White Paper • July 22, 2019

How to Build a Thriving Global Learning & Development Community

By George Schmidt and Kerstin Hartig

As the global economy evolves, pharmaceutical companies are becoming increasingly global in their mindsets and actions.  As a result, L&D teams must work more effectively across markets to achieve business objectives.

For L&D, “going global” can offer a range of benefits. However, there are challenges that L&D teams must address as they transition to a global footprint.

This paper collects input that was shared at a workshop on this topic at the LTEN Annual Meeting in Grapevine, TX on June 4, 2019. The workshop was led by George Schmidt of Salience Learning and Kerstin Hartig of Bristol-Myers Squibb. This paper outlines the following:

  1. Why Should L&D Work Globally?
  2. Benefits of a Global Footprint
  3. Key Challenges Associated with Going Global.
  4. Addressing the Challenges: Potential Solutions and Lessons Learned from BMS’ Transition to a Global L&D Organization

Article • July 16, 2019

System 1 and 2 Thinking or “Ready, jump, think”

By George Schmidt

Salience Learning "System 1 and 2 Thinking" blog post image

What is System 1 and 2 thinking?

Imagine you are in New York City for the weekend. You are deep in conversation with a friend as you walk along 8th Avenue and you come up to 30th Street. You take a look at the traffic signal and it’s yellow. Your friend, formulating a thoughtful reply to your latest comment, takes a step out into the crosswalk. 

You glance to your left, and in a brief flash you see an SUV speeding up to try to make it across before the light turns red. You react without thinking. You reach out to your friend, grab her arm, and pull her back quickly to the curb. At just that moment, the driver notices your friend and swerves to his left. The SUV passes within inches of your friend! 

Your reaction is an example of what Daniel Kahneman, in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, calls System 1 thinking. Your mind reacted so quickly that you didn’t even have the time for conscious thought. In cases like this, System 1 thinking is quite a good thing! 

System 1 thinking is also very good for many things we do every day: it helps us quickly assess our surroundings, assess depth perception, recall information and form impressions. For example, if you drive to work you probably go through stretches of road where you don’t consciously think about your driving. It is a low-effort operation because it is ingrained in your memory. System 2 thinking is quite the opposite. 

System 2 thinking is hard. It requires conscious effort and energy, and is reserved for situations that require analysis and problem solving. For example: if I were to ask you to calculate 24 x 91, you’d need to activate System 2 thinking. Thinking that requires conscious manipulation of information such as inventing something new or developing a value story for a pharma product are facilitated through System 2 thinking.  In addition, research is also showing when information is consciously processed, via System 2 thinking, learners can learn better.

How can System 1 and 2 thinking impact learning?

Since we all have the same three-pounds of grey matter between our ears, whether we are designing a learning experience or taking part in it, System 1 thinking can impact the learning process. Since System 1’s literal role is to jump to conclusions quickly based upon a limited amount of information, it can lead L&D professionals to build learning based upon incomplete or inaccurate needs assessments. It can also drive learners to jump to conclusions about content and therefore impact their motivation to learn. 

In a learning environment, those designing learning need to think carefully about the topics, the business needs for those topics, and the desired learning outcomes. In addition, we also want learners to reflect, analyse, and consider problems from different perspectives. All of these actions require activation of the more effortful System 2 processes in order to be effective. 

How can we design learning to account for System 1 and 2 thinking?

For this reason, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make sure we account for System 1 while engaging System 2 thinking in our learning designs. Specifically, we do three things every time we approach a new program:

  1. Challenge the business’s and learners’ needs
  2. Build in time for self-reflection and contemplation 
  3. Give learners a break, literally! 

Consider a recent learning program we completed around critical thinking in account management. In this program, we first pushed our client to think more deeply about the need. Was it really a critical thinking need or was there something else at play? In our needs assessment, we found out that recent organizational changes had caused some role confusion amongst the customer-facing teams. They weren’t fully clear about what was expected of them. 

As a result, while the primary objectives of the workshop were aligned to critical thinking, we dedicated time to clarifying role expectations to good effect. In addition, we built in “step back and reflect” exercises where learners used learning journals to engage their System 2 thinking on the information. Finally, to give the learners a chance to mentally rest, we ran some fun and light activities and discussed some quotes. These demanded lighter thinking effort all the while maintaining good energy. 

Despite all the scientific progress humans have made, it looks like we aren’t going to be able to fully escape our System 1 and 2 thinking. And in some ways that is good news; as your friend who narrowly escaped the SUV might agree. 

