The Brain Science of Effective Corporate Soft Skills Training

Cognitive and Behavior Systems of Learning

Companies Mentioned: Deloitte, Salesforce, SAP, Cornerstone, Saba, Skillsoft, PageUp, PeopleFluent, Talentsoft, Oracle, SilkRoad, IBM, Lumesse, Litmos, D2L, LearnCore, and Lessonly

Soft skills are “people skills”, and they are extremely important in the commercial sector. They involve showing and feeling empathy, embracing diversity, and understanding that we all have biases that we need to be aware of and keep in check. They involve effective interpersonal interactions and real-time communication skills and are relevant at all corporate levels. Whether office staff who interface with clients, office managers who interface with employees and their superiors, or the C-suite who provide the leadership and vision for the company, effective soft skills matter. An individual with strong soft skills can be an effective collaborator, leader, and “good” citizen. They not only know “what” behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate, but they know “how” to generate those behaviors and do so in a highly effective manner.

As suggested by Deloitte, the movement toward increased automation and artificial intelligence in the workplace has led many in the C-suite to suggest that soft skills are going to become increasingly important in the workplace. The #metoo movement makes glaringly clear that effective soft skills training is lacking in many workplace environments, and in society in general.

Corporate approaches to soft skills training do a good job of teaching employees how to identify and define appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and even offering suggestions for how to behave appropriately, but they are lacking in the use of tools for effective behavior change.

Brain science suggests specific solutions to this problem and can drive innovation and success in the commercial sector. As applied to soft skills training the science is highly suggestive. Training tools targeted directly at behavior change and the systems in the brain that drive behavior are required.

Brain Science of Soft Skills Learning

The human brain has evolved in such a way that there exist two distinct learning systems. One system focuses on learning the “what”, and is referred to as the cognitive skills learning system in the brain. The cognitive skills learning system in the brain learns through passive observation, studying and mental repetition, and recruits the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobes. The second system focuses on learning the “how”, and is referred to as the behavioral skills learning system in the brain. Learning in the behavioral skills system in the brain is active, it involves learning by doing, and physical repetitions, and recruits the basal ganglia. A more detailed discussion of these two systems can be found here.

The most common approach to corporate soft skills training involves having learners read text, view slideshows, and watch videos of appropriate and inappropriate soft skills behaviors. Learners are trained on definitions, how to identify appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, and are given strategies for incorporating appropriate soft skills behavior into their repertoire. This is focused on the “what” and is an important first step in soft skills training.

Unfortunately, most soft skills training programs stop here. It is assumed that the learner will somehow take this “what” information and will convert this into behavior (the “how”). The brain science makes clear that this is highly unlikely, and our own experience reinforces this claim. As anyone who has ever tried to change their own behavior knows, it is much easier to know “what” to do, than it is to learn behaviorally “how” to do it.

Once the learner is well versed on definitions and has strategies in place for effective soft skills, the next step is to train behavior (the “how”). Behavior change occurs when the learner’s behavior is following in real-time, literally within 100s of milliseconds, by feedback that rewards correct behaviors and punishes incorrect behaviors. Thus, the training scenarios must be interactive. Although the detailed neurochemistry is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that behavioral skills are learned gradually and incrementally via dopamine-mediated, error-correction learning in the basal ganglia of the brain. When rewarded, behaviors are more likely to occur in the future, and when punished behaviors are less likely to occur in the future.

Interactive Training Platforms

Traditional approaches train a cognitive understanding of soft skills. These need to be supplemented with interactive approaches that train behavior. Interactive computer-based training platforms, as well as immersive virtual reality (VR) platforms, are available and should be used to complement traditional soft skills training procedures.

The learner can be placed in situations in which they must interact with an individual or avatar who is poor in soft skills so that they learn how to deal with situations like those, or they can be placed in situations in which their behavior is responded to in a negative manner. In other words, they can learn how to affect change in another, or affect change in themselves. Regardless of the platform, whether VR or computer-based, the key is to target the behavioral skills learning system with realistic interpersonal interactions and real-time communication. Behavior change will follow.

Buyers Beware

Corporate training professions need to beware of platforms that claim interactivity that is not truly interactive. From a brain science of learning perspective, behavior change will only be effective if interactivity involves real-time feedback—that is, rewards and punishments that occur within a few hundred milliseconds of the behavior in question. Providing feedback even several seconds following the behavior will not lead to effective behavior change. Interactivity must occur in real time or it won’t be effective.

