and can only be consumed in sequential order. The learning design needs to make the full content findable in the moment of need.

  • Split up lengthy replay and videos into smaller chunks, store them where they can be easily searched. Make the title and description comprehensive so the search engine will find it by the things the user might search for. If you have a video transcript, store it in the video document set so that it also is indexed.
  • If you have made a CBT, also publish a Powerpoint or Word version of the same content. The search engine will index all the text in the powerpoint, making it findable. Users will find it easier to refresh their memory from a conventional document than by re-doing the CBT. MS-Office documents are better than PDFs because they allow the users to extract useful stuff into their own notes and pass it on to others more easily.
  • Put links to the learning environment in the everyday electronic workplace of those who will need the information.
  • Test the search results on the main corporate search engine and make sure you can explain how to find your content using search.
  • As part of the organised learning activity, include a task which requires them to find information using the same technique that they will use in the workplace.

Support the change

It is totally natural to revert to the old way of doing things. Making a change into a habit needs support. Work with the sponsors of the learning design to consider everything that is needed to support the change this could include

  • Performance support
  • Action learning sets
  • Removing barriers to adoption
  • Incentivising change
  • Making alternatives harder
  • Managing resistance

Plan to gather insight from people who have activated the learning

Learning design is often done by experts or learning professionals. Those are vital roles, but they don’t include the perspective of someone who has recently put things into practice for the first time. First-timers often struggle with some of the basics that are so obvious to the experts that they aren’t mentioned.

Part of the learning design should include an improvement cycle after pilot users have participated in the learning activities and have had time to activate their learning in their normal workplace. Consult with the pilot users after a period of time to find out their experiences of trying to put their learning into practice. From this you may find

  • Authentic human-interest stories that you can include as learning components
  • Basics about getting started that might have been missed or been unclear
  • Suggestions on improving relevance and balance of the content
  • What would have helped them to activate their learning more easily

Consultation will normally need to be in the form of telephone interviews, as it is difficult to get adequate depth of feedback on electronic media.

And now your thoughts…

What else helps people to activate their learning and put it into practice? What has helped you?

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It’s official: blogging enhances learning and memory

Donald Clark likes to debunk anything that isn’t supported by the evidence, to it is particularly heartening to see his very positive assessment of the benefits of blogging for enhancing learning and memory.

Like Donald, I often feel as though I remember more when I use social media, indeed have stronger memories of the things I posted than the original exposure.

In fact, he says that of all the social media it is blogging that is by far my strongest form of learning, as it involves a number of things that are all supported by researched learning theory, and which improve memory and recall. Here are his nine, followed by echoes from my own experience:

  • Reflection
  • Generation
  • Elaboration
  • Retrieval
  • Interleaved and varied practice
  • Spaced practice
  • Imagery
  • Archiving
  • Habit
Donald’s comment
David’s comment
1. Reflection

In my experience, those active on social media get used to reflecting on their experiences. You get into the habit of reflecting as you know you are likely to express yourself later. The act of Tweeting, posting or blogging is also often an act of deep reflection and we know that deep processing increases learning and recall. This intentional attitude, in my experience, increases curiosity and the habit of taking notes and exploring things in greater detail.

My blogging has led to exactly that habit of reflection (as I wrote in my post about reflective practice), and going deeper in things I come across knowing that I might share them later. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I actually blog anything or not, the habit of going deeper, understanding things solidly, applying them to my situation has become instinctive.
2. Generation

Tweeting, posting or blogging is a self-generative act and we know that this contributes positively to deeper understanding, processing and eventually recall. In writing you are both retrieving and elaborating on your own experiences. A perfect example of generative learning is the correction and generation of Wikipedia content. All of these forms of generation have proven benefits in learning.

When I write about things on my blog, I understand and remember them much better. So if you are a regular, please remember I am often writing about things that are new to me, not things I know lots about!
3. Elaboration

The act of expressing yourself also helps elaborate learning, another proven positive effect on memory. With a Tweet, this may be the useful act of being concise and pithy. With Facebook, it may be a longer post but with a personal touch. With blog posts, there’s often a deeper form of elaboration through analysis, structured writing and conclusions. There may also be photographs, graphics, diagrams and links, all elaborating your learning, McGaugh (2000)

It has to be said that I am not the briefest of bloggers. The benefit to me is that I am “thinking out loud” about how to apply the topic of the day. And that elaboration (fleshing it out) is a vital part of learning and memory.
4. Retrieval

This is one of the most powerful ways to learn in terms of long-term recall. To use social media is to retrieve what you remember, often re-expressing it in the form of a Tweet, post or blog. This act of retrieval, according to recent research, is even more powerful than the original exposure. So social media expression may be more powerful than the original learning experience.

