Saturday, June 12, 2004

Understanding as a learning objective

The issue of whether "understanding" can be a viable learning objective has been raised recently on various online forums, and gets dismissed because achievement of understanding can't be measured or observed, and because behavior change is more appropriate a goal for training. I used to endorse this view, particularly back in the days when I was training people in MBO. But now I am not so sure.

First, in the academic education world, understanding IS a goal. It is fundamental to being able to analyze, form judgments, formulate opinions and beliefs, and develop intellectually. Few university courses, other than perhaps in 'the professions', aim to get students to DO anything of direct practical value. Yet renowned educational institutions the world over test understanding using rigorously designed means all the time. Try telling a professor of economics or metaphysics that you can't test for understanding. Teaching students how to understand within whatever appropriate context is, in my view, a noble and often achieved objective. Once the mental processes pump is primed, graduates are considered to be ready for the world, which was till recently a rather predictable place.

Second, that world is changing rapidly and growing ever more complex, way faster and more chaotically than say in the 50s. A core survival competence in business is the ability to rapidly "understand" new things, concepts, tools, processes, environments and so on. Without understanding there can be no meaningful behavior change. Without understanding there is alienation. So why is it considered inappropriate or unworthy to try to get employees to understand things? I have a growing conviction that the better employees understand the world they live in, the better able they are to adapt to it (or drive it) on their own, without formal training interventions.

I confess I am biased in this view. Three years ago I was approached to develop a series of e-learning courses for a telecommunications company. They knew that they were perceived by the market as old fashioned and slow, an analog-voice batch-systems operation in a world that was rapidly moving to a digital-data real-time focus. They determined that a primary albatross around their neck was their many-thousands strong employee base who simply did not understand the wired world of the Internet. The innovative thinkers in business strategy felt like they were running waist-deep in water. The drag of people who did not understand, did not care, or were passively resistant to e-business (from the mailroom to the boardroom) was a huge obstacle. And not having everyone through the length and breadth of the organization willing and able to see and react to e-business opportunities was a real threat to the company's evolution.

So we put together the courses to get every single employee to "understand" what was then called the new economy and its practical implications for them, for business, and for society. Though a lot of the training was experiential, many of the objectives were deliberately phrased in "understanding" terms, and much of what was conveyed was knowledge rather than skill or ability. But people came out of those courses grounded, confident, enthusiastic, and a lot more competent to talk about e-business issues and ideas. Today, that company is the most respected digital-data telecom in its field, and is looked to by others in its industry as setting the bar. Training was a significant part of that transformation, and developing "understanding" was a significant part of that training.

Understanding of anything lifts an employee above those without that understanding. Understanding can be taught, and adds significant leverage to any behavior-change efforts.

Or am I just not understanding?

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