That said,  we hope this article provided a little help in designing learning programs that engage the System 2 thinking of our learning professionals and participants alike. Thank you!

Article • July 1, 2019

Metacognition or “I think, therefore I learn”

By George Schmidt

Salience Learning Metacognition or "I think therefore I learn" blog post image

What is Metacognition?

I used to hate writing essays when I was a kid. I would read the assignment and then spend days simultaneously procrastinating and wallowing in a simmering fear about the topic and the work required to complete the assignment. 

Finally, the night before it was due I would bite the bullet and work through the night to finish the essay. The results were often not very pretty, and my teachers let me know it! 

Then, after one particularly poor grade on an essay assignment, I had an epiphany. This epiphany was helped along by a note from the teacher on the essay title page. It stated, in red marker, “Think about what you want to say before you start writing!” I read it and realized that my teacher was right. I was just diving in without giving any real thought to how I structured, prioritized, and focused my thoughts. 

This “ah ha” moment was probably my first real understanding of metacognition and how it could help me get better. Of course, I didn’t think of it as metacognition, but that is exactly what it was. In short, metacognition is basically thinking about how you are thinking! 

How can Metacognition impact learning?

Of course, metacognition is important for more than just learning. It’s a vital part to helping us think critically about the world, solve problems, and push ourselves to get better at what we do. In a learning program, the lack of metacognition can mean our participants are just going through the motions, perhaps even just memorizing facts and information to do just enough to “pass” the class. 

Let’s consider an example from a recent Trainer Transformation program we ran with a client. This is a comprehensive three-month program that helps new and tenured trainers improve their strategic partnering across the organization through a series of live and virtual workshops and self-directed learning. 

We had one particular participant, an experienced trainer who I’ll call John, who expressed skepticism at the activities. During each of the activities, instead of being introspective and thoughtful, he defaulted to a cynical viewpoint of, “I’ve been there, done that.” After a significant portion of the program had run its course, we organized an intervention to challenge John to use the activities as an opportunity to assess his own thinking around learning design and development. 

The results were notable. While we agreed he had a good base of knowledge, he was able to push himself to build upon that base by focusing on his own metacognition. 

How can we design learning to account for Metacognition?

We can incorporate metacognition into our learning design and development in a number of ways. We’ve listed three of them here: 

  1. Incorporate self-assessments and self-awareness activities. As we pointed out in our article on overconfidence, a little self-assessment goes a long way to getting people in the right mood to learn. 
  2. Teach participants about metacognition and how important it is. Be like my writing teacher, and help learners understand the existence and value of thinking about their own thinking. A simple solution is to talk-aloud your thinking while working through an example. This means sharing all the nitty-gritty details of how good thinking goes back and forth, up and down and side-to-side to distill signal from noise, comprehend new information, or complete a task.
  3. Build metacognition into your learning activities. A great way to do this is to ask the learners to answer “why?” as they work through exercises. For example, if you are running a strategic planning workshop, ask the learners “Why did you think that way?” as they develop strategies from a set of insights. You simply can’t use “why?” enough!

Metacognition sounds like a highly academic topic, and in some ways, it is. But in other ways, it makes a lot of sense that if we are able to analyze how we do something we’ll get better at it. Oh, and by the way, tell your kids about it so they don’t struggle like I did with their essay assignments!

Article • June 10, 2019

Confirmation bias or “See, I told you so”

By George Schmidt

Salience Learning Confirmation bias or "See, I told you so" blog post image

What is confirmation bias?

At family reunions or other gatherings—like over the Holidays—my family has a rule:  No politics.  We generally try to avoid topics that might cause disagreements.  But, not all families have that rule.  You and your family might thrive on lively debates.  It might be “anything goes” as far as you’re concerned!  

Think back to such a gathering.  Perhaps it was a family reunion or just a group of friends.  Have you ever been in a “lively debate” about some controversial topic?  Have you ever experienced a situation in which your debate partner just would not…could not…be moved by any degree of evidence, reasoning, or facts?  

We’ve all experienced this at one time or another.  In such a situation, your debate partner might be exhibiting confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that confirms one’s preexisting conclusions.  For example, if the conclusion is, “The sky is blue.” The brain will more easily and more vividly recall information that confirms that conclusion, such as gazing into the sky on a sunny day, over sitting inside on an overcast grey-sky day.  