Well most of my blogs are triggered by something I’ve read, which then seems to lead to me remembering – as I write – other things that connect to it. So the act of blogging helps me retrieve and refamiliarise with other things.
5. Interleaved and varied practice

Given the often fragmented nature of social media use, you often find yourself, not expressing a series of similar ideas but a more interleaved set of items. Varied practice, another well researched method of improving learning, is also likely as many who use social media, use its different forms, varying the way information is expressed. It is this variation and sequential interleaving of activity that is far more powerful than re-reading and repetition

I don’t write my blog posts in one go. I actually have a number of draft posts on the go at any one time, using the MS-Word blog template. So I guess I do a bit of interleaving. But that effect is going to me much stronger on the Newsfeed or processing email, so I don’t think this is a strong argument.
6. Spaced-practice

Social media is not a designed form of spaced-practice, it is just a form of expression that takes place across time. Tweets, posts and blogs may be written minutes, hours, even days after an event or learning experience. Note that this is not a form of mere repetition, which we know does not result in significant gains in learning. It is spaced ‘practice’ in the sense of retrieved, re-expressed and generated knowledge. This is the form of spaced-practice that does increase consolidation and recall.

Each time I return to a draft blog with the benefit of fresh eyes, I can sharpen up what I’ve written. So that is spaced-practice which solidifies the neural pathways and helps me remember the stuff better. One of the things I like most is when someone comments on a blog post I published a while ago. I find myself re-reading what I wrote to understand the context of the comment. Definitely spaced practice.
7. Imagery

An interesting adjunct to the core ‘textual’ nature of social media is the growing use of images and video. Wikipedia, that great social construct, one which I have not mentioned as a learning resource, but is clearly a monumental achievement and resource, now has accompanying images. But in posting images of places you’ve been, slides you’ve seen, objects you’ve seen in museums, you are reinforcing their presence and relevance in memory. For me, these act as ‘cues’ in Tulving’s sense, which allow me to retrieve entire experiences in foreign cities, museums, art galleries and so on.

I do almost always include a picture in my blog posts, for a few reasons:

  • so that I can advertise it in the Newsfeed with an accompanying picture, for more impact.
  • to give it a visual identity that my readers will recognise and perhaps remember
  • to emphasise a metaphor if I have used one

And of course those reasons also work for me as well.

8. Archiving

Lastly, we have the idea that you learning has been archived. Those active on social media often observe that they go back to look at something that they Tweeted, posted or blogged some time ago. These items preserve valuable information and links, almost like an on-going e-portfolio. You find yourself consolidating your own knowledge by backward reference to your own blogs, posts and Tweets.

I refer back to my previous blog posts all the time because I want more people to read them, but also to see if the new ideas I’m considering fit with the ideas I wrote about before. On the one hand I want to be consistent, and on the other hand, I do update my old blogs from time to time if I come across better ideas.
9. Habit

One more powerful learning strategy is ‘habit’ or habitual learning. From John Locke and William James both stressed the importance of developing fruitful habits in learning. Strong, autonomous learners tend to have these habits, whether it’s reading, Tweeting, posting, blogging, note taking and practice. Social media is, by definition, habitual, to the extent of being addictive. When learning becomes addictive, we make real progress in moving from the culture of learn then forget to true ‘lifelong learning’.

Blogging has definitely become a learning habit for me. Am I addicted? Probably not to the extent some are addicted to Twitter and Facebook.

There is another set of benefits that come out of the interactive nature of social media – further learning happens when people respond and we interact. But that’s for another day.

Does how you use social media have a strong learning effect on you?

If you are a blogger, do you find the act of blogging has this kind of effect on your learning?

Whatever your plan is, it’s wrong. And it doesn’t matter as long as you can learn fast enough

If the world was simple we’d perhaps be able to plan accurately. But in fact the world is complicated, complex and chaotic and that means planning is a mixture of skill and guesswork. In our plans we just don’t get things right first time. It frustrates me that my plans are often wide of the mark. I feel smug when I plan accurately, but in reality it is mostly by luck (or by changing the plan later to fit reality).

