How to Ease the Process
of Learning New Skills at Work

See also: Continuous Professional Development (CPD)

The modern workplace demands that employees expand their repertoire constantly, and many employers offer in-house or external training to help keep up with demand. But what if you struggle to learn new skills?

In many companies, you are pressured to do better or you become expendable. What can you do?

Research shows that you may be struggling because you learn in a different way to the one your employer offers. For example, someone who's very analytical may find it difficult to handle mind maps and visualisation, while a creative may find a purely textual learning programme too boring to complete.

They may both be smart, effective employees but the way they process information differs and this can create difficulties following a specific course style.

Righty or Lefty?

Much right- and left-brain theory is based on the work of the Nobel Prize winner, Roger W. Sperry. The popular version states that the left and right sides of the brain control different functions, so people are either "left-brained" analytical types or "right-brained" creatives.

In reality, it's not that simple: both sides of the human brain communicate and cooperate, producing the best results when working together. And people only favour one side or the other - each individual is a collection of particular abilities that makes them unique, not a pure left- or right-brained machine. This is the reason why more complex assessment models are a better tool for practical purposes.

The Herman Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), or "Whole Brain Model", is one of the most effective tests for profiling left and right brain dominance. In other words, it's a psychometric assessment that works out how your brain prefers to think and learn, but it doesn't offer a simple "left or right" summary.

The HBDI is a survey of 120 questions that profile your thinking style and produce a diagram with four quadrants: analytical, experimental, practical and relational. Your scores in each of those quadrants suggest whether you're more conceptual (analytical and experimental), rational (analytical and practical), intuitive (experimental and relational) or instinctive (practical and relational).

HBDI isn't just for working out how best to learn new skills: you can use the information to your advantage for decision making, solving problems and optimising the way you communicate. It's a guideline, based on your responses to the questions: it doesn't define who you are, but it can certainly help you find out what works for you!

There are other tests that can show you what your personality, abilities and motivations are, such as Firo-B, Beblin and Myers-Briggs. Each explores a different aspect of your brain's capabilities, but the HBDI is the one to take before choosing training courses as it reveals your preferred approach to learning new information.

Your Brain Changes When You Learn

According to a study by researchers at Cornell University, your brain switches from active to automatic as you learn and become more proficient with new skills.

What’s more, there’s increased activity in the more reflective areas of your brain - dreaming, future planning and other self-reflection - after training. In other words, your brain doesn't have to concentrate so much when you master a skill, freeing you from intense concentration to be more reflective.

In practical terms, your brain changes substantially when you learn something new. It's not just about being able to do things in a different way; you get side benefits such as improved verbal aptitude, better language skills and improved memory.

Steps to Easier Learning

Your brain dominance determines the best way to learn but training research also offers ways to get the most out of your courses, regardless of which side is more dominant.

1. Break down your goals

As you research, go through the five steps to mastering your new skill. Pick it all apart but remember that getting everything right is not important at this point. Starting this way gets your head in the game and activates your analytical side early on.

Learning things in sequence always helps keep you focused, regardless of brain dominance. It also indicates which areas of your skill need more time and dedication.

2. Learn all you can from the greats

It's a cliché but it works, no matter what skill you're trying to improve. However much or little you need to learn, someone out there does it better than you, and you need to become their understudy.

Financiers learn from watching expert traders, writers improve their skills by reading the work of great authors, sportspeople reach the top by watching their opponents and idols. In fact, learning from experts - whether in person or virtually - can be more productive than taking courses or extensive solo practice.

Learning from professionals is a passive exercise. The active part is keeping your eyes open for shortcomings in your own technique and putting in the required work to correct missteps.

3. Take notes whenever you can

Too many people don’t bother recording the new information they find. If you're trusting your brain to remember something you heard or read somewhere, write it down instead. Even if you have an excellent memory, the act of taking notes of important information increases your chances of retention.

Mobile apps work exceptionally well if you take notes digitally. OneNote is such a tool. It works on any platform, functions well online and offline, offers lots of flexibility and has outstanding organisation capabilities.

4. Spread the word

It’s amazing how much information you can retain by putting things in your own words. That's why you made revision notes when you were at school. Research indicates that reading information out loud is the best path to retention.

You can explain your newly acquired knowledge to co-workers or friends to see how much you know. Starting a conversation and fielding questions from the exchange is a great way to test your scope. Keep an open mind at all times and be flexible enough to accept criticism. Accommodate positive changes into your approach.

5. Get the 20% right first

The Pareto Principle states that 20% of your efforts produce 80% of the results. Remember when you broke your goal into smaller pieces? It's time to go back to that breakdown and identify the most impactful parts. Ideally, you want to target a fifth of the goals and start with those.

For instance, a management trainee may start with people-management skills. A music producer trying may master beat patterns. A software designer may start with requirements analysis. Pick the goals that offer quick, concrete results - you'll learn better when the process produces practical applications.

The Skills You Need Guide to Personal Development

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Personal Development

Learn how to set yourself effective personal goals and find the motivation you need to achieve them. This is the essence of personal development, a set of skills designed to help you reach your full potential, at work, in study and in your personal life.

The second edition of or bestselling eBook is ideal for anyone who wants to improve their skills and learning potential, and it is full of easy-to-follow, practical information.

Learning should be easier if you follow these simple steps. You can apply the same formula across the board, whenever you have new information to absorb. The steps will prove effective if you have the right tools at your disposal, an approach that suits your brain dominance and the will to get better at what you do.

About the Author

Darren - Making Business Matter

Darren has been working in the world of UK Supermarkets and Suppliers for over 20 years. He began his career as a buyer at one of the big four UK supermarkets and, after rising through the ranks over 13 years, he decided to leave and set-up Making Business Matter.

For the last 14 years he has run MBM, the soft skills training provider to the UK Grocery Industry that helps suppliers win more business. Clients choose Making Business Matter because of their money back guarantee, relevant experience, and because they make their learning stick.