The Brain & the Future of Learning: A Q&A with Ann Herrmann-Nehdi

The brain is getting a lot of attention in corporate learning and development circles these days. But the growing interest and discussions about neuroscience and its relevance to learning, along with continued questions about the value of brain training games, can make it difficult to separate the breakthroughs from the myths.

We recently had a chat with Herrmann International’s CEO Ann Herrmann-Nehdi who shared some of her insights about the brain training fad as well as her thoughts about the future of learning.

It seems like everyone in the corporate learning arena is talking about neuroscience these days, but they’re also struggling with deciphering what’s really relevant and what isn’t.

Ann: From a broader standpoint, there are so many “neuromyths” out there that people don’t know what to believe any more. When it comes to the brain training games, there’s been this sense that if you want to keep your brain sharp, essentially, all you need to do is crossword puzzles and you’ll be fine—the “use it or lose it” mantra. But we’re seeing that it’s not that simple. It matters how you use it.

And that’s part of the pushback about some of the brain training games?

Ann: Right. These games are about training to perfection. You can get really good at the game, but it doesn’t force you to go beyond that. Whole Brain® Thinking substantiates this. If you’re doing the same thing again and again, then you’re only building up that particular skill; you’re not expanding beyond it.

To keep your brain fresh, you need novelty. You need a diversity of activities to give you yield. Focusing on brain training misses the point. What’s really needed is learning, not perfecting.

It reminds me of the old discussions about the difference between training and learning.

Ann: Yes—the entire concept of brain training implies that you’re doing rote things to keep your brain active, and that’s the wrong idea. Learning is about growing, and you don’t do that by engaging your brain the way you’ve always engaged it. You grow by stretching and expanding your thinking.

But it’s very easy to get stuck in “rut thinking.” We do it because it’s comfortable and it allows us to conserve energy and also because our jobs are designed for it. We get hired for what we know.

For example, I deliver presentations all the time, and even if it’s on a new topic, the preparation is basically the same. I have it down. So when I went to prepare for my TEDx Talk last year, it was extremely uncomfortable for me. This was an entirely new approach. I had to get it down to one core idea and go deep with it, there was a very limited amount of time, and there was no room for “going off script” and interacting with the audience. It was uncomfortable, but I got so much yield out of that experience. It forced me to think differently about what I do.

We hear so much about personalization in learning today—just in time, just for me, just enough. How do you balance the desire for personalization and the need to grow and get a little uncomfortable?

Ann: I view personalization as a way to give your learners a running start. Some people may never even step up to the challenge if you don’t provide that level of comfort, at least in the beginning. But then you pull them through.

It also depends on the outcomes you’re looking for. People only have so much energy for learning, so choose the high-yield opportunities for growth. You don’t need them to stretch when they’re trying to learn a new operating system.

Do you think the emphasis on learning has changed in today’s world?

Ann: What’s changed dramatically in the last ten years is that learning used to be something you did early in your life, and “lifelong learning” was something of a cliché. In today’s environment, everyone needs to be growing at least part of the time. Learning is going to trump knowledge in the future. And you have to be intentional about it, because, again, it’s so easy to get stuck in rut thinking. The difference is that, today, you don’t have that luxury any more. If you aren’t learning and growing, you’re going to get left behind.

This is critical for the business, too. My friend and colleague Paul Gustavson always says that if you want a competitive advantage, you have to be significantly better or significantly different than your competitors. Well, to do either, you have to learn.

Learning should be the place where more money goes if you want a competitive advantage. And yet, it’s the place that gets cut first.

What are some of the barriers to learning in today’s business environment, from the standpoint of the employee as well as the company?

Ann: When you’re younger, it’s expected that you’re going to be growing. You’re given the permission to do it. In my view, the expectation for learning has now expanded to the rest of our lives. But people aren’t recognizing the time, focus and energy required, as well as what the company needs to provide. One of the biggest challenges companies and some older employees face is making that choice: What percentage of your time will go to learning?

Millennials, on the other hand, have this mindset of, keep educating me or I’m going to leave. L&D needs to wake up to that reality.

Of course, this isn’t strictly an age thing. Some people are going to shut down in their twenties. But the people who are going to thrive are those who will be paying attention to how they learn and what those pathways are their entire lives.

Beyond the “neuromyths” and various trends in L&D, the industry as a whole seems to be trying to figure out how to accommodate this new reality.

Ann: One of the disservices our industry has done is to deemphasize learning. We’ve taken learning off the table. We call it talent development or performance or something else. We’ve jargoned up the essence of growth for people and companies, and that essence is learning. If people aren’t growing, our companies won’t grow. Whether we’re running a manufacturing business or a professional services firm, learning is universal in today’s world.

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