So what should I do? Give up on planning? Resist making commitments? Plan cautiously, adding lots of contingency?

Actually I need to learn faster.

Plan, Do, Check, Change

This Knoco blog post is what caught my attention, with this colourful diagram. The cycle diagram is just a slight variation on Deming’s famous Plan, Do, Check, Act/Adjust (PDCA) cycle for business improvement.

Somehow I was thinking of “slow” replanning cycles, and that the “check” phase was the (only) moment for reflection. In fact, that’s what I said in my recent seminar on reflective practice. But I think I was wrong. This diagram has the word Reflect between all four phases. Learning faster means adapting quicker DURING the execution of the plan. We need to get round that cycle more times.

Just like microprocessors get faster every year, our “clock speed” of learning from experience needs to increase.

It’s not just that we learn 70% of what we learn from personal experience (in the 70:20:10 model), there’s a real truth that if we rely exclusively on the insights of the past (the old plan) we won’t get the optimum outcome.

Ackoff classifies attitudes to planning like this:

  • Inactivism – put effort into maintaining the status quo, delay progress with process, require ever more senior authority for any change
  • Reactivism – react to problems by throwing more resources at the project. The most senior person’s opinion wins over competence.
  • Preactivism – focussed on forecasting figures and on the planning activity itself rather than the outcomes
  • Interactivism – adjusting and responding as events unfold

Obviously these are caricatures, but I wonder which you recognise in yourself? The mirror tells me that I am not always perfect in my own approach!

Expect to change the plan

We have to be agile and adaptive, and what I put in brackets above (changing the plan later to fit reality) is exactly the right strategy.

Of course it is still useful to do a work breakdown, tease out dependencies, think about who and how much. I think we should analyse as best we can based on real data and observations, but limit the effort we put into planning based on flaky assumptions.

So what do you think? Is planning fundamentally broken in a complex world, or how do you adapt your plans (in reality).

How people learn

As part of some work on the PDP toolkit in BT we’ve been thinking very hard about how people actually learn these days, and I wanted to share and explain the latest diagram we are using to communicate that. As always feedback is welcome, and in this case might even influence the forthcoming PDP toolkit.

Research suggests that 70% of what we learn is picked up on the job. 20% of our learning happens socially and through collaboration. And just 10% of our learning happens through courses and resources. Some of your learning activities are also forms of Give Back.

70% on the job development
A lot of the knowledge and skills you need for your job can only be learned by doing it. Learning by doing is nothing new, but there are ways to make sure that you’re learning as much as you can from your work, and tricks to help you make that learning stick. We’ve summarised that in three sections

  • Stretch yourself: by taking on harder work, more responsibilities, new challenges.  You will learn and develop simply by doing.
  • Reflect back: reflective practice is simply taking time to think about what has happened, what you learned from it, and what you might do in future.  By writing something down, you cement the learning you’ve gained from your own experiences.
  • Volunteer in the community: there are many opportunities outside your normal job to try different kinds of work as a volunteer and to develop as a leader, all of which build skills that you can use in the workplace.

20% social and collaborative learning
We learn a lot from the people around us. We watch how others do things, ask questions, and pick things up through everyday conversations. The four summary sections this time are Connect with people, Learn through contribution, Take a lead and develop others

  • Connect with people: social learning in BT is now easier than ever – you can have conversations with people all over the business via Profession and Subject sites in the Academy and using MyProfile.
  • Learn through contribution: sharing what you have learned with other people consolidates and solidifies your own knowledge.  When you find useful and relevant resources, the discipline of sharing and commenting helps you to apply that knowledge to your own situation, and helps you remember to put it into practice.  As an extra bonus, your audience sometimes comments and adds to your thinking.
  • Take a lead and develop others: helping other people to learn helps you to become more expert at the same time.  By taking a lead in a group of practitioners you strengthen BT, and you also strengthen your own capability to deliver with their mutual support

10% courses and resources
In BT everyone is linked to a profession site in the Academy which provides a wealth of courses and resources for you to develop your skills. This includes online or face to face courses, learning programmes and learning pathways. Sometimes they’ll lead to an accreditation.

