Little real world application so far, but learning and devleopment must understand where neuroscience fits in to organisational learning


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HR and L&D professionals looking for real life examples of how is being used in the workplace will have to look very hard. There is a dearth of formal, practical application at the moment. This is despite the regular stream of and articles about latest neuroscience findings and the insights it offers HR and L&D professionals about how humans learn and interact.

The is attempting to bridge that gap with a recent report, ‘Neuroscience in action: Applying insight to L&D practice’. The report comprises case study research on how a handful of HR and L&D practitioners are using neuroscience to improve L&D efficiency and effectiveness, in the hope that it will guide and inspire other L&D professionals. Why? Because the CIPD recognises the business need for L&D to be more efficient and effective and thinks neuroscience could have a strong role to play in achieving this.

Do HR and L&D professionals agree? The CIPD’s Learning and Development survey 2014 found that awareness of the insights offered by neuroscience and other behavioural sciences had increased from its very low levels found in the 2012 report, but that integration into practice remained low.

The Neuroscience in Action report contains eight case studies – the international law firm Allens, BT, Fitness First, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, multinational brewing and beverage company SABMiller, insurers Unum, Volvo and Welsh Ambulance Service NHS Trust.

When asked why they had integrated neuroscience findings into their ways of working, the case study organisations gave three main reasons:

  1. An evidence base for practice. Using neuroscience to help guide, inform and validate L&D methodology.
  2. A tool for reflection. When comparing the neuroscience findings with their organisation’s own practice, some practitioners found it led to a deeper evaluation and questioning of their existing practices. The result could be a validation of existing practices or it could led to fundamental changes.
  3. As a way to break down barriers. Some of the practitioners felt using neuroscience had facilitated more effective cross-culture working.

A common criticism levelled at those espousing the benefits of neuroscience is that neuroscience tells us little or nothing new – some HR professionals say it simply confirms what they already know and practice. Others agree, but think that isn’t necessarily a problem:

‘Most L&D people that I know are very excited about neuroscience because it gives them the evidence base for a lot of the things that we already know. Combining practical experience with science is very powerful,’ says Jacqui Grey of the NeuroLeadership Group.

Not only can this make HR professionals feel more confident about their work, it can also improve their credibility in their organisation. It can also boost the reputation of HR as a whole. Business credibility is an issue for many HR and L&D professionals still, even the most senior ones, so anything that enhances the status of HR is worth considering.

The research unearthed resistance to neuroscience from unexpected quarters – the HR field itself. A high level of scepticism among HR and L&D professionals was reported. Jan Hills of Head Heart + Brain thinks resistance may be because individuals feel threatened. “It is creating a threat response for people to have to let go of stuff that they’ve built their careers. That’s a dangerous position for HR to be in because they will start getting business people finding neuroscience…. So you’re in danger of your business colleagues coming to you and saying, “Why aren’t you using this?”’

With the proliferation and availability of new research out there, HR faces a real danger of being left behind and losing yet more credibility if they haven’t at least considered the possibility of integrating neuroscience findings into practice.

But where do you start if you want to find out more? The media is awash with stories and there’s plenty of popular science books too , but HR needs to tread carefully to make sure they access accurate, up to date and relevant material. Remember the famous quote: ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’.

The participants in the CIPD research deepened their understanding of neuroscience through four main routes:

  1. Through reading, mostly books, articles or journals
  2. Formal qualifications and training
  3. Face to face networking. Using networking events and conference sessions to discuss neuroscience findings with others
  4. Social media and technology. Twitter, LinkedIn and TED Talks were all highlighted as being very useful.

Using what you learn can lead you to approach problems differently or adapt ways of working. James Moore, assistant director of organisational design and development at the Welsh Ambulance Service, said he has used the findings about exercise and movement improving brain functionality to inform his approach. “If you’re doing a coaching meeting with someone, go for a walk together,” he says. “This issue is out in front of you, it’s not between you, it’s not facing off and it’s not a barrier between you. A walk builds the whole analogy of losing a problem and arriving at a solution.”

One team at the service reported having ‘solved an intractable problem that hadn’t been solved for 20 years’ as a result of going out on a team walk and holding the meeting outdoors. Moore is convinced there needs to be a seachange in L&D practice. “I think there’s a huge step up for HR and L&D people to be less controlling, less parental, less rescuing and far more about facilitating and coaching by really understanding and using evidence.”

Volvo also enjoyed significant benefits as a result of changing its L&D practice. “We’ve had 9,000 hits on our new short ‘YouTube’- like technical videos,” says Karen Bailey head of competence development for Volvo Group UK and Ireland. “That’s 9,000 additional learning touch points we didn’t have before.”

The business also recently saved roughly £3m when a problem was identified that previously would have involved retraining 1,400 technicians on a one-day programme. Instead, a small video did the trick.

Other benefits participants highlighted were enhanced learner engagement, reduction in turnover and improved customer perception. To achieve this benefits, HR and L&D professionals wanting to integrate neuroscience findings in their practice need to know what they are talking about and how neuroscience can match their business need.

By Roisin Woolnough


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