Timothy R. Clark: The movement from sheep-dipping to slow dripping in employee development

Published: Monday, Dec. 17 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Abraham Lincoln said, “I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel — very hard to scratch anything on it, and almost impossible thereafter to rub it out.”

I doubt most of us learn differently than Lincoln, except that we retain less, which begs the question: How are we developing our employees?

The traditional approach is to sheep-dip them; put them in a chair and have people talk at them for several hours at a time. Admittedly, we’re more interactive than we used to be.

Even so, sheep-dipping has serious flaws. It’s an event rather than a process. It’s cognitive overload and yet it’s too slow because it’s sporadic. As a general rule, it doesn’t meet the learning imperative of the 21st century: learn at or above the speed of change.

The alternative is a process, or slow-drip approach. Think about how people learn. We’ve all been warned about the dangers of cramming. We retain less because the brain assimilates only so much so fast until we overload the capacity of short-term memory.

In almost all cases, the goal of learning is not understanding. It’s application. It's doing. That takes time. People need an incubation period to absorb what they're taught. Second, they need to use it. If you learn something new and there’s no opportunity to apply it, the learning slips away. For instance, I lived in Korea nearly 30 years ago and became reasonably fluent in the language. But I’ve had little opportunity to speak Korean since. My language facility has gone from cache memory to a remote part of the hard drive.

You might say we have no alternative to sheep-dipping. We get time with our employees once or twice a year. We have to take advantage of the time we have.

I understand the constraints, and sheep-dipping has its place. People get stale from the daily grind. Sheep-dipping is a refreshing diversion. In fact, well-executed sheep-dipping makes a difference. Sometimes, we gain critical insights, make breakthroughs or have epiphanies. Sometimes a sheep-dipping experience can change our lives. So don’t stop the sheep-dipping.

The question is how to drip-feed better than we do. Research suggests that people learn 70 percent or more of what they know and do on the job anyway through informal learning. But we can expand and accelerate that process. People need drippers to help them learn and apply things at the moment of need. For employees in modern organizations, it comes down to two things:

First, organizations must make it clear that the employee is in charge of his own learning and development.

Second, organizations must assist in that process by providing slow-drip resources in the form of fingertip learning assets. It means providing shorter, chunked learning bursts.

With the digital resources available today, there’s never been a better time to drip-feed resources in the moment to your employees. For example, I was with a group of leaders the other day who talk a lot and haven’t learned how to listen very well. I stopped the conversation and played a short video segment of biotech giant Amgen's CEO Kevin Sharer called “Why I’m a Listener.”

It stopped them dead in their tracks.

Take any competency that you can think of. The public domain is full of quality content and extraordinary learning assets in the form of articles, videos, podcasts, blogs, books, tools, networks and communities of practice that you can drip-feed to your employees.

Here’s an easy way to fill a drip-feeder:

        1. Identify a competency your team needs to work on.
        2. Break the competency down into a set of defined skills and behaviors.
        3. Search and gather development resources from the Internet.
        4. Vet the resources for relevance and quality.
        5. Identify the best resources and fill your drip feeder with the ones that make the cut.
        6. Drip-feed one learning resource to your team as a short training segment in a weekly meeting.
        7. Assign employees to apply the skill or behavior and report back the next week.
        8. Continue drip-feeding with weekly application and accountability.

Timothy R. Clark is the CEO of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. His newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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