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The Difference Between eLearning (Know) and ePerformance (Do), DevLearn 2010

In the e-learning world, what’s the difference between knowing and doing?
cohen-martin-L.jpgIt’s a question that trainers struggle with, whether they realize it or not. Martin L. Cohen of Breakthrough Performance Tech gave a talk this morning at DevLearn that focused on “e-performance” — the do part.
Cohen’s premise is that training in the business world should be like training in the sports world. That is to say, training should be practice, or doing with an emphasis on repetition. Sports players always warm up, but there’s no warm up in business, says Cohen. “In true e-performance, you train daily.”
Additionally, Cohen sees a need for immediate and directive feedback. Again, using a sports analogy, he likens it to a golf pro giving a student a bucket of balls and then leaving the driving range while the player hits balls. “You would never pay a sports coach for training that’s not directive,” Cohen says, meaning it’s the golf pro’s job to stick around and advise the player on her swing while she’s practicing. And yet the kind of training and feedback that happens in the business world is very often after the fact.
While Cohen supports his approach with results from cognitive and behaviorial research, one area where I question his method is his dismissal of theory.
Cohen spoke about theory as if it is a waste of time — the very thing that prevents people from taking action and learning right now. His sense of immediacy carries over into his rationale, saying that the brain needs to be constantly reinforced for people to truly learn and know how to do certain tasks. The brain works on a “use it or lose it” policy.
However, without theory, employees and learners can’t understand the bigger picture, and are thus less flexible when it comes to more creative problem-solving or advancing in their careers. If employees are trained repetitively to do, what will happen when they need to think at a higher level, to see the entire system that is their organization in order to make more complex decisions and understand the effects they will have along the entire chain?
ePerformance is all about doing, and doing things now. While employees or learners will certainly walk away from e-performance training confident in their ability to do the task at hand, will they be prepared to advance their careers and grow into new positions?

8 Responses

  1. Guy Boulet

    I somewhat agree with Cohen’s view about theory. The tendency in corporate training is to give too much theory than what is required to do the job.
    As an example, do you need to know about hydraulics to apply the breaks on your car? No, all you need to know is where the pedal is an probably some safety rules such as “Do not break to fast is there is a car behind yours”
    I think theory should be kept to the minimum required to understand what we are doing.

  2. Jill Duffy

    I see what you mean, Guy, but I still am hesitant to dismiss theory too much. To me, the analogy is more like, “You can teach a CAR MECHANIC how to change break pads, or you can teach a mechanic about hydraulics…”
    Or, you can teach a line cook to prepare all the plated dishes from a menu, or you teach the theory behind cooking, plating, menu creation, and restaurant management – which person walks away with a more diverse skill set that can be reused in different contexts?
    In Cohen’s talk, he brought up Picasso as an example of a person who succeeded through practice, practice, practice. Practice is doing.
    BUT Picasso studied huge amounts of art theory and absolutely mastered the classical techniques before moving into his later style. So in a way, Picasso’s “practice” was a kind of study of theory.
    To me, knowing some theory (and of course, that shouldn’t be taken to an extreme or used as an excuse to not do hands-on practice, too) is what makes people able to be creative problem-solvers and overall happier and more confident employees.

  3. Kevin Wilcoxon

    Now it’s two and two. I don’t see how we can expect learners to do more than follow instructions without some theoretical foundation. Remember, good theories explain why things are the way they are. They are predictive. They are prescriptive. Finally, they provide the structure upon which practical applications are built.
    I do, however, agree that data dump is exactly what is not needed.

  4. Per Sandvik

    Sometimes you have to learn how to deal with unpredictable situations or problem solving. In such situations you will need theory mixed with experience. You can’t train performance when you don’t know what type of performance is needed.

    1. Stein-Erik Sandvik

      I totally disagree !

