How professionals learn

Viv Cole drew my attention on his From the Coleface blog to an interesting article by Des Woods and Henry Marsden published recently in the UK’s Training Journal called How Professionals Learn (sorry, but you’ll have to pay for the download). Woods and Marsden focused their article on senior staff working in professional service firms (accountants, lawyers, etc.), but I don’t see why it shouldn’t also apply to senior managers, academics, doctors or anyone else who has graduated through an extensive training and risen to a senior professional position.

The authors make a number of useful points about the unique problems of training this group. I’ve selected a few and added my own commentary:

  • Professionals will only turn up if their investment in time is going to be rewarded by tangible returns directly related to the problems they face in their work. This should apply to all training, of course, but professionals are acutely aware of the value of their time and are not motivated by the idea of some time away from the day job.
  • They will be more attracted to training that is delivered by people as senior and credible as they are. This is a potential difficulty, because senior people have little time to devote to training and can sometimes make poor trainers. On the other hand, trainers with less obvious subject matter expertise will not cut the mustard, however brilliant they are at delivering training. Ideally you need to use top experts who are also top trainers and inevitably they will cost top dollar.
  • They like to network with other professionals of similar or greater reputation. They won’t want to be thrown in with a random selection of more junior employees from around the organisation.
  • The training must be quick and to the point. And, of course, all training should be, assuming it gets the job done. The problem lies not with the provision of knowledge but with skills development, which takes time.
  • The training must not challenge their current competence. Any hint of a remedial intervention and noses will be immediately out of joint. These are people who have a high opinion of themselves and want others to feel the same.
  • The content must be intellectually stimulating and challenging – in-depth cases go down well. This is an audience with high levels of prior knowledge (which makes it much easier for them to acquire new knowledge in the same domain) and high metacognitive skills (they have a fair idea what they need to know and how to acquire this knowledge). Anything less stimulating than their day-to-day work is going to be a turn off.
  • The majority of self-study e-learning is likely to be too slow, too long and too boring – they just want the key points. Self-study e-learning is too structured for this audience, which doesn’t need or want the structure. It’s quite possible it’s also been written by people less senior and less clever than themselves and this will be blindingly obvious. It’s not e-learning that’s the problem – it’s the way it’s done. Simulations and scenarios might be more acceptable as long as they are relevant, challenging and fiendishly clever.
  • They are not game for follow-up activities designed to embed the learning. A blended solution may be the most effective option, but the professionals are not going to play the game (unless there’s a high-status qualification at stake). With knowledge training, the follow-up probably isn’t necessary for this audience, but when you really need to develop new skills in this audience (interpersonal skills come to mind) then you’ve got a problem. The early days of learning a new skill can be anxiety-ridden and embarrassing, and the last thing any professional wants is to humiliated in front of their peers. Probably the best option you’ve got is individual coaching, an expensive but potentially powerful option.

Thanks to Woods and Marsden for bringing this difficult audience into focus. They have helped me to realise that you just have to have a plan B when it comes to senior professionals. I’d like to think I am one myself, so it really wasn’t too difficult to get inside their heads.

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