In the past few years, we’ve learned a lot about how brains work and how people learn, and the result has been an ongoing revolution in communication and learning – especially electronically. The argument continues: Is using technology in communication and learning a positive step forward, or does it get in the way of real “human moments”?
Let’s begin with two fascinating but possibly troublesome concepts that connect strongly with technology. First, we know that the brain can multi-task, and technology enables some serious multi-tasking. Our brains can “task-switch” by shutting down one function temporarily and choosing another. In that tiny fraction of a second, adrenaline pumps in – enough to make devoted multi-taskers become almost addicted. In fact, if they’re not deluging the brain in array of different activities, they can actually feel bored.
That brings us to the second concept: the need for down-time reflection. When I was a French interpreter, I spent my day instantly translating into French, but by day’s end, I had no idea what I had actually said. Because I was concentrating on the task, my brain did not have time to retain any content. In fact, when we task-switch with one or more technologies, error rates and task time can reach 50%.
So, given all that, technology in communication and learning has several good points.
Technology allows us to offer options so we can give people what they need, how they want it, and when it’s best for them. Research continues to show the trend toward learner-centric learning as opposed to what’s most convenient for your company to create and provide. With formal, informal, and blended learning, combining the best of the face-to-face and the traditional classroom with the multitude of technology-enabled platforms now available, we have a huge opportunity to provide differentiated learning so people can learn in the way that leads to the best outcomes for the individual, and the organization.
Technology helps us reach the once-unreachable. Whether you use social media or not, it’s clear that technology brings people together in ways that were once impossible. Electronic connections are easing the isolation of virtual workers, giving them a chance to stay connected across geographies, time zones, and generations. Face-to-face interaction is great, but having instant access to people who would otherwise be on their own is great too. We need to understand the positive implications of our virtual reach, scope, scale, and touch that just weren’t possible before. Granted, technology has its limitations. How we harness its possibilities and do that well…that’s our challenge.
Technology encourages innovative thinking. When my company partnered with IBM to deliver online debriefs of participants’ Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument® (HBDI®) profiles – a very personal and often emotional experience – we were concerned that technology wouldn’t be able to duplicate the richness of the one-on-one debrief. But once we got out of our own way, we found that we could add enhancements that weren’t possible in a face-to-face setting, such as faster access to information in a common language, data on demand, the ability to stop and start any time, and feedback presented in a “safe” way. These are advantages that we couldn’t conceptualize before.
Leaders have an obligation to rethink what we’ve always done and how we’ve done it. This doesn’t mean we throw out all the old ways. It will always be important to understand what people need to learn and how they can best learn it. But now, we have so many more options that let us actually anticipate learner needs, and we can adapt, using internal social networks as well as face-to-face and online methods. It’s not just a challenge – it’s our responsibility to continue to push our thinking in a much more complex world of choices.