The Problem with Organizational Learning

The problem with learning in most organizations is that it tends to emphasize only two parts of the four-part learning cycle: Share and Practice. I have interviewed thousands of training and development professionals and asked the question, “Which of the four steps of the learning cycle is most likely to be missed in your organization’s training strategy?” The number one answer is the first step, Engage, and the number two answer is the final step, Perform.  In fact, over 75% of training professionals share that one or both of these steps is missed consistently in the learning programs delivered in their organization. Here’s the really bad news: these two steps are the key to learner (employee) engagement.


Without focus on what has to happen in all four steps, the learner is not engaged nor are they equipped to adapt learning to the real world. While learners might know what to do and how to do it, there may well be little to no actual “doing” happening.

Shelley Barnes, Executive Director of Aveda Field Education and Program Development, shares, “[4MAT]…allows learners to not just absorb information, but interact with it and apply it immediately, with the ultimate goal of helping them reach their professional and personal potential.” By intentionally including the steps you might otherwise miss, you engage the learner at a personal level which leads to higher commitment to action.

Jeanine O’Neill-Blackwell is the President/CEO of 4MAT 4Business®, a global learning and leadership development company. Her most recent book is Engage, The Trainer’s Guide to Learning Styles (Wiley, 2012). You can experience the 4MAT Advanced Instructional Design program on June 5-6 in Bucharest, Romania. Click here to learn more.

Engage: What Leaders Should Understand About How Learning Happens

All learning includes the asking and answering of four questions. These questions form a cycle of learning. This four-part cycle applies to learning anything. You followed this cycle when you learned to ride a bike, when you learned that second language in high school and when you figured out that new software last week. Ok, maybe, you didn’t really learn that second language. However, I bet if you figured out why it would have something to do with one part of the cycle being skipped.

What happens when we learn?

Current brain research confirms that we travel a four-part cycle when we take in and make meaning of new information. We call this learning cycle 4MAT. Think of something new that you learned recently and ask yourself how you moved through this learning cycle:

Step 1Engage

Something happened and your attention is gained. You explore the question “Why?” Why should I pay attention to this? Why is it important? Meaningful? Relevant?

Step 2Share

You watch, reflect and think about this new information.  You seek out expert thinking. You explore the question, “What?” What should I know about this? What do the experts have to say? What data exists?

Step 3Practice

You move into action. You practice. You explore the question, “How?”  How is this useful? How will I apply it? How does it work?

Step 4Perform

You assess the results of your action and adjust. You do it your way. You explore the question, “If?” If I apply this, what new results will be generated? If I am to be successful in applying this, what accommodations or adaptations will I have to make for my real-world environment?

When any of the four steps of this process is skipped, learning suffers.


Jeanine O’Neill-Blackwell is the President/CEO of 4MAT 4Business®, a global learning and leadership development company. Her most recent book is Engage, The Trainer’s Guide to Learning Styles (Wiley, 2012). You can experience the 4MAT Advanced Instructional Design program on June 5-6 in Bucharest, Romania. Click here to learn more.

Designing Outcome-Based Practice Activities

Reflection without action is not learning. The first two parts of the 4MAT cycle, Engage and Share, emphasize the importance of reflection. In Practice, the learner moves into action.

Effective practice activities emphasize the development of the skills the learners will need to successfully apply the information in the real world. To determine the most effective activities to include in your training design, focus on the skills required to deliver the desired performance.  Ask yourself: What behaviors must be executed consistently to deliver the desired results? What skills must the learner possess to competently execute these behaviors?

For example, if you are designing a product education course, the activities chosen should directly link to the desired outcome. In the left-hand column of the table below, you will find three variations of a skills outcome statement for a product education course. On the right, you will find a practice training activity that aligns with each outcome. Notice how the activity links to the outcome focus.


If the desired skill outcome defined for the course requires that learners adapt the information shared, learners should have an opportunity to practice adaptation. You will want to check the learners’ fundamental understanding of the content before creating an opportunity for creative adaptation.

Source: Engage, The Trainer’s Guide to Learning Styles (Wiley 2012)
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What makes great trainers great?

