Why Corporate Learning Solutions Ignore Brain Science and Create Corporate Adoption Gaps

Key Stakeholders: Chief Learning Officers, Chief Human Resource Officers, Learning and Development Directors and Managers, Corporate Trainers, Content and Learning Product Managers

Key Takeaways:

  • Learning & Development (L&D) vendors offer a number of amazing technologies but minimal, if any, scientifically-validated best practices to guide clients on what to use when. This is an oversight and one that can be remedied by leveraging learning science—the marriage of psychology and brain science.
  • Even the vendors beginning to embrace brain science stop at the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and medial temporal lobe structures that have evolved for hard skills learning. This is unacceptable as vendors effectively ignore people (aka soft) skills and the emotional aspects of learning that are mediated by different brain regions with distinct processing characteristics.
  • To close the adoption gap in learning technologies, L&D vendors must start to embrace all systems of learning in the brain, and customers must demand better guidance and scientifically-validated best practices.

Brain Science Challenges Lead to An Adoption Gap in Corporate Learning

Over the past year, I have immersed myself in the Learning & Development (L&D) sector. I have been briefed and received demos from dozens of vendors and have spoken with numerous partners and customers. I have seen a number of amazing technologies that have the potential to revolutionize L&D and could reinforce the continued trend showing L&D as a profit center and not a cost center. These technologies include continuous embedded (just-in-time) 24/7 learning, multiple content media (read, watch, listen), microlearning, spaced training, a broad array of fact and scenario-based training, interactive role play, and engaging gamification offerings to name a few.

Despite all of this innovative technology, the majority of customers that I speak to are lost and feel like they are stabbing in the dark when it comes to deciding what technology to use when. They are overwhelmed by the breadth of functionality and are desperate for guidance and best practices. Without best practices, customers select technologies based on personal preference or advice from a colleague. This is ineffective because it usually leads to the selection of sub-optimal solutions. I refer to this as the “adoption gap”—great technology ineffectively utilized yielding ~ 60% adoption, modest learning and performance, and no way forward.

This state of affairs is avoidable, and the adoption gap can be bridged by embracing learning science. Learning science—the marriage of psychology and brain science—provides the necessary guidance and best practices. 100s of millions of dollars have been spent on learning science research (including over $10 million in my own research lab) that can be leveraged to provide these best practices and the roadmap for success.

When Brain Science Doesn’t Mention the Brain and Ignores People

The good news is that some L&D vendors are beginning to recognize the value of brain science. Some even market their solutions as “grounded in brain science”. Despite these claims, I can count on one hand the number of “brain science” L&D vendors who actually mention a brain region, brain system or neurotransmitter, and describe the mechanism of action. In nearly all of these cases, the “brain science” focuses on left- vs. right-brain processing which is outdated and at best accounts for a very small percentage of the variance in learning outcomes, or on Ebbinghaus and his seminal discovery of the forgetting curve over 100 years ago that focuses on hard skills. As a result, vendors give lip service to “Brain Science” without ever talking about the brain or using an outdated model of brain science that doesn’t cover all of the needs of a modern corporate learning environment, and instead focuses on hard skills.

The problem is that hard skills are only part of the L&D mandate, and many might argue the less important mandate for current corporate training. Over the past several years, corporate research has converged in suggesting that people (aka soft) skills become more and more important in the corporate sector with each passing day. The #metoo movement and incidents of unconscious bias suggest that people skills like effective communication, leadership, embracing diversity, an ability to “read” others and “think and act on one’s feet” are critical to corporate success. Hard skills are important, but it is the people skills that set the successful company apart from the others.

Where do the brain science L&D vendors stand on people skills or the emotional components of learning? What tools do they provide and what guidance do they offer? Unfortunately, the answer is clear: The tools are there, but the guidance is absent. Why? Because “brain science” in L&D effectively stops at the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and medial temporal lobes: brain regions focused on hard skills development. Vendors are effectively ignoring the brain areas focused on soft skills, or as I prefer to call them, people skills.