However, it goes further than that. Confirmation bias also relates to how our brains prioritize those two pieces of information. Using the same example, if the intent was to decide if the conclusion was correct, rather than consider the two as equally relevant, the brain often prioritizes the confirmatory over the disconfirming information.  Slightly disturbing, is that this is seen even if the confirming evidence is flimsy or even false yet the disconfirming evidence is rock-solid.

How can confirmation bias harm learning?

In the grand scheme of things, confirmation bias often results from a lack of critical thinking.  Learning and Development (L&D) professionals, in their desire to support and satisfy their internal clients, can fall into this trap.

Let’s consider this example.  Assume a business unit (BU) leader has concluded that account managers don’t leverage all of their tools to analyze their business. Now say that the BU Leader goes on a field visit and observes an account manager neglect some tools. When the BU Leader returns to the home office, he or she quickly pulls the L&D team into the room and sets them off build a training on using all tools to analyze the business.

To satisfy the BU Leader, L&D might move forward with developing a solution to drive account managers’ analysis skills, which might be exactly what’s needed.  But, then again, it might not.  The BU Leader may be prioritizing the single experience he or she witnessed in the field over back-end analytics that illustrate all tools are being used. 

If that is the case, then L&D would be wasting its time and resources, as well as valuable account manager time, on a program that isn’t really needed.

How can we save learning from confirmation bias?

L&D professionals can do several things to ensure that confirmation bias doesn’t infect learning programs.  Here’s a quick summary:

  1. Act as a true learning consultant with internal clients / business sponsors.  Be a strategic partner and when someone says they have a need, be sure to clarify what information is leading them to that conclusion and what the business objectives are regarding addressing the need. 
  2. Use learning needs assessments to objectively confirm the nature and depth of the need.  Data-driven needs assessments provide evidence that learning programs are actually needed, and that they are addressing the right things.
  3. Incorporate critical thinking exercises into training programs when possible and appropriate.  Critical thinking skills are extremely important and learners should be able to use them.  Critical thinking can help learners be more effective in their roles and help them avoid confirmation bias as they fulfill their day-to-day responsibilities.

Hopefully, this article provides some useful guidance regarding confirmation bias and how to avoid it.  We’ll probably never be able to convince your Uncle Fred to change his mind, but we just might be able to help you develop more effective learning programs.

Article • May 17, 2019

Overconfidence bias, learning’s silent killer

By George Schmidt

Salience Learning "Overconfidence bias, learning’s silent killer" blog post image

What is overconfidence bias?

My son has always been the fastest kid in his class. Just ask him.  When he was six, we watched the Olympics together.  When he saw Usain Bolt win the 100M sprint, he confidently turned to me and said “I’m definitely faster than him!” 

Now, I see it as part of my job as “Dad” to make sure he sees the world for how it is.  I promptly took him to the street outside, marked off 20 meters, and timed him. 

After a little warm-up, I counted down “3, 2, 1, GO!” and he jumped out of the start.  He moved quickly and reached the line in just over 4 seconds. 

We then went back and watched the recorded race, and estimated Mr. Bolt’s time for his first 20M as just over 2 seconds.  I looked at my son and said “Not bad! You’re half as fast as the fastest man in the world!” His response was a perfect example of overconfidence bias: “Well, at least I’m the fastest kid in the world!” 

Why does overconfidence kill learning?

As Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”1 Overconfidence is a killer of learning because it stops people from thinking they can or should get better at something and precludes them from participating or fully engaging in a learning program. 

This can manifest itself in a lot of ways. For example, we’ve seen commercial leaders exclude themselves from learning programs geared towards their teams, even though they could have benefited. We’ve also noticed this with experienced “been there, done that” market access account managers, with typical quotes such as “I already know that” or “I don’t need that training”.  

How can we save learning?

Don’t worry, there is hope. The first step is to help participants understand their actual current knowledge and skill levels. In the case of my son, I was able to directly compare empirical evidence to help him understand how he stacks up to the world’s best. 

So, the first thing we need to do is help learners understand that they have room to learn.  One way to do this is via an assessment.  This can help establish a baseline and show learners where they are versus some specific standard. 

Another important thing to do is to drive a learning culture that enables learners to accurately self-assess their level of competency, then focus them on building competency in their biggest areas of need.  Social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that self-assessment skills can be learned and used to more objectively evaluate one’s level of competence. 

So, the old saying that “ignorance is bliss” is actually true.  But, that bliss fades quickly when professionals’ performance in the field doesn’t quite match expectations.  By helping learners more accurately understand their own skill and knowledge levels, we can help them get a lot more value from learning programs.