Corporate Training Platforms

A number of vendors offer corporate training including Salesforce, SAP, Cornerstone, Saba, Skillsoft, PageUp, PeopleFluent, Talentsoft, Oracle, SilkRoad, IBM, Lumesse, Litmos, D2L, LearnCore, and Lessonly, to name a few. All of these vendors offer soft skills training focused on the cognitive skills learning system in the brain. These vendors are urged to complement their current training platform with real-time interactive training that targets the behavioral skills learning system in the brain. In the end, effective soft skills are effective behaviors that are only learned by engaging the behavioral skills learning system in the brain.

4 Predictions on the Future of IT Consumption

AritificialFictionBrain

At Amalgam Insights, we have been focused on the key 2018 trends that will change our ability to manage technology at scale. In Part 1 of this series, Tom Petrocelli provided his key Developer Operations and enterprise collaboration predictions for 2018 in mid-December. In part two, , Todd Maddox provided 5 key predictions that will shape enterprise learning in 2018. In the third and final set of predictions, I’m taking on key themes of cloud, mobility, telecom, and data management that will challenge IT in terms of management at scale.

  1. Cloud IaaS and SaaS Spend under formal management will double in 2018, but the total spend under formalized management still be under 25% of total business spend.
  2. The number of cellular-connected IoT devices will double to over one billion between now and 2020.
  3. Technology Lifecycle Management will start to emerge as a complex spend management strategy for medium and large enterprises.
  4. Ethical AI will emerge as a key practice for AI Governance.

Continue reading “4 Predictions on the Future of IT Consumption”

Differential Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Hard and Soft Skills Training


Key takeaway: Todd Maddox, Ph.D. uses his background in the psychological and brain science of learning to show how sleep deprivation affects employees’ working memory and executive attention. Both work and training environments should take sleep into consideration in developing high-performance and high-retention environments. Otherwise, sleep deprivation can ruin even the best-designed training environments.

In 2007, Arianna Huffington collapsed from exhaustion. She broke her cheekbone and had several stitches on her head. That experience changed her forever. She knew that she was working too hard, all in the interest of increased productivity. She spoke with scientists and researchers, she read extensively and ultimately realized that she needed to make a significant change in her life. That change was more consistent and restful sleep.

In her book, The Sleep Revolution, Huffington makes a number of important points regarding sleep. Most importantly, she references the strong scientific literature showing that a consistent sleep duration and consistent sleep and wake time is critical for restful sleep. In addition, she argues for a sleep routine that involves a “winding down” period to cleanse the mind of one’s worries. Finally, she points out that too many of us sleep with our buzzing, vibrating and flashing smartphones within arm’s reach, which is highly disruptive.

In a brief, but wonderful TEDWomen talk from 2010, Ms. Huffington tells a story about a dinner meeting that she had with a gentleman. He boasted that he got only 4 hours of sleep the night before. She wondered to the audience, but not to her dinner guest, whether an additional 1 or 2 hours of sleep might have led to a more interesting dinner meeting.

This was a “tongue in cheek” comment, but it says it all. The power of a good night’s sleep should not be underestimated. Instead of bragging about being able to function on little sleep as if it is a badge of honor, we should close our eyes and sleep our way to increased productivity, and decision-making. Who knows we might even be happier in the end.

The Brain Science of Sleep and Learning

My expertise is in the psychological and brain science of learning. In the corporate world, this translates to training hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills include learning new software, learning a company’s rules and regulations, or memorizing the set of steps to take to complete a task. Soft skills are people skills and include behaving in ways that show empathy, embrace diversity, and minimize unconscious biases. Soft skills are critical for effective management, collaborative communication, customer service, and avoiding behavior that can be interpreted as harassment.

As outlined in a recent article, hard skills are best learned by engaging the cognitive skills learning system in the brain, whereas soft skills are best learned by engaging the behavioral skills learning system in the brain. Hard skill learning relies heavily on working memory and executive attentional processes, whereas soft skills learning relies on gradual, incremental behavior change and not on working memory and executive attention.

One obvious question to ask is whether sleep deprivation has differential effects on hard vs. soft skills training. In two research studies conducted in my Human Learning and Performance Laboratory1,2, and published in the leading peer-reviewed journal in sleep and circadian science, SLEEP, I address this question empirically. Given the heavy reliance of hard skill learning on working memory and executive attention, I predicted that hard skills learning would be more affected by sleep deprivation than soft skills learning and that the effect would be mediated by attentional and working memory processes. Individuals learned a hard or a soft skill twice, separated by a 24-hour period, with or without sleep. We found strong effects of sleep deprivation on hard skill learning, and smaller effects of sleep deprivation on soft skill learning. Although the details are beyond the scope of this article, we used computational modeling techniques to localize the cognitive process that led to the hard skills deficit. We found that working memory and attentional processes were operating sub-optimally, leading to poor hard skills learning.

