A holistic approach to corporate learning

In the modern business world of rapid change, regulation and compliance, measurement and assessment, social networking and learning among many other things, it may seem strange that the case still has to be made for adopting a holistic approach to corporate learning.

Written by Emerald Works
Published 12 June 2014
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A holistic approach to corporate learning

Top 10 characteristics

The top 10 characteristics of the holistic approach to learning are that it:

  • Shifts the emphasis from teaching to learning

  • Takes account of each learner's preferred learning style

  • Individualizes and contextualizes people's learning experiences

  • Focuses on building knowledge; not reproduction of facts and opinions

  • Requires learners to reflect on their knowledge

  • Facilitates relevant, problem-based thinking

  • Requires learners to develop and apply understanding

  • Helps learners to develop processes, skills and attitudes

  • Uses authentic tasks to engage learners

  • Extends learners' capabilities beyond the content that's presented to them.

The concept and constructivism

Basically, there are four main perspectives when it comes to educational psychology:

  • Behaviorism, whose disciples advocate repetition and reinforcement to create a behavior in learners that becomes second nature to them

  • Cognitivism, where the focus is on developing individual knowledge in a formal, defined way. Cognitivists see the world as a giant lecture hall, offering opportunities for instructors to teach learners to learn

  • Constructivism, which promotes learning through experience, personal interpretation and so on. Learners are helped to build "personal meanings" via activities including integration, reflection and creation

  • Situated learning, a subset of constructivism in which learners experience simulated environments and tasks, forming "communities of practice."

The idea of holistic learning sprang from the constructivist view of learning, which is based on encouraging learning activities that involve the learner in engaging, exploring, explaining, extending, and evaluating. Constructivists believe that people build their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experience and reflection.

This assumes that learning is both an active process and the result of a personal interpretation of the world. It argues that knowledge is constructed from - and shaped by - experience. A holistic way of thinking tries to encompass and integrate multiple layers of meaning and experience, rather than defining human possibilities in a narrow way.

Holistic learning, therefore, places great significance on relationships and primary human values within the learning environment. It encompasses the development of the learner's intellectual, emotional, social, physical, artistic, creative, and spiritual potentials. It also seeks to engage learners in the teaching/learning process, and it encourages personal and collective responsibility.

The theory in practice

The holistic approach to learning emphasizes problem solving and understanding, through authentic tasks, experiences, settings, and assessments. Instructors/tutors adapt the learning curriculum to students' suppositions, responses and needs, and they seek and values the learners' points of view. In return, learners develop their own goals and learning objectives, and they take ownership of the learning process.

Using the theory

A holistic approach to learning is, therefore, a noble - even laudable - concept. Yet, in the stressful context of today's measurement-dominated workplace, adopting a more interactive, less structured approach to corporate learning can be challenging.

Moreover, learners are unlikely to make the considerable commitment required to engage in holistic learning unless they can see a tangible benefit in terms of corporate status, salary and/or career progression. However, in these days of social networking and learning, the holistic learning cause is not lost.

It may merely function "under the radar" of the measurable, quantifiable learning events that boards love to see, and that L&D departments provide for them. For example, a conversation with a colleague isn't formal learning and it isn't trackable in a learning management system.

But, it's interactive, experiential and, hopefully, engaging. If it influences the way in which the learner performs his or her job, this meets the criteria for holistic learning to have taken place.

Creating and communicating a holistic learning approach

Holistic learning puts the onus on the L&D professional to create and facilitate a corporate culture in which those sorts of interactions can happen. It's impossible to track, measure and assess the learning that takes place in this way, but the results should be seen in an overall improvement in business performance over time.

Of course, it's important to combine informal interactions with formal learning opportunities to develop a holistic approach to corporate learning. "Holistic learning can, and should, seem natural, enjoyable and immediately rewarding for the learner.

This can be achieved by creating a pathway for learning which motivates all learning styles," believes Nick Hindley, Associate Director, Learning and Performance Improvement at PPD - a leading global contract research organization providing drug discovery, development, life cycle management, and laboratory services.

According to Nick, the enjoyable part is important because people tend to remember very happy events. He suggests sending out the training materials beforehand. (This also helps those for whom English is a second language to get up to speed before the training event takes place.)

He also suggests appealing to the key questions that underpin the main learning styles through effective design. These include:

  • Motivation to learn (the "why?")

  • Explanation of concepts (the "what?")

  • A chance to apply the learning (the "how?")

  • Structured thinking and planning about the first and next steps (the "what next?")

"This is better known as the 4MAT model of instructional design, proposed by Dr Bernice McCarthy, and is a great way to ensure success every time with all learners," said Nick.

Facilitating a holistic approach

This entire holistic process might be facilitated by the L&D department getting the board to agree to a set of desired outcomes or outputs - in terms that can be assessed. Then it initiates - and facilitates - a number of informal learning opportunities that could achieve these desired outcomes or outputs.

The potential benefits "to the organization and the individual learner" are immense. And such a scheme would allow a much broader audience than might have been officially selected to develop their knowledge, skills and abilities. It might even be more reliable than previous attempts in helping to identify the organization's next generation of leaders in these turbulent times of continuing, major change.

About the author

Emerald Works

Emerald Works

At Emerald Works, we’re committed to helping individuals and organizations around the world realize their full potential by using evidence-led learning solutions that work.

We work together to build learning cultures that empower people to bring about real change for real impact.

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