How to Reinvent Learning


Stop Tinkering Around The Edges

“Faced with the relentless acceleration of artificial intelligence (AI), cognitive technologies, and automation, 86 percent of respondents to this year’s [2019] Global Human Capital Trends survey believe they must reinvent their ability to learn … we have deliberately chosen the word “reinvent”. Reinvention goes back to the core–the foundation of an organization. This is not about tinkering at the edge.”

2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends

The report begs the question “How do I implement such a broad structural change in my management and my company? Where does reinventing learning begin?”

When I was researching and writing Minds at Work: How to Succeed in the knowledge Economy, I found a small number of companies all over the world that had reinvented their ability to learn. The ability to continuously learn professionally and personally was the secret to their success. They were companies that had stopped “tinkering around the edge” and completely reinvented learning. What were they doing that other companies needed to learn?

Some Background – The Industrial Model

In the previous industrial economy, the only model for learning was formal[1] or “push” training. The content, selected by management, was the singular focus. Training was scheduled as an event delivered at a specific time and place. Attendees registered and attendance was taken, grades were given, and instructors were evaluated. If attendees “passed” they received a certificate. If the instructors passed they received high marks on the smile sheets that graded their performance. The push approach was all about rote learning, the kind of learning that is committed to short-term memory for just enough time to pass the test. Attendees were then expected to go back to work as soon as the formal classroom or online program is finished. The expectation was you can now do your job or do it better because we gave you the training we decided you needed.

They were getting what I call ‘just-in-case training’ just in case they needed to recall and use it someday. Push learning is content-centered and developed and delivered in response to the management’s perception of a deficit, of the knowledge and skills are missing or in need of improvement. If this sounds familiar it is the way we spent most of our lives in school. And that was the model then lifted and completely copied into the workplace. It’s the way we learned to learn since the beginning of the industrial economy in the 19th-century.

We know from all the research that this model never really worked.

As far back as 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus extrapolated the hypothesis of the exponential nature of forgetting. The following formula can roughly describe it: R=e^{-\{t}{S}} where R is memory retention, S is the relative strength of memory, and t is time. A typical graph of the forgetting curve shows that we tend to halve the memory of newly learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless we consciously review and use the learned material.

Further research, initially done by my team at IBM in the late 1980s, and at many other companies and organizations since then, shows a disproportionate amount of learning – anywhere between 70 to 80 percent – takes place during the informal phase after the more formal classroom-based or online learning is completed[2]. Informal or “pull” learning is what happens when knowledge has not been externalized or captured and exists only inside someone’s head. To get at the knowledge, you must locate and talk to that person in real time. Pull learning is learner-centered and is a response to the need for knowledge and skills on the job. The results are eye-opening.

What little learning we get (20-30%) during the formal push training stage is rapidly forgotten. This means every $1.00 spent on training returns on average 20¢ – 30¢ of value. The training stops when the initial, formal 20% training period is over. Learners are on their own as they enter the workplace with 70-80% left to learn.

Yet we have stubbornly persisted for more than 100 years in taking the formal training approach as the only way to learn. According to a recent Association for Training and Development (ATD) survey, the majority of training programs today are still based on the old push model. It is the default and the reason why the Deloitte study has 86% of the respondents calling for profound changes in the ways employees learn.

Welcome to the Knowledge Economy – Time For Reinvention

The companies that have reinvented learning have dramatically and successfully changed the model. Actually, that’s not exactly true. What they have done is take into account the real learning process, the way people are already learning on their own, and added in the enabling, already existing technology people are currently using. In this new model, context is far more important than content. knowledge and know-how must be delivered when and where it is needed not in a remote classroom away from the moment of need. Many of these companies have made profound structural changes during their reinvention and are in many ways years ahead of their competitors.

If like most companies you are just dipping your managerial toes into the new waters and have not yet even begun tinkering around the edges, where can your reinvention start?

Here is a suggestion gleaned from the companies big and small that have already started. I call it The Learning Curve and The Pivot Point. They key is to design your current learning programs to catapult the attendees from the initial push training period into the more critical informal learning period, where the research tells us that as much as 70-80% of the learning occurs[3]. In these advanced companies that are reinventing learning the pull[4] model takes over at the pivot and is used to help people get the information they need whenever and wherever the information is most useful.

The implications of not tinkering around the edges, of the change between the old and new models of training, is significant. The old rote model of push training delivers formal training content and stops cold. The new pull model of real learning uses formal training as a jumping off point for informal learning. Content is less important than communication, collaboration and continuous learning. Formal training is just the beginning. Formal training programs are considered the first step in the real learning process[5], and are more focused on laying the groundwork for the skills that need to be adapted, tested and acquired. The emphasis would not be on the details that can be accessed later but on the big picture–the ‘Aha!” moment”–and the performance outcomes that are expected.

This new approach has a clear continuum from formal to informal. The key is to identify the switch, the pivot from formal to informal learning. What do you need to do to create the most useful bridge between these two aspects of the learning process?