  5. Martin Cohen, MD

    I want to thank Jill, Guy, Holly, Kevin and Per for their very thoughtful comments regarding my presentation and comments made by others. I will now address those comments:
    The Need for Theory
    I absolutely agree that theory has its place and I didn’t mean to be completely dismissive. In fact, I absolutely believe that people in general do far better when they understand the rationale (theory) for why they are expected to do what they are expected to do. It not only provides motivation, but it also creates context and a proper narrative. Furthermore, when people are treated with the dignity of an explanation regarding expected actions, at least some resistance to change is diminished.
    However, based upon my business experience and my psychiatric practice, the ratio between rationale/theory vs. focused and deliberate practice and rehearsal to build competency is extremely unbalanced. In fact, this ratio should probably be reversed. Based upon some of the comments made, it seems that there is an inordinate data dump of info/theory and a relatively minimal level of the kind of practice necessary to build neural circuits. Think of the ratio between theory and practice in master athletes, musicians, surgeons, and fighter pilots (who literally beg to get onto flight simulators). In this regard, although Picasso did learn theory, his ability to master classical painting techniques (as evidenced prior to his cubist and abstract work) was not primarily based on theory, but upon untold hours of practice. He first mastered the ability to reproduce what was done by others before being able to progress into his unique creativity (although I am sure that he was probably experimenting with creativity early on).
    Additional evidence for why theory in and of itself will not usually produce necessary change can be found in the disappointing outcomes of insight oriented therapy vs. the promise of this form of therapy. Insight oriented therapy has not worked very well in situations where behavioral changes are necessary (substance abuse, weight loss, inappropriate interpersonal behaviors, etc.). This is because mere insight into the origins of existing baseline behaviors is rarely enough by itself to change behaviors, let alone sustain those behavioral changes. Again, rehearsal of both thought patterns and physical behaviors is necessary to achieve change.
    I have also noticed that people develop an increased flexibility once they have a sense of competency based upon mastering the implementation of fundamentals. This process of mastering fundamentals requires practice and rehearsal and not just once or twice in a training class, but on a continuous basis, as is the case in sports, music, etc.
    Creativity, Thinking at a Higher Level and Problem Solving
    Not everyone is naturally creative, thinks at a higher level or is a great problem solver. However, when individuals have mastered fundamentals, it is more likely that they will produce functional creativity vs. futile creativity. An architect who is not grounded in fundamentals may create a beautiful design that unfortunately collapses. Furthermore, although many enterprises want to make their employees more creative, it is important for this not to be thought of as a panacea. If every soldier decides to be creative vs. able to brilliantly execute, the death toll would rise dramatically in military operations. This is not to say that creativity is not important, but every employee in an organization should not be expected to be equally creative since different jobs will by necessity require different levels of creativity.
    With respect to problem solving, again, key proven best practices yield the best outcomes. For example, if a call center representative is fielding customer complaints and their job involves taking ownership and solving problems, the best solutions do not usually come from one off creativity. Instead, if an organization has done a good job of training and rehearsing people in these positions on proven protocols for solving problems, then problems will get solved more effectively and more efficiently. Although there are times where true creativity is necessary, this is rarely routinely scalable in large enterprises.
    Finally, in this category, if an organization (or parent, etc.) wants to enhance an individual’s/organization’s creativity, passively teaching the importance of creativity for the organization and for the individual personally will not necessarily make this person more creative. Instead, what is required is literal practice at being creative. There are specific creativity enhancing exercises. The best case in point is stand-up comics and/or improv comics who incessantly practice creativity so they can reach levels of effective, audience-pleasing creativity when they are on stage and being assessed specifically for their ability to be creative.
    This same argument also addresses the issue of being able to deal with unpredictable situations, which I believe is based upon being a master of predictable situations, and thereby appropriately and spontaneously adjusting and modifying behaviors (both verbal and/or purely physical). Thus, I believe that practice does not merely make people capable of following instructions, but instead provides people with the ability to turn on a dime, based upon situational realities.
    Confidence and Happiness
    We have clear evidence that confidence and happiness (and job satisfaction) are directly linked to an employee’s self-perceived competence. Competence is a by-product of focused and deliberate practice and rehearsal so that the employee knows they are capable of doing their job in a way that will produce the best possible outcomes. Competency-based confidence and happiness should not be confused with the enjoyment that comes from creative, fun activities which may or may not help employees to feel more consistently confident and happy. The prototypical fun atmospheres at tech companies are at times created so as to counterbalance 14- to 16-hour days at low pay, although they also may be part and parcel of the work environment philosophy of a relatively younger chronological management structure.
    Advancing of Careers
    This requires both executional excellence and creativity (and, unfortunately, oftentimes more than a smattering of politically savvy and connections!). But the balance between excellence and creativity depends upon the job function. A nuclear physicist focusing on creating controllable fusion energy requires a higher degree of creativity than does an airline pilot (except in one-off, emergency situations). Most passengers would not prefer their pilots to try a new creative way to land an aircraft for routine landings. One of the main reasons that people don’t advance is because they are unable to perform even though they fully understand the logic behind the tasks. It’s the difference between the ability to know and understand the rationale behind football plays vs. the ability to implement them. But, indeed, I agree that a balance is necessary.
    In Closing
    I’d like to thank everybody again for their comments. I think it’s wonderful that we are having a spirited discussion here. The ultimate reality is that some practice is needed to support theory, and that some theory is needed to support practice. The problem in today’s eLearning community is clearly that some think that theory alone is enough, with at best very little practice. Therefore, the time for dedicated practice is extraordinarily insufficient to truly behaviorally embed new and desirable habits. We need to devise and implement regular practice activities and courseware if we want to help learners utilize the theory that they have already been trained on, already know, but don’t know how to implement at levels of executional excellence. And that is why I place so much emphasis on practice.

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