How to use the Kolb Model in corporate training

Learning by doing and the Kolb model

Training and Development professionals know that adults learn better if the learning material they have to master is relevant to their daily tasks. According to research we remember about 20% of what we learn from reading and up to 90% of what we take part of. This approach is often called “learning by doing”.

New advances in training technology as well as research conducted by educational theorists like David Kolb allow to put the learning by doing approach in the centre of corporate training programmes.

According to David Kolb, adults learn in the most efficient way, if they follow the following steps:

  • Step 1 – concrete experience, when new experience is encountered,
  • Step 2 – reflective observation of the new experience,
  • Step 3 – abstract conceptualization – when reflection gives rise to a new idea or a new consequence,
  • Step 4 – active experimentation, when new skills and knowledge gained is applied to the world around us.

Ideally, input from other people who have experience in the same field should be added to these steps. Coaching is also considered as a valuable, but not obligatory tool in the adult learning process as it can lower time to master the skill.

The Kolb cycle can also be presented in the more understandable form with the help of the following picture.

Adult Learning: Feedback is Essential!

Let’s have a look at the picture. Kolb cycle demonstrates that experience we have in our professional roles or while role-playing in the training or working on business cases is crucial for learning to happen. This experience leads to critical thinking as it is compared to the past observations. The gained experience not only awakens the inner interest but also triggers the thinking on the future. “I do it this way, and they do it differently. What if…” – this is a very simplified way of how learners think on the reflective observation stage. Gradually or through breakthrough insights, thinking and observation are transformed into so called “abstract concepts” that can be used in practice. Practical use of abstract concepts can start a new learning cycle.

So, we can say that adult learning is all about interactivity and about feedback. It should be interactive in the sense that learners take active part in the knowledge transfer, gain direct experience and understand how their actions impact the results. Role plays in corporate trainings that can be found in many good corporate training programmes which try to emulate the best possible approach in learning, but they are often not very effective.

In the 1970ies, Neil Rackham conducted the famous research for XEROX corporation that showed that despite the fact that training program was custom made and presented the best practices in sales at that time, had all kinds of exercises developed to help people adopt new behaviours, the employees used only 13% of what they learned. It proves that just having roleplaying or other form of interactive exercises is not enough. If we can’t just develop or “implement” custom training course or e-learning course for knowledge transfer, what options do we have?

If we can’t just develop or “implement” custom training course or e-learning course for knowledge transfer, what options do we have?

Role play exercises in traditional training

Our 15+ years’ experience in corporate training shows that even the most relevant and well-prepared role plays make some people warily and even frustrated. This state is caused by two reasons. First, some people don’t consider role-playing valuable and many of them are very concerned on their statuses. How can a manager who has a stellar professional reputation and is a role model for his/her direct reports take a risk to say something stupid in a very unusual situation of role-playing? Thy something like: “we have no time for playing your games and we have tons of work to do. Yes, we have to learn new things, you are right, but we prefer to do it “as usual” – we should sit before the whiteboard or laptop screen and you should talk about your staff. And we prefer only to interact if we volunteer to do so”. Second, people are afraid that they would make mistakes or do something wrong and it will show everybody that they don’t know all the answers. Often after role-playing begins, most participants forget about their fears and possible damage to their statuses. People remember training events where they had role-playing exercises. But they remember it on the emotional level, not on the cognitive level. Employees often return to real life and continue to behave the old way. The gap between the behaviours in the game and the experiences in the real-life remains.

Employees are also reluctant to participate in the role plays as “they are not actors”. If this happens two solutions are possible: we can fully emulate real-life environment employees operate in, or we can take a fully imaginative approach, for example to train sales skills set an environment where employees should sell cosmic fuel to aliens. This approach however makes the role-play less efficient.

There is a reason why role-playing can be found in almost every corporate training program – it works! But it works only when certain conditions are met.

Let’s have a look at the sales training. This form of training can be found in almost every large company and almost every large company has role-playing embedded into it. Some companies even design sales training role playing according to the Kolb cycle. David Kolb in his works, however, pointed out that gaining experience is only useful if a learner can take a next step and think critically (perform reflective observation) Most employees in training can’t make this step without a facilitator or coach. Traditional 2-3 days format of training doesn’t allow to pay much attention to every participant, even if the group consists of reasonable amount of people. That’s the reason why many companies for which sales is vital rely heavily on sales managers working in the field. The prevailed opinion in these companies is that direct contact of a sales manager with a client is vital. Also working in the field allows the sales manager to play a role model for less experienced employees. Sales managers also should be present on all trainings their reports participate to contribute to role-playing exercises.

Role-playing can be used only in synchronous face-to-face training events. How can we use something so powerful in asynchronous eLearning?

Learn-Understand-Apply … and Learn Again

SNAPSIM™ as a learning system is designed with the Kolb cycle in mind.

When starting a learning process, employees take entry tests and self-appraisal for every practice module. These actions form a starting point which allows learners to understand their progress. Simultaneously learner’s behaviours are appraised by his/her direct manager.

In the “Learning” , module users work through learning material for every practice. After they understand the learning material, users “send” snaps for training, moving to the “Understanding” module.

Snaps are offered to learners in “1-3-7” mode, i.e. the system checks the understanding of the learning material on the first, third and seventh day after they are presented. After that learners have opportunity to solve business cases related the managerial practice they master in the "Application" module.

Solving business cases allows users to have a reflective observation on theory learned previously. Users also try to apply what was gained – not in their day-to-day tasks, but in safe but practical environment with detailed feedback.

Gaining practical experience is not restricted to solving business cases. A direct manager appraises behaviours of the learner in his/her workplace. This approach works as a post-training control in the “Requirements and Results” module. This feedback from the direct manager offers detailed information for reflective observation and abstract conceptualization and also to correct behaviours in the workspace.

The Valuing your Talent framework

An organisation’s people are its unique resource. People can learn, develop and grow – they are the only part of a business that can improve itself and they are fundamental to creating value in organisations.

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