1 Darwin, Charles, The Descent of Man, Vol. 1, Introduction, p.3

Article • April 30, 2019

The curse of knowledge or “It seemed so clear to me”

By Krista Gerhard

Salience Learning Curse of Knowledge blog image

What is the Curse of Knowledge?

The Curse of Knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when a person (think of a trainer or a subject matter expert) is communicating with a learner and assumes the learner has the background knowledge to comprehend the communication.  I’m sure that textbook definition sounds very dry and boring, so let’s try a little activity to illustrate the concept.

Think about your favorite song or piece of music.  Now, go find some friends.  Don’t tell them the name of the song.  Just ask them to see if they can guess the song as you play out the tune.  Here’s the catch: your only instruments are your knuckles and a table.  Yes, to “play” the tune, all you can do is knock the melody or the most recognizable part of the song on a table. 

Here’s what you’re likely to notice: Because you know the song, your patterned and purposeful knocks will sound like a dead-on match to the song’s melody.  You say to yourself, “Surely, they’ll guess it straight away, right?” 

Well, probably not.  To your friends’ ears, the tune you are hearing in your head is likely to sound like a bunch of senseless knocking, as they don’t have the prior knowledge to interpret the information. That’s the curse of knowledge. As a side note, this experiment was popularized by a Stanford PhD students research study in 1990 where only 2.5% of the listeners were able to identify the song[1]

Now, let’s try it on you. 

Click on the player below and take a listen.  On it, we’ve “knocked out” a very well-known tune.  Can you guess it?

At the end of this article, we’ll reveal the name of the song.  

Why is it important to consider the Curse of Knowledge when designing learning?

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a communication that went right over your head?  I have. Once when creating a learning experience around Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), I had the pleasure of interviewing a very knowledgeable subject matter expert (SME) to inform the design. 

While I am familiar with oncology, its marketplace and that marketplace’s unique business dynamics, at my first meeting with the SME after sharing this background, he assumed I also had a deep scientific understanding of diagnostics. As such he dove into a passionate and highly scientific explanation filled with technical terms and acronyms. Which, while accurate, fell like senseless knocking on my ears.  

This isn’t to say he was at fault. To him, certain knowledge was obvious and assumed. However, not for me.  Needless to say, he was extremely gracious as I asked questions to deconstruct his knowledge into its foundational elements in order to build up my own and create an appropriately complex design for the target learner.

But imagine if I hadn’t?  Imagine if the final experience was simply this same good-hearted SME presenting this highly complex information for, say, an hour in a dark ballroom with equally complex slides as its backdrop with no time allotted for learners to ask questions to clarify and relate this new information to the prior knowledge. This is the how the Curse of Knowledge can hamper learning and, unfortunately, it happens more often than we’d like to admit.

How can we save learning from the Curse of Knowledge?

As professionals who design learning programs, it’s essential to have an understanding of your learners’ current and prior understanding of a topic.  To properly learn new things, learners must be able to place new information into an existing mental framework of understanding.  If learners don’t have one, then new information can fail to “stick”.  

To avoid that outcome, you need to know your learner’s baseline level of knowledge.  If they don’t have a framework, then you’ll need to help build it by exposing them to—and causing them to engage with—the proper level of foundational knowledge and also relating the new knowledge in some way to other frameworks or knowledge they do have.

In short:  Know your learners, ensure they have a strong foundational framework (or help them build one), and keep your SMEs grounded in the learners’ level of knowledge to avoid high-quality learning turning into senseless knocking.

Now, how about that song? It is actually the most popular song in the world: Disney’s It’s a Small World (After All).  Readers from across the world have likely heard it at a Disney Theme Park in the US, Europe, Japan, or Hong Kong.  Now that you know the song, go back and listen to the recording again. We hypothesize that this time around you’ll “hear” the melody loud and clear and say perhaps, “Its so clear to me!”  But then you’ll pause and remember how once you have the knowledge you can be cursed. 

[1] https://creatorsvancouver.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/rocky-road-from-actions-to-intentions.pdf

Article • April 29, 2019

The science of learning & why it matters

By Karen Foster

Just as healthcare professionals use clinical evidence and scientific theories to inform their treatment decisions, at Salience we think that learning decisions must take the same approach. As such, we incorporate an understanding of what research is uncovering about how the brain “works” as well as historical theories around how adults learn as the foundation for our work.  

