2. March 2023 By Heike Willkomm and Teresa Schmitt
The power of knowledge: how effective learning creates successful change
Change, transformation, transition – why have we been repeatedly hearing these buzzwords lately?
The fact that our world is in a constant state of change, which is accelerating more and more, at least subjectively, is nothing new. Yet the topic is still often neglected in many companies. Companies are exposed to short-lived processes, constant market changes and a wide range of influencing factors that lead to people having to readapt over and over again. But many of them receive no support for these changes, and if they do, then the support is often not goal-oriented.
Here is an example to illustrate the point. In the IT world, with every new sprint comes a change in the software, which sometimes has a direct impact on the users. However, this change is either only announced in a short e-mail or large-scale e-learning course are created with a lot of effort, which can become outdated again a few sprints later – and all of this in addition to daily business.
‘Change collapse’ and ‘change fatigue’ – what do they entail?
Every change process, no matter how large or small it is, will always take a great deal of effort. We also no longer find ourselves engaged in only one change project or one change process. Companies must constantly evolve and adapt in order to remain competitive and survive in the market. Those who think ‘we will just do a transformation project and everything will be fine’ are wrong and not in keeping with the times.
This is why companies must always ask themselves how useful and goal-oriented it is to do things such as introduce a new technology or change their organisational structure. If the wrong approach is taken and the constant transformations are not properly organised, it can quickly lead to change fatigue or even what is known as change collapse – resulting from an endless stream of new tasks. This is associated with risks such as high friction losses due to loss of motivation, employee turnover, high sickness rates or declining productivity. These factors ultimately have a monetary impact as well.
But with the right change strategy and learning concept, the risks are significantly minimised. It is important that measures be tailored and synchronised. However, to prevent people from falling victim to change collapse in the first place, a number of factors must be taken into account, for example, the motivation to change and the motivation learn. People want to understand why something changes. Only then can intrinsic motivation develop. This in turn leads to changes being accepted. It is also important that the amount of effort employees require for changes does not exceed their resources – thus it is of critical importance to introduce change in doses and leave room for taking breathers. And of course every person is different and aware of changes to a greater or lesser degree than others, which means that measures must be geared to the target group.
Learning in change management projects
Change is generally understood as the shift from an old state to a new one. In order for this transition from one state to the other to actually occur, everyone must go through a learning process. This means that learning can be seen as a bridge between the old and new state.
Change involves a learning process that cannot be considered in isolation. This process starts with communication at the beginning of the planned change and ends when the change is complete – should that ever be the case. Since change is often associated with uncertainty and resistance, it is important to formulate the ‘why’ at the beginning of both the change process and the learning process. As already emphasised, the way companies see it, implementing change will go more smoothly if those affected by the change understand why they should learn something. The ‘what’ can only come into focus once the ‘why’ has been established.
In this context, it is important to clarify what should be conveyed and do so right from the start. A learning strategy and the corresponding learning measures can be selected using this as a basis. In concrete terms, this means that you have to be clear about what type of knowledge or skill has to be imparted to employees so that when all is said and done, they can go through the changes and make the transition into the ‘new’ state. In this context, you could distinguish between theoretical knowledge, empirical knowledge, cultural knowledge or even skills that are independent of knowledge, such as the ability to work in a team or deal with conflicts.
Let us take the process of making coffee as an example. Let us assume that from now on, a company wants its employees to make their coffee with a percolator and stop using the fully automatic coffee machine. Different types of knowledge are now required to enable them to make coffee. For example, they have to understand the process and its individual steps. This is the traditional theoretical knowledge. Empirical knowledge would be that the coffee pot is very hot after brewing and you have to wait a little before you can remove the coffee grounds. At the same time, offering colleagues a coffee when making one yourself is something that people in the company desire. This is more in the realm of cultural knowledge.
Even the simple example of making coffee makes it clear that we have to learn different things when change occurs – and the learning measures should be just as different as the learning content.
Specific learning measures
Learning measures are extremely diverse. They can range from an AI-based learning platform with integrated online learning content to communities, training courses or coaching.
Let us take online learning content within an AI-based learning platform as an example. This can be used to successfully convey theoretical knowledge – namely the process steps of making coffee. Videos, e-learning courses or learning objects are stored in smaller learning modules within the learning platform. Over time, the system learns which content, which formats or which learning module durations are best suited for the respective person and thus becomes a kind of personal learning buddy. Employees can view the learning content at their own pace and go back over it or take breaks as often as they wish.
Learning measures for empirical knowledge
The foundation of empirical knowledge is the fact that it is built up in exchange with other people. The reason this fact is so important becomes clear when people are asked why they participate in training courses. When giving their answers, the majority state that they want to network with colleagues and exchange ideas on best practice. From the participant’s point of view, training is a good choice for building up empirical knowledge. E-learning would certainly not have the same effect in this context.
Accordingly, the respective format must always be aligned with the planned knowledge transfer. Despite this detailed planning, when a learning strategy is all said and done, no learning activity stands on its own. Just as the types of knowledge sometimes blur together and have overlapping points, the same is true of the learning concepts that are developed.
The interplay between learning concepts
As I have already mentioned, many people attend training courses to build up or enhance their empirical knowledge. In many cases, however, today’s training courses still focus mainly on imparting theoretical knowledge. But doing this does not always require so many people. Many want to learn at their own pace. What does this ultimately mean? A traditional blended learning approach is a good choice. Theoretical knowledge is taught in advance in an e-learning course, and on the day of training, the focus is on empirical knowledge. This is the best way to accommodate employees’ needs. In the end, this improves the learning experience and ensures that valuable learning time is not wasted.
The days of slide shows, video series and day-long training courses – whether online or offline – are at an end. Going that route is not goal-oriented or sustainable, and especially not efficient. Many companies offer their employees a huge learning catalogue – which is great at first glance. But how do they check which training truly suits the individual and, above all, how sustainable the training is?
Let us assume that an employee is supposed to learn a new software application. The training lasts for five days, after which they can take an exam and they receive a certificate. It is nice that the employee has a certificate and that they have theoretically learned the technology. But are they truly proficient with the new technology, too? The key word here is bulimic learning. How lasting is the knowledge acquired in such a short time? What happens if the employee is unable to immediately apply the new knowledge?
The future of learning – what has to change
There are many ways to ensure that learning has a more lasting impact in the future. One specific approach would be to adjust the learning period. Learning requires a lot of energy, which is why breaks for rest and reflection are highly relevant. After all, we also take breaks when training our muscles. Accordingly, one option is to make learning more prolonged. So instead of learning all the content at once, the learning process is divided into several parts. Using the example of training, this means that the learning content is not taught point-by-point within two days. The brain cannot process that much information at once anyway. Instead, multi-part learning series are structured over several weeks. In them, the participants are taught specific content every week, for example, for one to two hours a week, and can reflect on it afterwards. This allows them to engage with the respective content in much more depth and retain the information in the long term. Other side effects of this form of knowledge transfer that should not be underestimated include the employees’ sense of achievement, the increased acceptance of the changes and the associated monetary effect. In the future, we at adesso also want to integrate this approach into our training courses and the training concepts for our customers.
We know that the transition to meaningful, effective learning methods, like any change, takes time and energy. But those who do not learn or learn poorly need more in the long run. Once this is internalised, the first step is complete.
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