learning is risky business

25 06 2007

stephen lahanas’s comment to my post what is a good example got me thinking about a particular area of learning that i find fascinating – risk taking. if we push ourselves to try new things, read new blogs or books, go new places, we usually will learn a great deal. however, this new knowledge comes with a certain amount of risk. how much i learn will be highly affected by how much risk i’m willing to endure to gain the knowledge, skills, or attitude change i desire.



  • A possible, usually negative, outcome, e.g., a danger.
  • The likelihood of a negative outcome.
  • (Formal use in business, engineering, etc.) The potential (conventionally negative) impact of an event, determined by combining the likelihood of the event occurring with the impact should it occur


  • to incur risk

factors that increase/decrease risk

risk is a complex concept. there are numerous factors which affect a person’s or an organization’s estimation of risk in any given situation. some of these factors include:
knowledge – the more information available the better chance you have of understanding the risks of the options you have
uncertainty vs. risk – from the definition above, risk is not an unknowable factor. uncertainty is generated by a lack of information about what outcomes are potential. risk is a calculation of the potential outcomes.
perception of risk – similarly, do we really understand the risk involved or are our emotions, prejudices, expectations, or other information clouding our ability to understand the extent of the risk involved in our behaviors.
social norms – almost all human behavior is affected by social norms and pressures that can increase or decrease the risk or the perception of risk of an undertaking. if we follow the crowd or follow procedures, we are likely to lessen the level of risk we need to cope with. similarly if we go against the company’s dress code or conduct a project outside of the prescribed fashion, we will be at greater risk. if we follow regulations, we have limited risk. if we don’t we are increasing our risk to the extreme.
what is the payoff – is the reward for high-risk behavior worth the risk? and to whom? a person will be much more likely to attempt a high-risk action if the reward upon success will benefit them personally and is of significant value to them. as many a ceo has found out through experience, if employees don’t perceive that a requested (or even required) behavior will have little or no reward directly to them, there is a strong chance that there will be little or no behavior change achieved. no matter the potential gain to the company.
goal-based alignment – this is currently a predominant factor in business today. if your actions are inline with the strategic goals of the organization, you can take higher risk actions than if you are working on project that doesn’t tie directly to the strategic plan. data also shows that a major factor in employees leaving a company is they don’t understand how their work fits with the company goals. In other words, there was too much risk that what they were doing wouldn’t be valued by the company.

learning is risky business

These factors create interesting points of risk in learning situations. how each learner estimates the risk involved versus the direct benefit to them will ultimately determine whether they will perform differently in light of the learning intervention they have participated in.

umm, i don’t know – one of the biggest risks any learner struggles with is accepting that they have a need to learn something. at first, this seems silly. if you don’t know something, learn it. but in the workplace, where relationships and power gambits are vital to both your current work and your professional future, admitting you need to learn something can be very risky. image and reputation can go down in flames if you don’t know something that others assumed you knew – or worse yet, you pretended to know. while it may be changing in some workplaces, lack of knowledge is generally still perceived as a weakness – whether the knowledge is core to your job or peripheral. solutions designers need to understand the target learners, the company’s goals, and the environment in which both the learning event and then the applications of the learning will take place. management can promote an active learning culture where learning is rewarded – both intrinsically and extrinsically. they can share what they are trying to learn and why. when performance is praised, what was learned to insure that performance was successful can be included.

why should i trust you? – it’s likely that you’ve seen circumstances where learners dismiss the content of a training course because the facilitator didn’t meet their expectations of what the facilitator should be either in knowledge, presentation, or position. “what am i going to learn from her, she’s not a programmer?” “he doesn’t work here, how does he know what’s expected of me?” the learner judges that there is a risk that what they spend their time learning may not be applicable to their work. solutions learning programs can be certified. the desired outcome for the company can be stated. executive sponsorship can be explicit. managers can participate before, during, and/or after the learning event. previous learners’ experiences can be incorporated in the content.

i’m not going to look like a fool – during the learning process, it’s important for the learner to rehearse and practice. learners need to be given opportunities to try-on their new knowledge. but such practice has the same risks as exposing a lack of knowledge. if a safe environment is not created, learners will suddenly need to use the bathroom or have an important conference call they suddenly need to participate in. solutions instructional designers can assure that activities involve both new knowledge and baseline knowledge the learner brings with them. role playing in which everyone takes risks and everyone supports risk-taking at different times can help lessen this risk. managers can assure that mistakes aren’t punished, but rather studied for future situations. after action reviews are one effective tool to promote this type of examination.

but what if it doesn’t work – from the new employee trying to fit in by using corporate slang to a commercial airline pilot making his first live landing in a 747 loaded with passengers we all fear the consequences of failure when implementing new knowledge and skills. this fear can be paralyzing to some. in learning lingo we talk about transfer to the job. will the learner implement what they have learned. our kirkpatrick level 2 analysis says they definitely learned it. but our level 3 analysis says they never used it. solutions the instructional design can incorporate follow-up activities and reminders. managers can be made aware of what their employees are learning and how they might support their efforts to implement it. learning can be aligned with the learner’s work to allow for adjustments based upon real application.

this all leads to some overarching characteristics of organizational learning that can help reduce employees’ estimation of risk involved in learning.

  • a learning organization that is actively involved in understanding what the company needs from its employees to execute to the strategic goals.
  • learning professionals that are attuned to the corporate culture, specific work environments, and current employee knowledge, skills and attitudes and how they will impact upon each particular learning challenge.
  • a corporate learning culture that is ambient and continual in nature. design should not be a one-off creation every time. learning should not be something employees are “sent off to.”
  • learning is a part of the strategic plan for the organization. it should be a part of every employee’s performance expectations. managers are held accountable for their employees’ learning
    the “why” of learning should be explained. often..

technorati tags: , , , , ,

Powered by Qumana



One response

8 01 2009
omg! it’s snowing! « e e learning

[…] i’m going to have to revisit a few of my posts on taking risk and dealing with change (see learning is risky business and my love-hate relationship with change.)  because it’s snowing outside my window!  i […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: