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Four Learning Approaches to
Enhancing Employee Productivity

Deborah Dorsett
Originally published in Handbook of Business Strategy, 2006. Reprinted with permission.

"It is as simple as this." Webb Edwards, president of Wells Fargo Service Company, asserts, "When our people are in the right job, spending the right time on the right things, feeling good about their contributions, fully using their skills, learning new ones and having fun, they will do right for the company and the customer."

There's no question about it. Well-trained employees are the cornerstone of workforce productivity and a clear-cut edge in the marketplace. As such, in a competitive business environment it is especially important to develop a company's human capital strategy in concert with its economic strategy. Just as businesses continually strive to improve bottom line performance, they will also focus on employee performance with a commitment to increase knowledge and enhance skill sets.

Accordingly, the deployment of effective training programs is essential. Although many companies have extensive training programs that focus on content, they generally do not take into account how people learn. Rather, the norm is for employees to be oriented and trained in the style that is natural to the one doing the presenting. That is, trainers, supervisors, leads or technical specialists unconsciously teach according to how they learn. This phenomenon may result in a hit-and-miss training approach that is costly in terms of time, money, frustration, mistakes and outcomes. More importantly, it does not lead to enhanced and/or maximum performance levels.

Personalized learning approach gets employees up to speed

Everyone learns differently. If employers take the time to study how each employee takes in and processes information, they can create the right environments to transfer knowledge in a way that is best received by every individual. In order to accomplish this goal, it is important to identify, understand and apply the four most common approaches to learning. They are:

  1. Experimenting/doing. The individuals most likely to use this approach are generally tactical in nature. When they attempt to do a task, they wait to see what happens. Using trial and error, they learn by doing, by putting their hands on something and really trying it for themselves. Whether or not it works, they are still learning. They want to know: "What can you do for me", and "how soon can you do it?"
  2. Observing/participating. These individuals learn by watching someone else do the task, and then they will try to imitate what they have seen. Taking notice, they strive to replicate the knowledge or skill worthy of attention. These learners have a special ability to associate what is unknown with whatever is known and benefit from positive reinforcement. They want to know answers to questions starting with "who" or "what else."
  3. Inquiring/consulting. Individuals with this type of personality have a strong need to understand and use a thought process that features an "if-then" approach. The intent is to foresee the outcome of potential choices. They assess various scenarios, talk to others to see what they think, look for alternatives and value feedback. Needing to know the context behind the task and the rationale of what needs to be done and the big picture, they want answers to questions starting with "why" and "what if."
  4. Analyzing/patterning. People with this style function best when things are well defined and the patterns are visible. These individuals need to reduce risk and establish a step-by-step sequential process needed to accomplish a task. A documented methodology, something they can reference when needed, is required. Reinforcing methods that work, they eliminate faulty ones. They seek answers to questions that begin with "how" and "how much."

Certainly, there is no one approach to learning that is any better than another. It is simply a matter of personality and style. In fact, most individuals may use a combination of approaches, even though one style is often dominant.

Appreciation of different learning approaches

Bygie Quigg, director of performance improvement at Wachovia Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina, not only knows how to hire motivated people, but she also knows how to get them up to speed. "We use the natural talents of employees," Ms Quigg explained. "We don't focus as much on expectation or preference, but we draw on their natural instinctive talents to get the group up to speed." By assessing employees and customizing the method of learning, employers can save time and money. Employees not only begin performing efficiently in less time, they are also much less frustrated.

When a department in the bank's Retail Services Group underwent a number of significant changes, Ms Quigg drew on her special knowledge of learning and behavioral styles. A total of 20 new people were hired into the department at about the same time that the department manager left. To fill the vacancy, a manager from another department was brought in, and suddenly there was a lot of negativity and blaming. Ms Quigg profiled the members of the group and brought them together so they could learn about one another and their individual differences.

One of her discoveries was that the training system in place did not satisfy the learning approaches of the people involved. Only a few team members had an experimenting/doing style, while the majority were observing/participating, inquiring/consulting and analyzing/patterning types.

Selection made by natural talent

"We picked people out according to their styles," said Ms Quigg, "and assigned them tasks so we could use their natural talents. We picked those with an analyzing/patterning style to do more of the detailed tasks that required repetition and documentation."