What do we mean by the Science of Learning? 

The human brain is amazing.  Our abilities to think, reason, learn, and make decisions—all enabled by a three-pound lump of tissue—are truly phenomenal.  But, as remarkable as it is, science has shown that the brain has several adaptations to assist it in processing the enormous volume of information it receives.  Some of those adaptations come in the form of biases, such as overconfidence and primacy biases, and other phenomena, such as system 1 vs. 2 thinking.  Like many features, these are helpful in some situations but can be a hindrance in others. Science has shown that these adaptations have a proven impact on the process and output of our thinking and, as a result, our behavior.

In addition, more than 100 years of observations have informed scientific theories regarding the optimal conditions for adult learning. Malcolm Knowles’ theory of adult learning (andragogy) is one example.  As far back as the 1960s, Knowles summarized even earlier work from Edward Lindeman in the 1920s that adults need to be involved in their instruction, leverage experience as the basis for learning activities, understand and buy into “why” they are doing the learning activities and anchor the learning around problems as opposed to content.

Why is the Science of Learning important? 

At Salience, we believe learning programs and experiences that incorporate the brain’s adaptations and the theories of adult learning into their design, development and execution have a greater chance of hitting the mark. We also believe that anchoring L&D professionals in the science and theories of adult learning empowers them to be more valuable, strategic partners to the organization.

These reasons can result in all sorts of downstream benefits to the learner and the organization:

  1. Improved knowledge and skill adoption
  2. Increased motivation for individuals to own their learning
  3. Competitive differentiation and better business results 

From Theory to the Real-World

Think about a recent planning, cycle, or business unit meeting you’ve attended.  Now, think about the quantity and duration of the sessions you sat through to learn about new products, competitors, and important market topics. How effective were those sessions in building your knowledge or strengthening your skill set to enabling you personally to be more effective in your job? 

Based on our experience, we’d argue that many of those sessions left a lot of learning and valuable skill practice on the table.  Maybe they tried to deliver way too much information, causing cognitive overload. Or, they may have delivered the wrong level of detail for the audience, a bias known as the curse of knowledge.  Or, maybe they omitted the purpose, or ‘Why’, for the learning and thus failed to engage learners, a key element of andragogy.  The point is, most learning programs miss opportunities to drive effective learning because they don’t adequately consider the science of learning. 

What’s Next? 

The science of learning is a pretty complex topic, so we’ll try to break it down into bite-sized pieces.  Over the next few posts, we will introduce some of the biases and phenomena that affect how the brain works.  We’ll also provide some specific examples of how they manifest themselves.  Most importantly, we’ll describe ways to get around those challenges to make learning programs even more effective!   

Article • April 28, 2019

What’s in a name? The meaning behind Salience Learning

"What’s in a name? The meaning behind Salience Learning" blog post image

What does Salience mean?

A red dress in a sea of black. The sound of fingernails on a chalkboard in a quiet classroom. The smell of a gas leak on an otherwise normal afternoon (watch out for that one)!  Salience means standing out from someone’s or something’s surroundings. 

Salience is triggered by novelty or unexpectedness or can also be created by shifting one’s attention to a feature.  In other words, something becomes salient when something is noticed, its importance is recognized and it can be recalled again in the future. It makes sense then that being salient, or memorable, is an important part of learning. 

In fact, there is a whole theory of learning called The Salience Theory of Learning. A simplified summary of this theory is that our brains constantly create and organize basic units of learning called amalgams, that are in essence neural entries or, for lack of a better term, memories. These memories are stimulated by salient events (i.e., those events or information that stand out).  As our brains try to fit these memories together in a scaffolding of sorts, we build off of them to learn new skills and do familiar tasks more efficiently. 

The implication for learning is broad but two themes are important. These themes are that we need to design learning activities that simultaneously:

  1. Stand out enough for participants to create new memories
  2. Enable these memories to tie together with each other—and with past memories—to help form new skills

Unfortunately, most training misses the mark.  It either overwhelms participants with too much information and/or fails to make the most important information stand out. Basically, nothing is salient.

Why did we choose Salience Learning as our name?

Our name therefore has a dual meaning. 

First, it serves as a constant reminder that any learning we create must stay true to the principles and theories of the science of learning.  Think of it like applied academia. Practical application built on a foundation of science and evidence. 

Second, we want to stand out.  Specifically, we want to be known for applying the science of learning to the business of science to solve the life science industry’s most challenging business problems.