What makes a trainer great? Are they excellent at every role a trainer plays:  facilitator, presenter, coach and evaluator? In observing many trainers and teachers, it is obvious that even the best have weaknesses. Sometimes they explain things poorly. Or, sometimes they tend to answer their own questions rather than waiting for responses. Or, their organization could use some help. What differentiates great trainers from mediocre ones is an awareness of their strengths and how to capitalize on them. And, most importantly, the ability to apply those strengths to weaker areas to achieve a “threshold” level of ability in the essential training skills.

If you want to create a team of transformative trainers or you yourself are on a mission to make an impact, worry less about every weakness and focus your energy on applying strengths to leading the four critical parts of the learning cycle.

Some ideas:

  • Discover your strengths. You can begin with the online Training Style Inventory.
  • Practice applying your strengths in new contexts to deepen and broaden the ability.
  • Notice what others do well. Model their ability through the lens of your own strengths.

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ENGAGE Tips & Tools

Is this a training issue? Training is often perceived to be the fix-all for every gap in performance. In Chapter 9 of ENGAGE, The Trainer’s Guide to Learning Styles we explore how to begin the performance analysis. Here is a list of questions you can use to answer the question, “Is this a training issue?”

Download the ENGAGE PDF Checklist

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Source: ENGAGE, The Trainer’s Guide to Learning Styles (Wiley 2012)

Change The Question. Change the Result.

“The questions you ask determine what you focus on. Change the question and you change the focus. Change the focus and results change.”

Coaching is an essential part of the learning process, both in and outside of the classroom. The coaching questions we ask determine where the learner’s attention moves. We act on what we notice. Whether you are leading one-on-one coaching sessions, coaching in the classroom or training managers how to coach, being conscious of how the questions you ask impact direct attention is key to results being generated.

The forming of the questions we ask as coaches influences whether attention is focused on the positive or the negative. For example, the question “Why do you think you are having a challenge meeting your sales goal?” focuses attention on all the reasons why sales aren’t materializing. Predictably, you will hear responses like “out-of-stocks” or “client budget cuts”. A positive question focuses attention on what is working and might sound like, “What are you doing that is producing progress toward your sales goal?” Positive-focused questions create an opportunity to explore what is working and how we could do more of this. They direct the brain to pay attention to positive performance circuits which, when reinforced, support enhanced future performance. In other words, the more we pay attention to positive results, the more positive results we can create.

From ENGAGE: How Question Create “Movement”

A masterful facilitator appears to guide the group effortlessly toward the desired insight or outcome. He or she creates movement in the group by asking the questions that guide the thinking of the group. In ENGAGE, the first part of the 4MAT cycle, the training method used is dialogue. Questions are the primary tool used to guide learners through this part of the learning cycle.

The way the facilitator phrases or “frames” a question will determine the possible set of answers that might emerge from that question. For example, the closed-ended question, “Do you like the color blue?” opens up two possibilities: yes or no. The open-ended question, “What is your favorite shade of blue?” opens up many possible answers, including sky blue, baby blue, neon blue, cobalt blue, etc.

Source: Engage, The Trainer’s Guide to Learning Styles (Wiley 2012)

4MAT Learning Styles Descriptions

Your 4MAT learning style preference refers to your preference for how you like to take in and make meaning of new information. The combination of different learning approaches shapes the behaviors of learners:

Learning Style Type One 4MAT Learning Style Type One
Prefer to take in information from a “feeling” perspective and make sense of it by “watching.” In a new learning situation, Type One learners will rely on their intuition and gut when deciding on the relevance of new information. They will take time to think things through before acting.
Learning Style Type Two 4MAT Learning Style Type Two
Prefer to take in information from a “thinking” perspective and make sense of it by “watching.” In a new learning situation, Type Two learners will rely on external data and knowledge when deciding on the relevance of information. They will make sense of new information by reflecting and thinking things through before trying out new approaches.
Learning Style Type Three 4MAT Learning Style Type Three
Prefer to take in information from a “thinking” perspective and make sense of it by “doing.” In a new learning situation, Type Three learners will rely on practicality as a guide to determining relevance. They will figure things out by playing around with new information and experimenting
Learning Style Type Four 4MAT Learning Style Type Four
Prefer to take in information from a “feeling” perspective and make sense of it by “doing.” In a new learning situation, Type Four learners will rely on intuition and own sense of what will work. They will try different approaches to determine the usefulness of the information being learned.
You can assess your learning style preferences by completing the Learning Type Measure.