Ms Quigg adds that the each member of this team now has a better appreciation for one another's learning approach and unique abilities, and the team has become a cohesive unit. She asked her group, "You may hate detailed work, but aren't you glad there are people in the world who thrive on that, so you don't have to do it?" The answer was a resounding "Yes!"

Recognition of learning approaches helps employees understand their instinctive personality differences, which can either assist or interfere with effective communication in the workplace. It relates especially to what one needs to know in order to feel safe and confident in accepting information and moving forward with it. In corporations today, this means the emphasis on learning should stress its value for communication. It should enable each employee to feel more effective personally and be able to work in a synergistic fashion in the group.

Evaluation tools enhance learning

There are tools available to employers to improve training methods, improve productivity and foster an environment of teamwork. They help companies analyze both personality and learning approaches. Because of the impact on productivity, there are several key features to look for when assessing and selecting learning support tools for use in a corporate setting. Look for tools that are:

  1. Easy to use. If a learning evaluation tool is not easy to use and administer, it may be difficult to get an accurate assessment.
  2. Fast to administer. The ideal assessment takes only 15 to 20 minutes to complete. If it takes longer, people may lose interest.
  3. Devoid of technical jargon and psychobabble. Ideally, the results need to be understood by everyone and should be presented in a logical, non-threatening manner.
  4. Graphically presented. The results should be visually presented, making them easy to understand and applicable to practical situations.
  5. Useful in conjunction with other tools. A good learning evaluation tool can be applied in conjunction with other tools and organizational activities.

Because each employee has a unique approach to learning, a business, armed with a thorough understanding of each person's learning abilities and style, is better able to equip its employees with the information they need to do their jobs well and enjoy long-term success. Webb Edwards of Wells Fargo has first hand experience with these learning tools. He notes:

"Fortunately, we have a learning tool that helped us fill a need. It enables us to look for the kind of people who want to work together as a cohesive team and who are more energized than our competitors. We want the best people from diverse backgrounds and cultures."

By addressing the unique learning approach of each individual, a company can significantly decrease the time required to integrate a new hire into a job and improve the effectiveness of all employees. Effective, satisfied employees are more likely to stay with a company over time, are more engaged and represent a tremendous asset to the bottom line.

Predicting success

Sara S. Fawcett, vice president of human resources at Edens and Avant, one of the nation's premier retail real estate companies, headquartered in Columbia, SC, utilizes the learning aspect of personality throughout all phases of employment, asking all applicants under serious consideration to fill out a questionnaire. While Ms Fawcett is quick to point out that Edens and Avant is not looking for a particular personality type for a job, using an assessment tool helps not only with the initial training process but also with assigning tasks throughout employment.

Ms Fawcett uses the example of an upcoming task she is spearheading: rewriting the employee handbook. "It's going to be very tedious, detailed-oriented work," explains Ms Fawcett. "I want to have input from managers and supervisors who are going to be the ones that apply these policies to their employees. In order for my handbook team to be effective, I'm going to try to pick people who have a personality profile that would indicate that they are interested in that kind of tedious work.

Choosing employees for tasks based on their learning approaches and personality traits sets the team up for success. Handpicking employees to utilize skills, which they like to use allows them to thrive in the workplace, making them a more productive and valuable member of the team.

Assessing differences in learning approaches

In order to accommodate the different approaches to learning, an employer must first evaluate how each employee learns. This is done through what is known as a "forced choice" personality inventory, where the respondent must chose either A or B answers to questionnaire items. This type of assessment uncovers several dimensions of the personality: rational, socialized and instinctive.

The rational personality dimension reveals the individual's preferred style in job roles and activities chosen freely by the individual. When an employee is stimulated and enjoying work, a "like-to" style is in evidence and represents positive personality strengths. In this stress free mode, an individual experiences a sense of self-mastery.

The socialized dimension, created from responses to authority figures, represents learned ways of interacting with others. It reveals expectations of self and others and how the person expects to be treated to enlist support and to gather information. What does the individual expect of the employer? How should the associate be managed? Does he or she expect to be a team player?

The instinctive dimension reveals what a person needs to do. This aspect looks at core survival needs and motivational forces. It identifies what an individual needs to really feel self-confident and energized. These are needs, which must be met on a daily basis and influence all activity in daily life. It provides the key to knowing why an individual does what he or she does.

