Runway Analytics Icon

Lean Learning: Not Lazy...But Efficient

Written by Sam Finnerty

You’ve just started a new job. You’re camped in front of a computer screen for hours on end, tediously clicking your way through slide after slide after slide. Eventually, you reach the quiz at the end of the tunnel! You take it once…60%. You take it again…75%. Third times a charm…88%!! You’ve reached the magical 80% benchmark that closes that presentation and opens a gateway to an entirely new realm of bullet points, roleplay videos and sheer unadulterated monotony.

Oh yes, you know what I’m talking about. “Training”…We’ve all been there.

All of it is necessary for you to do per company policy, but how much of it will you retain? If you’re like most human beings, you might retain about 5% of it. And that’s if you are actually paying attention! In our modern society, most training and educational programs have for decades, utilized a passive “Bottom Up” approach to learning. It is how many of us have been forced to learn throughout grade school, college and even now in our professional careers. It is the process of the student being passively fed information, which they are expected to process, retain, and apply in the appropriate scenarios. Seems appropriate in theory, but how well does it really work? This approach may allow us to pass our final exams after hours of cramming (and crying) in the library, but how much of that do we retain in the months and years that follow? On average, within 24 hours of a training session we’ll have already forgotten 60% of what we learned. Within a week, we’ll have forgotten 85%. Being forced to cram facts into your brain to pass an academic exam is a form of extrinsic motivation, with the prize being a halfway-decent grade. Once that has been achieved, the motivation to learn dissipates, along with the temporary neural networks that were formed to retain that knowledge. Personally, I was happy to let my memories of stereoisomers and carbocations fade away, along with the rest of the nightmare that was organic chemistry.

But what about when you’re actively striving to become more competent in your profession and work towards aspirations shared by yourself and your organization? This is called intrinsic motivation. Workplace motivation research has shown that today’s workforce is increasingly powered by intrinsic motivation, as the nature of modern work has shifted towards greater employee independence and self-management. Is the traditional instructor-led, passive learning approach really the most effective way for companies to tap into this intrinsic motivation?

The nature of human biology would suggest not. In the human brain, the three regions shown in Figure 2 are primarily responsible for the process of learning; they are the Neocortex, Hippocampus and Amygdala.

  • The Neocortex is the brain’s executive decision maker, responsible for deciding where to direct attention, whether to pursue a task, as well as evaluating its complexity and analyzing details
  • The Hippocampus is responsible for reaching back into our memory banks compare the details of the task at hand with our existing knowledge
  • The Amygdala triggers and assigns an emotional response to the task, which is crucial for memory formation and consequently, the learning process.

Neuroscience research has shown that the most effective way to solve cognitive challenges and develop the strong neural networks required for learning is to take a “Top-Down” Active Learning approach. The primary difference between Active and Passive Learning from a biological standpoint is that the Neocortex is much more directly involved in Active Learning. Giving an individual the responsibility to chart their own path through a challenge using the resources available results in greater communication between the Neocortex and Hippocampus, which strengthens memory formation. Additionally, the personal satisfaction that comes with crafting our own solutions fires up our Amygdala’s and attaches a stronger emotional association to that learning experience. As a result of this heightened Amygdala activity, it is more likely that we will commit these learning experiences to the long-term memory bank to be recalled for future use. We don’t get this same brain activity when an instructor explains us a solution to a hypothetical scenario in the classroom.

So, how can we better harness the simple Top Down principles of Active Learning and apply them as we try to develop in our careers? The continuous evolution of technology and increased accessibility of learning resources is changing the way that people use and consume information. The changing technological landscape is allowing more students and professionals to adopt a development strategy that implements the Top Down approach of Active Learning. This strategy is known as Lean Learning and is defined as the process of delivering bite-sized chunks of knowledge to an individual or team just in time to utilize in whatever problem they are working on.

Modern technology provides Lean Learning environments that can be used in all sorts of different professions. One of the simplest (and maybe the most widely used) tools is a simple search engine. Search engines provide professionals with the perfect Lean Learning environment. They can connect us to communities, to datasets, to creative solutions. And they connect us to all of these things on-demand as need arises. During my time as a research scientist at the UMN Masonic Cancer Center, I found myself using search engines all the time. Whenever I was confronted with conducting a new experiment, I would soon be consulting the academic web for guidance. While there was always reams of previously published research to sift through, I narrowed my focus on just extracting the essential knowledge chunks that I would need in order to run a reliable experiment. As a Data Analyst with Runway Analytics, I’m able to use this same “retrieve and apply” approach to solve data problems and expand my own skillset in the process. I don’t need to attend every webinar and read every book on Power BI to deliver immediate value to our clients, I work until I run into a challenge and I learn just enough to overcome it!

Each client project we work on begins with a question. What questions is our client asking, and what data do we need to answer that question? What manipulations and calculations must be performed on that data to zero in on a solution? Each client is different, technologies, industries, and performance benchmarks change. But our collaboration to identify the most valuable questions and work to define a solution follows a similar process. Implementing a Lean Learning approach into our workflow - powered by tools as simple as Google and YouTube - give us both the confidence and ability to find solutions to all sorts of data questions. This executive control and the moderate stress level that accompanies it is what makes the Lean Learning approach so powerful. Lean Learning engages your neurobiology in the optimal sequence, starting with the Neocortex in giving individuals the power to chart their own path. In testing out the various bite-sized strategies and techniques we learn along the way, we are provided with a continuous feedback mechanism that consists of gratifying steps forward, or the need to go back to the whiteboard and refine our approach.

Above all else, Lean Learning is a mindset; one that is centered around efficiency and self-accountability. It is about seeking out wisdom from others who know more about something than you do, and a willingness to hear perspectives that differ greatly from your own. Much like in Agile Methodology, Lean Learning is about finding the 20% of educational content that delivers 80% of the value in solving the problem directly in front of you. Through continuously identifying and applying those useful 20% knowledge chunks, we are much more likely to and commit them to memory for use in similar future scenarios. Through this approach, we can synthesize knowledge and expand our skillset at a rate far exceeding what we’d gain from any traditional instructor-led training or workshop. Most importantly, this hands-on approach makes the learning process more fun and gratifying. Now get out there and learn! (But not more than you need to).