A new perspective on a powerful subject

In my previous blog post, we looked at what neuroscience tells us about change management. The disruption financial services is experiencing right now, as well as the high levels of fear and anxiety in the industry workforce, make these insights timely.  

Yet this is only half of the story. Neuroscience sheds light not only on how the brain reacts to organizational change, but also how the brain itself changes over time—in other words, how it learns.  

Organizational learning ability has always been a competitive advantage, but current trends in the industry are elevating it to a must-have. How well we learn depends on how well we deal with change, and this is a moment of tremendous change in the industry. New digital technologies, demographic shifts, and new competitors are all changing the financial services industry. In these disrupted times, a workforce that can learn quickly is required to achieve peak organizational performance, and those that learn and adapt faster will have a competitive advantage 

So what does neuroscience tell us about workforce learning? Here are three key insights.  

1: Anyone can learn. 

Many people, including some financial services leaders, may believe that older members of the workforce are less able to learn than younger ones.  

But while it is true that some younger workers might learn faster than some older workers—the brain is generally more plastic when we are young, which can be particularly important for something like learning to speak a second language with perfect fluency—it is not true at all that older workers are unable to learn.  

This is not a platitude masquerading as business adviceLearning research confirms that our brains can form new connections throughout life, and that the only limit to the number of these connections is the learner’s effort towards learning.  

For instance, a recent study from the University of California, Irvine found that online brain game exercises can help people in their 80s to multitask as well as people 50 years younger. 

With the workforce in many advanced economies aging, financial services leaders face an imperative to embrace lifelong learning or be left behind. 

2: The way you learn matters a lot. 

Learning researchers draw a sharp distinction between durable and non-durable learning. Durable learning persists in the mind of the learner for a long time. Learning to ride a bike is a classic example. Non-durable learning, as you might guess, is more transient. A piece of trivia is an example of non-durable learning.  

The single biggest factor that determines whether something we learn will be durable or non-durable is the way we learn it—not only the format, like whether we hear it in a lecture or read it in a book or watch it in a video, but also how often we retrieve the information and why we retrieve it.  

In their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel lay out the five criteria for durable learning: 

  • It must be relevant to the learner. 
  • It must be delivered when they need it. 
  • It must be contextualized for the broader picture.
  • It must be built or prior knowledge. 
  • It must be effortful, demanding emotional delivery. 

The effectiveness of durable learning has also been demonstrated in some recent research conducted by Accenture and MIT. A standard training video was shown to four groups of employees. Each group was exposed to a different “learning intervention” during and after the screening. On follow-up memory tests, the two groups exposed to “durable” learning interventions—one group held a structured discussion afterwards and the other was asked questions throughout—scored 25 and 26 percent higher, respectively, than the other two groups. 

3: Learning works best in a state of flow. 

Neuroscience also shows us that learning is more effective when the learner is in a state of “flow”—intense involvement in the moment-to-moment experience of an activity. When we’re experiencing flow, distractions fall away and we function at our highest capacity.  

The concept of flow was first explained by the groundbreaking psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The surprising thing about it from the perspective of workforce learning is that we don’t need to run off to a mountaintop somewhere to achieve it. With the right learning systems in place, flow-state learning can arise even in the life of the busiest professional. 

If you’re interested in continuing the conversation about neuroscience and learning in the financial services workforce, I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here 

The final post in this series will look at how neuroscience can help financial services organizations achieve enterprise agility.

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