The “Brain Science” of People Skills That L&D Vendors Leave Out

People skills are about behavior. They are about what we do, how we do it, and our intent. People skills are also about understanding how our behavior is being projected to and interpreted by others and about how to effectively interpret the underlying meaning of another’s behavior. Taken together effective people skills training relies on two distinct systems in the brain: the behavioral skills learning system and the emotional learning system.

Behavioral Skills Learning System: The behavioral skills learning system in the brain evolved to train behavior. It recruits the basal ganglia (a subcortical structure in the brain) and learning occurs through gradual, incremental, dopamine-mediated reward/punishment behavior change. If a behavior is elicited that is rewarded, dopamine will be released into the basal ganglia, the neural connections that drove that behavior will be strengthened, and the likelihood that behavior will be elicited again will increase. If a behavior is elicited that is punished, dopamine will not be released, the neural connections that drive that behavior will be weakened, and the likelihood that behavior will be elicited again will decrease.

The L&D vendor tools that are important for training behavior are interactive role play, whether in person or virtual. One might ask whether spaced training, microlearning and testing are effective for training people skills. Each of these tools has brain science issues that make them suboptimal for people skills training.

  • Spaced training is relevant, but in a completely different way and with different spacing characteristics that target the basal ganglia as opposed to the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. Spaced training designed for hard skills will not work for people skills training.
  • Microlearning is ineffective for people skills training. Although the details await a separate report, behavioral skills are best learned with longer training sessions and broad variability in scenarios. This is the opposite of microlearning.
  • Finally, testing in the traditional sense is ineffective with people skills. Behavioral skills testing involves placing learners in real situations and examining their behavior. For people skills, training and testing are essentially the same thing.

Emotional Learning System: The emotional learning system in the brain evolved for many functions but one is to increase engagement in learners. The emotional learning system in the brain recruits the amygdala and other limbic structures. When engaged effectively, it enhances processing in the cognitive and behavioral skills learning systems by immersing the learner in training scenarios, instilling empathy, and priming them for behavior change.

Gamification offerings can be used to effectively engage this system. Gamification abounds in L&D with the majority of vendors offering some form of badges, points, gamified learning paths, and leaderboards. But, this is a classic example of a set of innovative tools with no guidance being provided on how to use them.

Again, this is avoidable as an extensive body of learning science research has been conducted to explore the motivation-learning interaction. I was awarded a 5-year $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study this interaction. I briefly report on the findings in this research report. I show that nearly all L&D gamification offerings take a one-size-fits-all perspective and focus exclusively on approach motivation, at the expense of avoidance motivation.

As just one very brief example, the most common use of leaderboards is to instill “healthy” competition. The problem is that many individuals and jobs (for that matter) have personalities that resonate better with cooperation than competition. These individuals and jobs are misaligned when competitive leaderboards are utilized and learning will actually suffer. Given the general tendency for men to be more competitive and women to be more cooperative, one could make a strong argument that competitive leaderboards are sexist.

Overriding Recommendation

L&D vendors need to help their clients bridge the adoption gap by embracing learning science and providing guidance and best practices on the utilization of their remarkable technologies. Leveraging of the brain science needs to go beyond the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and medial temporal lobe structures, and hard skills, and must extend to the behavioral and emotional learning systems, the basal ganglia, amygdala, and other limbic structures. By doing so, enterprise clients can start getting the results that they are paying for.

Likewise, L&D clients need to demand these best practices from their L&D vendors or come talk to us to receive the learning science guidance that will close the adoption gaps in the enterprise. We would be glad to take a look at your key learning goals, provide guidance on how to use the technologies you already have on hand, and translate the foundational learning science research into “plain English” that is presented in digestible chunks and is embedded in practical narratives.

If you are having trouble with people skills or unconscious bias training or if you are overwhelmed with the technology options provided in L&D platforms and are not getting enough guidance from your provider, please reach out to us at research@amalgaminsights.com so that we can use our $10 million in primary research to guide your corporate learning efforts from a brain science perspective.

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