These are only two studies and both used a 24-hour sleep deprivation technique. More common in everyday life is chronic sleep deprivation. Our participants were West Point cadets who are clearly a special population. Despite these disclaimers, these studies are highly suggestive that hard skill learning is more strongly affected by sleep deprivation than soft skill learning.

Corporate Training Implications

There are a number of implications of this work that could be immediately incorporated into corporate training settings to enhance learning. I can think of a half dozen off the top of my head. One obvious way forward would be to obtain some estimate of the quality of an employee’s previous night’s sleep. If their sleep was especially good, I would prioritize hard skills training for that day, as the cognitive skills learning system in their brain should be especially ready to learn. On the other hand, if their sleep was average or poor, I would prioritize soft skills training for that day, so as not to rely heavily on working memory and attentional processes.

How might one assess sleep? Nearly every smartphone includes an app that measures sleep quality. There are also some very short duration tasks that one can have the employee complete that are highly correlated with sleep quality. This is not an insurmountable problem, and even if a modest increase in performance was achieved, that would be significant across a large workforce.

A good night’s sleep is critical to productivity and many aspects of our work life. However, when a good night’s sleep cannot be obtained, change the priorities for that day to minimized reliance on working memory and executive attention.

References

1Maddox, W.T., Glass, B.D., Wolosin, S.M., Savarie, Z.R., Bowen, C., Matthews, M.D., & Schnyer, D.M. (2009). The effects of sleep deprivation on information-integration categorization performance. SLEEP, 32, 1439-1448.

2Maddox, W.T., Glass, B.D., Zeithamova, D., Savarie, Z.R., Bowen, C., Matthews, M.D., & Schnyer, D.M. (2011). The effects of sleep deprivation on dissociable prototype learning systems. SLEEP, 34, 253-260.

5 Predictions That Will Transform Corporate Training in 2018

Person participating in virtual reality simulation

At Amalgam Insights, we have been focused on the key 2018 trends that will change our ability to manage technology at scale. Tom Petrocelli provided his key Developer Operations and enterprise collaboration predictions for 2018 in mid-December. To continue that trend, Todd Maddox provides 5 key predictions that will shape enterprise learning in 2018 as markets reach new heights, corporate training embraces new scientific principles, and retention replaces compliance as a key training driver.

  1. VR/AR Enterprise Application Budget to Surpass $1 Billion in 2018
  2. eLearning (Computer-Based Training) Market to Approach $180 billion in 2018
  3. Commercial Training Sector to Embrace Neuroscience of Optimized Learning
  4. Continued Exponential Growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a Driving Force Behind the User Interface (UI)
  5. Training for Retention: The Rule, Not the Exception in 2018

Continue reading “5 Predictions That Will Transform Corporate Training in 2018”

Calero Flexes PE Muscle in Acquiring TEM Stalwart Comview

Calero Logo

On December 29th, 2017, Calero Software acquired Comview, an experienced telecom expense management and call accounting software and services provider. Financial terms were not disclosed. From Amalgam’s perspective, this acquisition is important in demonstrating the plans of Calero under its new ownership, Riverside Partners, and in establishing Comview’s role in the Technology Expense Management market. With this acquisition, all Comview personnel other than Founder John Perri are expected to move to Calero. Calero has committed to supporting Comview’s solution for the immediate future. Comview is expected to run as “a Calero company” with independent development and operations in the short term.

Overall, Amalgam is bullish on this acquisition as it combines the strengths of a veteran TEM provider, Comview, with strong customer service and an integrated platform with the scale and breadth of Calero’s capabilities.

Continue reading “Calero Flexes PE Muscle in Acquiring TEM Stalwart Comview”

The Enterprise Opportunity in Apple’s Slowdown

From Pixabay


On December 28th, Apple released a statement regarding the fact that it was planning to lower the battery replacement costs for Apple 6s and 7s from $79 to $29 as a followup to a December 20th statement made to Techcrunch in which Apple described how it was slowing down iPhone 6s and 7s. This piece provides guidance to enterprise IT, mobility, and procurement managers on what this issue is and how to take full advantage of this situation to improve your enterprise mobility environment.

