Dual Learning Systems in the Brain: Implications for Corporate Training

Effective training is critical in all business sectors. In 2017, over $360 billion was spent on training worldwide, with over $160 billion spent in the U.S. alone. Given the ever-changing nature of the corporate landscape, as new technologies are introduced (e.g., AI) or upgraded (e.g., constant software upgrades), and as new challenges arise (e.g., sexual harassment in the workplace) corporate training must evolve to meet the growing need.

Corporate training can be loosely classified into two categories: hard skills and soft skills. An extensive body of scientific and neuroscientific research (much of it from the author’s research laboratory) suggests that the human brain contains at least two distinct systems that are recruited during learning. One system is referred to as the cognitive skills learning system, which is optimized for hard skills learning. The other is referred to as the behavioral skills learning system, which is optimized for soft skills learning.

Cognitive Skills Learning System

The cognitive skills learning system in the brain is comprised of the prefrontal cortex and the medial temporal lobes. This system is optimally tuned to learn hard skills such as learning new software, learning a company’s rules and regulations, or memorizing the set of steps to take to complete a task. The neural architecture of this system determines the set of training procedures that optimize learning. The scientifically-validated best practices for optimized learning of hard skills are many, and will be outlined in subsequent articles, but suffice it to say that learning in this system is passive, it involves observing and learning by watching, and repeating information mentally. For example, suppose you are learning a new CRM. You might read the manual, watch a few slide shows, or watch a video of someone performing specific functions within the CRM. You might study this information multiple times and practice the tasks in your head. Eventually, you will launch the CRM software to try out some of the things that you learned.

Behavioral Skills Learning System

The behavioral skills learning system in the brain resides in the basal ganglia. This system is optimally tuned to learn soft skills (also called people skills, 21st Century skills or socio-emotional skills). Soft skills include showing empathy, embracing diversity, and minimizing unconscious biases. These are all reflected in one’s behavior such as active listening, making eye contact, praising employees and co-workers when appropriate, avoiding overt punishment, and showing respect. Soft skills are relevant in all aspects of the corporate world including management, collaborative communication, and customer service, to name a few. Soft skills have received significant attention in 2017 and likely will receive even more in 2018 as corporations work to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment. I have written extensively on this topic.

Like the cognitive skills learning system, the neural architecture of the behavioral skills learning system determines the set of training procedures that optimize learning. The scientifically-validated best practices for optimized learning of soft skills are many, and will be outlined in subsequent articles, but suffice it to say that learning in this system is active, it involves learning by doing, and physical repetition.

Without going into the detailed neuroanatomy, soft skill learning relies critically on interactivity in the form of real-time immediate corrective feedback. You generate a behavior and receive feedback (literally within a few hundred milliseconds, no more). If the behavior is rewarded with a smile or nod, then that behavior will be more likely to occur next time you are in the same situation. If the behavior is punished with a frown or head shake, then that behavior will be less likely to occur next time you are in the same situation. This interactive back-and-forth in real-time is what leads to behavior change.

Optimal Delivery System for Hard and Soft Skills Training

With a few exceptions, the most common delivery system for corporate training is computer-based. Whether hard or soft skills, the training content generally comes in the form of written text, slide shows, or perhaps video. Notice that all of these content media involve passive observation on the part of the learner. This suggests a strong bias in corporate training toward optimized hard skills training, but sub-optimal soft skills training. Given the growing recognition of the importance of soft skills training in the workplace (e.g., the #metoo phenomena), this is unacceptable. Corporate training must expand to include interactivity of the form outlined above, in order to optimize soft skills training.

Most Tasks Require a Mixture of Cognitive and Behavioral Skills Learning

Although I have described hard skill learning as being mediated by the cognitive skills learning system in the brain, and soft skill learning as being mediated by the behavioral skills learning system in the brain, the reality is that nearly all tasks involve a mixture of cognitive and behavioral skills. For example, learning a new CRM might begin with reading the manual, watching some slide shows, or watching videos of someone performing specific functions within the CRM, but ultimately you need to use your mouse, touchpad, tablet or arrow keys to navigate the CRM and the keyboard to enter data. These are all behaviors and with enough practice these behaviors will become habitized through behavioral skills learning in the brain. Analogously, when training to behave as an effective manager, it makes sense to begin by reading descriptions of appropriate and inappropriate leadership behaviors, and even passively observing video interactions that portray an array of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. This will set the stage, and likely facilitate the subsequent training targeted directly at increasing effective leadership behaviors and decreasing ineffective leadership behaviors.

A number of vendors offer corporate training, including Salesforce, SAP, Cornerstone, Saba, Skillsoft, PageUp, Halogen, PeopleFluent, Talentsoft, Haufe, Oracle, SilkRoad, Deltek, IBM, Lumesse, Cegid, and many more. All of these vendors offer hard and soft skills training within a single platform. In most cases, the same training procedures are used for hard and soft skills training, with only the content changing. As outlined above, this approach is disadvantageous for soft skills training.

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