How professionals learn

by Viv on November 23, 2009

In the November Issue of TJ,  Des Woods and Henry Marsden have an article called “How professionals learn”. As the former head of learning at Ernst & Young and head of professional development at Linklaters, Des is writing from considerable experience. This is a great article if you are relatively new to professional services in your L&D career, especially if you’ve worked in a different industry previously.

There were 3 things that really resonated with my experience:

  1. Professionals want learning in small chunks as the pressure to remain chargeable is high. The monolithic e-learning that was imported from the USA firms in the early 2000s is an example of how not to do this. One law firm I know has a very popular chunk of e-learning that relates to a frequent question about Outlook – it lasts 53 seconds…perfect.
  2. Professionals do not like follow up…”I understood it the first time”. The challenge here, especially in interpersonal skills is that just because a professional intellectually understands an effective way to behave and its benefits, they don’t necessarily do anything. For instance several generations of professionals are quite happy with the idea of what a SMART appraisal objective is, have they ever experienced one?
  3. Professionals like business school style case studies. Phew…most of the courses I’ve run on career development and business development had significant elements of this, where the learning is active and practical…the challenge was normally to get high quality self reflection as professionals are so used to moving onto the next challenge.

That’s 3 points I’d endorse, but if this whets your appetite, have a read for yourself.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dave Ferguson January 21, 2010 at 8:34 pm

I think the overall points are sound. I’d agree that many professionals do tend to want small chunks, possibly because they see chunkable learning (things that can or do get chunked) as somehow tangential to their real job.

On the other hand, I don’t think the law firm cited under item 1 would imagine an intellectual property attorney’s being about to absorb, let alone explain, the implications of 539 U.S. 23 in 53 seconds. It’d take half that time to explain that as a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision related to both copyright and trademark issues.

The challenge you note under point 2 is telling: Like you, I don’t believe “I understood it” is synonymous with “I learned.” Maybe the question hinges on the shift from retrieval to application–in other words, to performance. The manager might be able to describe a SMART objective, even compose one, but has she ever fit one into the larger appraisal task? (And if she did, did she achieve her goals?)

Which connects again with point 1: complex skills aren’t simply the sum of a bunch of simpler skills. Not all skills can be fit into chunks that the learner would regard as small (because for some learners “small” would be “under 15 minutes”). More important, complex skills often involve a dynamic balance among many different, subordinate skills at the same time. Performing the performance appraisal is more than the questioning process, more than the form-filling, more than a set of interpersonal skills.

Maybe that’s one reason for the many stories of appraisal-related shortcomings.


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