Recommended Audience: CIO, Chief Procurement Officer, IT Procurement Directors and Managers, Mobility Directors and Managers, Telecom Directors and Managers, IT Service Desk Directors and Managers

Vendors Mentioned: Apple, Samsung, Huawei, Calero, DMI, DXC, Ezwim, G Squared Wireless, Honeywell, IBM, Intratem, MDSL, MOBI, Mobichord, MobilSense, Mobile Solutions, NetPlus, Network Control, One Source Communications, Peak-Ryzex, RadiusPoint, Stratix, Tangoe, vCom Solutions, Visage, Vox Mobile, Wireless Analytics
Continue reading “The Enterprise Opportunity in Apple’s Slowdown”

4 Key Developer Responsibilities Where Machine Learning Can Help

Note: A version of this post was published to Tom’s Tech Take II

As the fall season of tech conferences starts to wind down, something is quite clear – machine learning (ML) is going to be everywhere. Box is putting ML in content management, Microsoft in office and CRM, and Oracle is infusing it into, well, everything. While not a great leap forward on the order of the Internet, smartphones, or PCs, the inclusion of ML technology into so many applications will make a lot of mundane tasks easier. This trend promises to be a boon for developers. The strength of machining learning is finding and exploiting patterns and anomalies. What could be more useful to developers?

Here are some examples:
Continue reading “4 Key Developer Responsibilities Where Machine Learning Can Help”

Riverside Partners Acquires Calero: TEM in Transition

Calero Logo
Calero

On September 13th, 2017, Riverside Partners, a Boston-based private equity firm, announced the acquisition of Calero Software from Clearlake Capital. Calero manages more than $6 billion of annual telecom, mobility, and cloud spend for more than 3,000 customers in 40+ countries and provides managed mobility services for more than 400,000 devices, making it one of the largest technology expense management solutions overall behind Tangoe’s $38 billion+ in technology expense management and Flexera’s $13 billion+ in software expense management. (Cass does not break out its telecom spend, but Amalgam believes it to be similar in scale to Calero.)

This blog covers Amalgam’s perspective on:

  1. Why Clearlake sold Calero?
  2. Who is Riverside Partners, a relatively new player in the TEM space?
  3. What to expect from Calero going forward?

Continue reading “Riverside Partners Acquires Calero: TEM in Transition”

Amalgam Insights Publishes SmartList on 8 Hidden Gems in Telecom Expense Management

Table listing 8 Hidden Gems of TEM: Asignet, Ezwim, GSG, ICOMM, MobiChord, NetPlus, Smartbill, vCom
Snapshot for AI's 8 Hidden Gems for Telecom Expense Management
SL0917A-AI Vendor SmartList – snapshot

Over the past decade, Telecom Expense Management has evolved substantially from its roots of telecom and network spend to a more holistic combination that also includes mobility, end user computing, Software as a Service, and Infrastructure as a Service. Because of this expansion of spend, TEM has evolved from Telecom Expense to Technology Expense Management which can be used to manage the majority of enterprise IT.

Amalgam finds that there are a number of high-quality TEM solutions that are hiding under the radar of enterprise buyers despite being market leaders. As an example, in May of 2017 Gartner put together a Market Guide of Telecom Expense vendors including vendors handling multiple billions of dollars in technology spend such as Calero, Cass Information Systems, Cimpl, Dimension Data, MDSL, Tangoe, and WidePoint as well as strong competitors Comview, Mobile Solutions, Network Control, Saaswedo, TNX, and VoicePlus. Although these Gartner-named vendors all provide TEM solutions that are appropriate for various market sectors and needs, Amalgam believes that a number of strong competitors were left out both in the multi-billion dollar management and the strong competitor categories that should be considered in competitive vendor selection environments.

To provide additional insight and to ensure that representative global vendors such as the largest standalone Australian TEM vendor and the largest standalone European TEM vendor were covered, Amalgam is proud to present 8 Hidden Gems for Telecom Expense Management available at no cost for the first 100 downloaders.

IT Asset Management Must Change to Cut SaaS Costs by 30%

Money Bubbles in the Clouds
You Must Change Your LIfe ~ Ranier Maria Rilke
You Must Change Your Life

A generation of IT has been trained on the practice of Software Asset Management, which has been built on the focus of audit-based license agreement compliance. As the enterprise software market has moved to SaaS, the need for regular audits has decreased because of a fundamental shift from vendor-driven contract enforcement to client-friendly policies for adding new licenses and services.

As software shifts from being a license-based capital expenditure asset to a usage-defined operational expenditure service, the foundational nature of software management must change as well. Rather than managing software as a sunk cost with the goal of squeezing the maximum utilization out of an initial license before the software becomes obsolete, companies must now treat Software as a Service as a constantly renewing and updated functionality aligned to specific business roles.

The trade-off for the ease-of-use and support for SaaS is that enterprise software contracts are harder to negotiate because a number of buyers may end up purchasing SaaS and the purchase cycle is built to support consumerized purchases through P-cards, expense accounts, and line-of-business operational budgets rather than through a formal IT process.

As a result, the traditional world of SAM compliance and top-down procurement is being replaced with the need for cost management solutions that focus on:
Continue reading “IT Asset Management Must Change to Cut SaaS Costs by 30%”