A Closer Look: Myths Vs. Reality in Training

By Pat Galagan

As humans, we tend to believe new ideas that reinforce current views and reject those that don’t. Thus we rarely clean our mental closets of popular but outdated ideas or question facts that support our notion of where we think things are headed. What follows is a sampling of recent research and opinion that challenges some popular but possibly outdated beliefs in the training field.

Engagement and informal learning

The notion: Open-plan offices encourage engagement and informal learning.

The reality: Replacing private offices with open space may not increase informal learning and innovation after all.

The authors of a recent study reported in the Journal of Environmental Psychology write, “Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction.”

And they add, “The open-plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature.”

Many office designers and managers appear to believe that once the walls come down, workers will be more likely to have chance conversations that inspire new ideas. However, research shows that although conversations are indeed frequent among employees in open offices, they tend to be short and superficial because of the lack of privacy.

Some argue that open space encourages people to learn informally by asking questions of their co-workers, but even this has a downside. In a 2012 study by German and Swiss researchers, participants who requested help with a task performed better, while those who supplied assistance did worse.

Frequently alternating between helping others and doing one’s own job imposes a heavy “cognitive load,” the scientists concluded, as the help givers are forced to reacquaint themselves repeatedly with the details of their own tasks.

Productivity and innovation

The notion: A messy desk inhibits work.

The reality: A messy desk is likely to foster innovation.

A new study conducted by psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs and fellow researchers at the University of Minnesota, published in Psychological Science, found that cluttered environments were more likely to foster innovation than tidy desks.

According to Vohs’s research, working at a clean desk may promote healthy eating, generosity, and conventionality, but the research also shows that a messy desk may promote creative thinking and stimulate new ideas.

“Today’s office environments (small desks, no walls) leave less room to make a mess,” she says. “While cleaning up certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let inspiration flow.”

Right-brained vs. left-brained

The notion: People are either right-brained or left-brained and this influences both behavior and cognition.

The reality: Humans have no preferential left- or right-brained relationship. They use both hemispheres equally, and neither side is stronger. In other words, there is no such thing as brain dominance.

In a two-year study, researchers at the University of Utah used brain imaging to study almost 7,000 regions of the brains of more than 1,000 people. They found no evidence to suggest that one hemisphere is more dominant than another. However, their findings do not refute the theory that certain mental processes are specialized in either the right or the left hemisphere.

“It’s absolutely true that some brain functions occur in one or the other side of the brain,” explains Jeff Anderson, lead author of the study. “Language tends to be on the left, attention more on the right. But people don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-sided brain network.”

The preference to use one brain region more than the other for certain functions, which scientists call lateralization, is indeed real, says Anderson, director of the fMRI Neurosurgical Mapping Service at the University of Utah. “For example, speech emanates from the left side of the brain for most right-handed people. This does not imply, though, that great writers or

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speakers use their left side of the brain more than the right, or that one side is richer in neurons.”

The Utah scientists’ research refutes the misconception that everything to do with being analytical is confined to one side of the brain, and everything to do with being creative is confined to the opposite side. In fact, researchers found that it is the connections among all brain regions that enable humans to engage in both creativity and analytical thinking.

Their study, “An Evaluation of the Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Hypothesis with Resting State Functional Connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging,” was published in August.

Performance management

The notion: Performance management can be improved by installing the right software to manage performance data or changing the way people are rated.

The reality: Human nature plays a bigger role in performance management than any process or software.

“While those factors can be helpful,” writes David Rock, director of the Neuroleadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work, “they don’t seem to guarantee a significant increase in the effectiveness of an overall performance management process.

“Research is leading us to believe that one of the key factors for radically improving the effectiveness of performance management may come from … an organization’s philosophical stance about human nature.” In short, writes Rock on his blog, “Whether organizational leaders believe other leaders are born or made may matter much more than we realize.”

He concludes that new research about nature versus nurture suggests that people’s beliefs about whether talent or intelligence is born or can be developed affects the success or failure of a whole performance management system.

Performance feedback

The notion: All feedback is good.

The reality: Not always.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has found that not all praise is equally helpful. Praising children for being smart is a less effective performance motivator than praising them for effort. Dweck labels the two mindsets created by such praise as “fixed” and “growth.”

That finding may remind some of the research of psychologist Albert Bandura, who in 1977 introduced the concept of “self-efficacy”—a belief that one can succeed. Years later, he and others showed that managers’ beliefs about an organization’s capability to change influenced the success of change efforts.

