Levels of Learning

By Maggie Bayless, ZingTrain Founding Partner

Congratulations! You made it through the holidays. And if you’re taking the time to read this column, you must have made it through more or less intact. In the best case, it was your biggest holiday season to date and you’re feeling wonderful about how smoothly everything went — despite all the things that went wrong.

Luckily, most of the things that do go wrong are more obvious to those of us on the organization’s inside than to our customers. However, I have spoken to more than one retailer who was forced to face the need for changes in his organization’s training systems because “We really let our customers down over the holidays. We just couldn’t meet their needs.” 

A desire to improve the service we give to our internal customers — our staff — can be a driving force for change. Our company’s Mail Order division made holiday staff training a top priority over the past year, with the twin goals of improving production efficiency and improving the quality of work life for the 100 or so temporary holiday employees who join the organization in November and December.

Whatever the motivation, many retailers start the new year by planning to make significant training improvements before the holidays roll around again. Throughout the coming months, I’ll share training tools and concepts that we’ve implemented at Zingerman’s, as well as ideas generated from working with a variety of clients in many different industries. My hope is that this column will provide you with some concrete suggestions that you can install in your business, so that by the time the next holiday season rolls around (it’s only 11 months away!), you’ll be better prepared than ever.

ZingTrain’s 4 Levels of Learning

When you’ve been in the training business for awhile, you notice that people move through several different “stages” as they become familiar with, and then begin using new information. At ZingTrain, we refer to these stages as the “4 Levels of Learning”:

Level 1: Listening/Reading
Level 2: Reflecting
Level 3: Assimilating and Implementing
Level 4: Teaching

I believe that understanding these levels can make you a better consumer of training and can also improve your effectiveness as a trainer.

Level One: Listening/Reading

Level One is the most passive. When you simply listen to (or read) new information, it often passes in one ear and out the other. If you like what’s being said (or if you agree with it), you tend to nod and smile. If you disagree, you may frown and shake your head. But in either case, once you stop listening to or finish reading at the first level of learning, you go on and nothing has actually changed. My hope is that you’ll enjoy reading these columns, but also that you won’t stop there.

Level Two: Reflecting

You move to the second level of learning when you reflect on the new information. How does this information fit with what you already know or are already doing in your business? Is it consistent with what you have learned from previous experience? Does it fit your organization’s values?

When you reflect, you form an opinion about whether or not the information being presented might be useful to you and/or your organization. Caution! It’s very easy to get stuck at Level Two by deciding that an idea is useful but not doing anything about it. As you read these columns, if you feel you’ve discovered a good idea, push yourself past Level Two to Level Three so you can do something about it.

Level Three: Assimilating and Implementing

At the end of the day, new information or training ideas won’t help your business unless you assimilate (adapt) what you’ve learned to fit the specifics of your particular business, and you then implement them. A friend of mine who has been a consultant for many years says, “Businesses who just adopt ideas usually fail. The successful businesses are those who seek out new ideas and then adapt them so they fit that business.”

If you don't do something different, it’s unlikely that anything significant will change. Sometimes, we need to be reminded that one definition of insanity is “Doing the same thing again and again, expecting a different result.”

If you don't implement change, however slight, when you learn new information that upon reflection seems valuable for your organization, the time you spent learning was not a good bottom-line investment. If an idea strikes a chord, find a way to assimilate it and implement it in your organization. If you’d like help adapting an idea to your specific situation, feel free to e-mail me at [email protected].

Nothing would please me more than hearing that this column inspired you to act.



Level Four: Teaching

The highest level of learning is teaching because when you start teaching, you are forced to learn your subject matter in a whole new way. As you implement new training ideas, you will find that some work better than others. You will want to refine and expand those ideas that work well into other parts of your business. In most cases, it will be hard to do unless you teach someone else what you have learned. Don’t be surprised if this is more frustrating than you imagined.

I've experienced this frustration myself and seen others experience it also. A concept that made perfect sense when it was explained becomes totally confusing as you try to explain it to someone else. Or an idea that is crystal clear in your head turns to mush as you write it down on paper. As frustrating as it can be, teaching others about a concept or an idea is truly the best way to really learn it yourself. Questions will be raised that you hadn’t considered before. And others will share experiences and insights that hadn’t occurred to you.



Bottom-Line Training

The whole point behind Bottom-Line Training as we define it at Zingerman’s is that effective training should have a positive impact on one or more of a business’s bottom lines. At Zingerman’s, our bottom lines are Great Food, Great Service, and Great Finance. In future columns, I will present training ideas that can positively impact your bottom lines — if you choose to implement them. My goal is to help you get to at least the third level of learning — not only to reflect on the ideas presented, but also to assimilate those ideas in your particular business, and then implement those new ideas. If you then go on to teach others in your business about those ideas, even better.

By the way, most of the ideas I’ll be sharing aren’t things that we got right the first time. In fact, the most valuable tools we’ve developed tend to be those where we messed up (often more than once) but just kept trying until we got it right. Getting it right is often less important than how you recover from getting it wrong. But not trying anything new just means that you’re stuck.

I’d like to ask you to help make this column an effective source of training ideas over the next year. I need feedback on which ideas you’ve tried and which you’ve found most useful — both from last year and as we move forward. It would also help me to know if you tried to implement an idea but met obstacles somewhere along the way, because there’s a good chance other people met obstacles there too. I’ll use your suggestions for column topics. You can e-mail me at [email protected].com or call me at 734-930-1919.

I look forward to hearing from you!