  • Profession-recommended resources cover the core skills you need to do your job, and development pathways to help you move forward in your career.
  • Other learning resources:  we have access to huge sets of learning resources you can search to learn about particular topics. This includes everything that has been shared on Sharepoint and the intranet.  The BT Library gives access to lots of external eBooks and research papers. And we have corporate access to external libraries of books and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

Give Back
Learning is not just a personal activity: we are also helping the company to grow and develop its capability. Some of your learning activities involve helping other people and in BT that is called Give Back.

  • Volunteer in the community: as well as building your own experience, your volunteering increases the impact of BT in our communities.
  • Learn through contribution: the resources you share become a permanent, searchable goldmine of information that helps other people to do their jobs quicker and more effectively.
  • Take a lead and develop others:  by taking a lead in a subject group in the Academy you build your own capability, the group’s capability and BT’s capability in that area.

If any of this sounds familiar from my previous blogs, it probably is. What’s exciting is to see this thinking being woven into the structure of how we do things in BT.

Learning by reflective practice – 4 simple tools

I was surprised to discover that in my organisation we don’t have much of a tradition of reflective practice (see Wikipedia). (If you’ve been doing it for years, and have resources or stories to share, I’d love to know – please do comment)

In complete contrast, my wife is a GP and my friend M is a nurse – and as health professionals the disciplines of reflective practice are built-in to everything: they have to embrace life-long learning to keep up to date. If there is a critical incident, they use reflective practice to learn from it. Their annual appraisal asks “What have you learnt?” and “How have you applied it?” – and specifically credits hours of CPD for evidence of reflection and application of learning. More significantly they both have a personal discipline of reflective practice – not because they are forced to by a process, but because it really helps them to learn and move forward.

It’s not just healthcare – in environmental management, reflective practice is often called adaptive management – a recognition that ecosystems are complex and what you do might not have quite the effect you intended. We have to learn from what is happening not just from the textbooks.

The simplest way of explaining reflective practice is to consider a situation or topic and ask yourself Rolfe’s three questions

  • “What?” A description of what happened and who was involved
  • “So what?” An interpretation of why, what it means, what’s important or useful, why it is similar or different
  • “What next?” A plan to repeat or change what happens in future

An important aspect of reflective practice is that you actually have to write it down. Researcher Dysthe says that thinking-writing is the kind of writing we do when we’re thinking through problems or topics, and he emphasises how writing can actually help us think.

So I want to mention four simple practical tools that will help you to do your reflective practice, and then show a few diagrams that give a bit more detail on those questions to ask yourself – which will be the same whichever tool you choose to use.

Four simple ways

I’d suggest choosing one of the following ways of getting your reflective practice out in words, all of which I have used over the years.

  1. Notebook and pen
  2. Word document
  3. OneNote
  4. Blog

  5. Notebook and pen

I’ve gone through phases of having a special notebook (yes paper) for private reflection. I still think paper and pen is the best way for reflecting on situations with emotional content, relationships, direction in life, when things go badly wrong and those kinds of big topics. I still remember the most awful gut-wrenching experience a decade ago of realising I had left my notebook on the seat in the plane in my hurry to get to a business meeting. I used to use the same notebooks for jotting down interesting stuff I was learning, but I think that diluted the value of the paper notebook. My wife now has two paper notebooks to keep those things separate, but I’ve largely gone electronic for the interesting-but-not-emotionally-loaded stuff. Partly because I never managed to retrieve that notebook from the plane all those years ago. I take better care of my Moleskine notebooks these days.


  1. Word document

I used to have a folder of Word documents, each on a different topic that interested me (for example I had one on Motivation, which you’ve seen me blog about). Within each document I used the Outlining feature to allow me to collapse and expand sections. As I found bits in books, New Scientist magazines or webpages or webinars I would type or paste them into the Word documents. The big thing for me was that the next time I came across something on the same subject, I saw my previous notes and it was like a refresher that connected up the new perspectives with the old perspectives.


  1. OneNote

I have now largely abandoned Word documents as a note-taking mechanism in favour of OneNote notebooks. The big advantages of Onenote for me are:

  • A flexible structure of notebooks, tabs, pages which I can easily shuffle around, interlink etc
  • Dead easy to copy and paste from anything on screen (webinars, knowledge calls etc)
  • Extremely good search built in
  • Synchronises with my mobile phone (and my home OneNote synchronises with iPad too)
  • I can include photos from my phone

I haven’t tried using shared notebooks for reflective practice, not sure how that would work. Maybe someday if we have a group who is learning together.


  1. Blog

Blogging is perhaps not your most obvious first step into reflective practice, because it can be scary to reflect in public. But I really think it is the best for any subject that wouldn’t embarrass other people. Why?

  • Researcher Johns says that the act of sharing with a colleague enables the experience to become learnt knowledge at a faster rate than reflection alone
  • When you blog, you’re always aware that you have an audience. And so you write out your thoughts just a little more clearly than you might have in a journal nobody but yourself was going to see.
  • You get feedback from other people. I shared my Excel tip – someone commented with an even easier way of doing the same thing. I learnt more by sharing my learning.
  • You become more confident in your thinking and develop a clearer voice of your own

So I would encourage you to blog: write about your experiences at work and share them.

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle

Now for a tiny bit of theory. Kolb’s experiential learning cycle (in the diagram) tries to explain the process by which we learn by experience. It involves reflective observation, conceptualisation and experimentation, which correspond exactly to the steps of reflective practice.

A more structured set of questions

I opened with the very simple What-SoWhat-NowWhat structure of questions. There’s a more detailed version in the diagram below which is a full structured debriefing. I’ve only actually done it in full once, but it was worth doing that once just to get used to the systematic way of thinking things through.

Your reflective practice

In the comments I would love to hear from other people who do reflective practice and how you go about it.

Social physics: the flow of ideas and examples

I was reading a New Scientist article about Social Physics while crunching my granola this morning. I found the author Sandy Pentland’s 11 min TEDx talk (and enjoyed watching it at 1.5x speed). He explains how smartphones with special apps, plus some Big Data tools have allowed him to analyse the patterns of idea flow and collective intelligence – face to face as well as electronic. The patterns and rules he has spotted form a “Social physics” which show us how the flow of ideas shapes culture, productivity and creative output of companies, cities and societies.

His research shows that:

  • People overwhelmingly rely on social learning and are more efficient because of it.
  • Instead of individual rationality, our society appears to be governed by a collective intelligence that comes from the surrounding flow of ideas and examples; we learn from others in our environment, and they learn from us. A community with members who actively engage with each other creates a group with shared, integrated habits and beliefs.
  • When the flow of ideas incorporates a constant stream of outside ideas as well, the individuals in the community make better decisions than they could by reasoning things out on their own. It’s not enough to have ideas within the group, creativity comes by absorbing ideas from outside the group.

The more cohesive a team is, the more engaged people are, the better the productivity of the team. The team functions like an ideas-processing machine.

More social physics videos.

So what? Social Physics in the corporate world?

Our approach to productivity and efficiency in the corporate world is often

  • Individualistic (personal performance objectives)
  • Process-oriented
  • Distributed (scattered teams and homeworkers relying on electronic media to collaborate)
  • We have employee engagement scores, and vaguely understand that employee engagement is correlated with high performance companies. So sometimes we focus on getting high scores on the well-known survey questions rather than the actual underlying social physics.

On the other hand there are some encouraging signs:

  • continuous improvement initiatives like lean six sigma
  • ideas and knowledge spreading through enterprise social software like (in our case) the Sharepoint Newsfeed

That’s only the briefest attempt to think about what social physics means for the corporate world. What do you observe?

Developing capable people: The Learning Flow

For the past couple of years I have been in the BT Group Learning part of the organisation, so I have been thinking about Learning and how it really works.

In the paragraphs and pictures below, I’ll let you see the influential people who have shaped my thinking about learning. Each of these has changed my mindset. You probably have gathered that I passionately believe that Knowledge Management and Collaboration are intertwined with Learning. This is an attempt to explain why I have come to that conclusion. Regrettably it came out slightly longer than intended, so to help you see where I am going, here is the core argument:

  • There are different kinds of work – not everything is Simple, or simple to learn. A lot of work is Complex.
  • Work in BT is becoming increasingly Complex
  • Learning does not always equal training
  • We can (indeed must) add, embed and extract learning from our work
  • The strategies-for-learning change as work gets more complex
  • So we need capable people (not just competent people)
  • Capable people learn constantly (the learning flow)

Hope you enjoy the ideas I’ve gathered below. I’d love comments that point me to other people and resources that have influenced your thinking about learning. Continue reading