In The Crowdsourced Performance Review: How to Use the Power of Social Recognition to Transform Employee Performance, Eric Mosley argues that social recognition, a practice in which many people use social media to consider and recognize an employee’s performance on a daily basis, can improve performance more effectively than either the one-on-one performance review or 360-degree feedback.

Makeup of the workforce

The notion: The U.S. workforce is getting younger.

The reality: Despite the flow of Millennials into the workforce, the average age of the U.S. worker is increasing for now because senior employees are not retiring as early as they once did.

The sheer size of the Baby Boomer generation means that the number of Americans reaching age 60 each year is climbing steeply. Also, labor force participation rates have increased for adults between ages 60 and 74.

In the past quarter century there has been a steady improvement in older Americans’ educational credentials, both absolutely and in comparison to the qualifications of younger workers. People with more education tend to stay in the workforce longer than the less-educated.

Mobile technology

The notion: Tablets in the classroom will disrupt learning.

The reality: Successful use of tablets to transform learning will depend on teachers as well as technology. Companies are well-advised to invest not just in technology, but also in developing trainers who can use it to their best advantage in achieving their goals.

Mobile devices, particularly tablets, used for training represent a vast commercial opportunity for their manufacturers, but will they really transform learning? Two things need to happen, according to many observers.

The first is that more tablet-trained kids need to enter the workforce and replace the late-age adopters of technology who still outnumber younger workers. The second is that trainers need to acquire new skills, including:

  • tech-based classroom management skills, such as the use of polls, discussions, and exercises, that facilitate individualized instruction in real time
  • the ability to personalize learning or to become a personalized learning environment facilitator (an actual title at tablet-maker Amplify for people who help instructors learn to use tablets)
  • multitasking in the virtual classroom, for example promoting research, discussion, practice, and mastery simultaneously
  • the ability to use data about learners to improve the learning experience and its results.

Disruptive technology

The notion: Disruptive technology refers only to hardware and software that causes radical change.

The reality: There’s more; way more.

Mark Oehlert, self-described iPhonographer and socialtext’r in the learning realm, tells us, “Technology can mean more than hardware and software. It can also mean the application of knowledge to serve a need. The most important trend of the next 24-36 months will be how well we apply different thinking about how organizations should be set up.”

Oehlert cites the flat structure of gaming company Valve as an example. In Valve’s 2012 handbook, a section titled “Welcome to Flatland” describes the company structure. “We don’t have any management, and nobody ‘reports to’ anybody else. We do have a founder/president, but even he isn’t your manager. This company is yours to steer—toward opportunities and away from risks. You have the power to green-light projects. You have the power to ship products.”

Valve employees select and prioritize their own projects, and move their desks, which are on wheels, to whatever location makes sense. “These efforts and others like them will be the most important ‘technology’ of the next two years at least,” says Oehlert.

In times of such flux, he advises learning professionals to think deeply about their value to the organization and about how to leverage their skills across new learning products and new training dynamics.


The notion: Electronic technology improves communication.

The reality: People are communicating more but saying less.

Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who opines often about the unanticipated consequences of immersion in electronic technology, has been expressing concern about “the crisis in the ability to talk.”

Interviewed by Carlo Rotello, director of American Studies at Boston College for The New York Times, Turkle said, “High-school teachers are already complaining that their students are fixed on programs that give the right answer, and they’re losing the notion of talking and listening to each other.”

Broadcasting and posting opinions is not a conversation, she warns.

Women in the C-suite

The notion: Women are making headway in the executive ranks. Just look at Marissa Mayer (CEO at Yahoo) and Sheryl Sandberg (chief operating officer at Facebook).

The reality: The top roles of Mayer and Sandberg notwithstanding, there are still very few women in top leadership positions in large, high-profile organizations, and high-tech is especially notorious for its mostly male leaders.

Twitter, for example, approached its 2013 IPO with only one woman among its top officials, no women on its board, and only one female executive officer who had been in her job just five weeks.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a political scientist at Princeton University and head of the New America Foundation, has said that women will not gain equal footing or pay at work until caregiver and breadwinner are equally acceptable social roles for men and women.

A warning

Whether or not you believe the facts in this article may depend on the “illusion of validity,” a term coined by Daniel Kahneman to describe the fact that the confidence we have in our judgments is not affected by statistical facts that contradict our judgment.

The mind is prone to making shortcuts, explains the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and author of Thinking Fast and Slow. “We’re wired to construct stories out of imperfect evidence. The data we have could be slight, partial, or biased, but we automatically make the best story possible because of our ‘antipathy toward effort,'” says Kahneman.

Reprinted from T&D Magazine

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