Learning style is revealed in instinctive assessment

An individual's approach to learning is revealed in the Instinctive aspect of the personality assessment. The results of the questionnaire are given to both the employer and employee in the form of colorful graphs and reports with detailed explanations. The learning approaches are described in terms of colors so that there is no negative connotation to any one learning mode. By depicting learning behaviors objectively and graphically, the trainer or employer has a good idea of how to present information and training materials to each employee and can eliminate the roadblocks that come from style differences. In this way, both management and the employee are more likely to stay focused and achieve results.

Create understanding to increase productivity

Nancy Rubin, chief human resource officer for Providence Health System in Southern California, uses this learning analysis model in workshops geared especially for reducing conflict. She notes: "It has bridged a lot of gaps between people, because their personal styles are different from their co-workers." Ms Rubin adds: "There's been a real lack of understanding of why somebody may react a certain way in a situation. Once other team members realize that is the individual's personal style, they are not as put off as otherwise they would be." She says that now when there is conflict, employees utilize their newfound learning skills to solve problems.

"People really get why that's [conflict] happening," asserts Ms Rubin. "They are more able to ask for help about how to deal with somebody who is more this type than that type." She reports that units are working together more efficiently and with much less conflict. Where there is less conflict, there is more productivity.

It is important to recognize the key to learning is emotional and nonverbal. The learning analysis model provides a method of uncovering hidden needs and making them visible. Once the employee is aware of his/her personal strengths, he/she is able to work at the highest level of productivity, thus creating more job satisfaction.

By assessing employees and letting them know how they learn and process information, they understand what they need in order to approach a learning task or orient themselves to a new position in their organization. By knowing what associates need, employers are able to structure a learning system for them, so employees can take more of the responsibility for their own learning.

Benefits of adapting management styles to learning approaches

The notion that adapting training techniques to the four different learning approaches requires more time and money is false. In fact, the opposite is true. Because learning is structured toward the individual, employees learn more rapidly. The time and effort spent preparing participants to do tasks is reduced and so is employee frustration. Consequently, employers who use this technology quickly see new hires become productive team members.

The upshot is that every employee has his/her own approach to learning, a style that can be defined in terms of need. If that need is met, learning is more likely to be easy and fun. When the need is not met, learning can be cumbersome. This, in turn, negatively impacts job performance. On the other hand, quality training that takes into account participants' learning approach will reduce staff turnover and assist in attracting more skilled employees.

In addition, one of the most important benefits of adapting teaching styles to learning approaches is that it boosts employee confidence. Using an approach that is different from the trainee's style undermines the associate's self esteem and decreases confidence in his/her abilities. Employees may know what their learning needs are at an instinctive level but are often unable to verbalize those needs. An employee armed with information about his/her learning needs will more likely take a proactive role.

Moreover, when using learning analysis model to train employees, there is a positive impact on the whole team, department or class. Employees, now aware of each other's strengths and weaknesses, work together more effectively with a deeper appreciation of each other's individual approaches.

Work smarter

The use of personality and learning analysis tools leads to many positive solutions and a competitive advantage in today's marketplace. They allow a company to work smarter, save money, reduce turnover and maximize its human resource's abilities. As Joe Edens, chairman of Edens and Avant explains:

"Our company has grown from $300 million in asset value to more than $2.2 billion in value with the best people in place. After a quarter of a century of experience using a personality analysis tool, we can say with certainty using this is one of the best investments we have ever made."

The right investments in learning initiatives pay off. The more skilled and knowledgeable a workforce is, the greater the asset to the business. Accordingly, companies that rethink and adapt their training methods to take into account how people learn experience significant rewards that benefit the employer, employees, customers and the bottom line. Now, that is a winning strategy in any economy:

Teaching model using variations in learning approaches

Using the concept of teaching someone how to use new software, here is an example of how a trainer might make minor adaptations in the way information is presented to individuals who have different approaches to learning:

About the Author

Deborah Dorsett is a Vice President and Executive Consultant with Personalysis Corporation, a management consulting firm located in Houston, Texas. Since 1975, Personalysis Corporation has worked with national and international companies to help them achieve higher productivity and performance. For more information, call (713) 784-4421 or go to