The Pivot Point is Critical

The Pivot Point is the moment formal training ends and informal learning begins. Focusing training on the Pivot Point is important for several reasons:

  • Learners need to be aware of what is involved when they pivot from formal to informal learning (and back again).
  • The focus on the Pivot Point will make sure the employee’s formal training is supported when they return to the workplace.
  • A plan for a well-timed hand-off from the formal to the informal can be developed to support employee performance during their informal learning.
  • The training can take the Ebbinghaus curve[6] into account and provide tools to reinforce the basics upon which learners need to build skills and knowledge as they adopt and adapt what they remember from the formal training.
  • Training can be designed to mirror the actual environment in which learners will work to make the pivot as seamless as possible.
  • This approach will reinforce the new goal of training: to prepare learners to successfully pivot and learn how to improve their performance when they are back at work.

How the Pivot Point Works


The Learning Process and The Pivot Point

All learners start out unequal. That simply means no one brings the same level of skills to a training program. Yet a training program can still be one-size-fits-all. All learners need certain basics as they go forward from the formal to the informal part of their learning. Those basics can be covered in ways to help bridge the transition between the two parts of the learning process.

The initial learning curve in the diagram represents the research done by Ebbinghaus and others. The research shows that there is a point where there is a precipitous drop in what someone learns during the push training program. During the learning process, the learning curve peaks at the Pivot Point, toward the end of the formal push training program. If nothing happens past the Pivot Point, people start to drop off the curve and forget what they learned. The goal is to get there before that happens.

At the Pivot Point, pull learning takes over. This is usually towards the end of the push training program event even as the learners are still in class completing a survey or a smile sheet. It is the time around which the short-term memory is full yet not yet shunting the learning into the longer-term memory. It is when people need to start adopting, adapting, trying, playing with, testing, and expanding upon what they learned–relearn it in a way–as they go through a variety of informal, constantly changing circumstances, and experience a series of similar, shorter learning curves to reach a level of mastery of expertise.

The process of learning can be summed up as a series of curves, each one representing the need to review and relearn what we learned. Each of these later learning curves, where more complex or sophisticated experiences occur, also has a downward side, where there is a falling off or forgetting of the new learning. The difference is that each succeeding curve in this extended learning process becomes less steep. We remember more, forget less, and as a result, need to learn less. As people draw closer to an expert level, the curve is almost a straight line. The key is to allow for time and reinforcing new skills and behaviors in the real context in which they are needed. Understanding the process reinforces the importance of using the Pivot Point.

Many different learning solutions can be used to facilitate the Pivot Point. First, managers can work with employees to decide what needs to be learned. Then they can provide access to the methods or combination of methods that will contribute to that learning. We’re not talking about incorporating new and expensive technologies. This is a starting point to your reinvention using what is already in place, just using it in new and better ways. Here is a list of some of the most commonly used methods I saw being employed at the pivot. The first five are primarily instructor-driven; the second five are learner-directed:


  • Coaching and mentoring: establishing relationships with people who have already taken a program or other leaders to help employees continue to develop the knowledge and skills needed to bridge formal and informal to be more effective at work.
  • Games and simulations: employing experiences that make learning more interactive and fun by applying the principles of gaming, such as scoring, competition, and rules of play, to replicating real-life problem solving within a virtual and safe environment
  • Story-based learning: Lessons couched in an emotional narrative that take advantage of our natural ability to remember and learn from stories. For example, attendees can tell their stories as they pivot from a classroom to a workplace.
  • External conferences, lectures, and courses: participating in outside events intended for professional development provided at the pivot as a next step to attend after the class.
  • Internships, apprenticeships, and job rotation: working in a temporary position to learn about a job, the work environment, and the organizational culture. Very similar to a structured on-the-job learning program that promotes growth and development.


  • Action learning: learning from reflecting on an activity while doing it, and from reflecting on an activity by looking back on what happened, then applying what was learned in a past situation to a new situation. Reflection is a critical element of the real learning process.
  • Daily log: individual employees writing or recording learning from each day of work and then sharing their observations with a small cohort of co-workers.
  • Experiments: gathering evidence in a controlled environment to support or refute a particular change that is being proposed, such as prototyping an innovation in the product development process and then trying it out with a few customers and learning from what happens. Similar to play. Works best in a fearless environment in which failure is not punished but learned from.
  • Learning communities: people who share the same interests or responsibilities in an organization, or across organizations, communicating and collaborating online to learn from each other, sharing successes and failures, answering questions and continuing to learn.
  • Interactive performance support program: Online materials providing information about a specific task that is easily accessed just-in-time at the moment of need. The best programs use NLP – natural language processing – answering spoken questions with answers in the same way that people use Google or Alexa.

The Pivot Point is just the beginning of your reinvention. Training programs can no longer be seen as the end of learning before working, but as the gateway to performing at the highest level.

When we start to see learning as a continuous process from push to pull (and sometimes circling back over and over again), we realize the value of the Pivot Point. And we realize that with planning, we can make that pivot a seamless move from pushing knowledge and skills to people pulling what they need to learn, when they need it, where it’s needed. The pivot is an opportunity to start managing people and reinvent learning that does not require any expensive or new technology during or after the push event. It requires a new way of looking and imagining how people can learn. Connecting the push training and pull learning together opens the door to a more complete learning experience. Use it as the beginning of the process of reinvention as your company enters the 21st-century where communication, collaboration, and continuous learning are the rule and not the exception.

You can find more ideas and approaches, as well as a wealth of research and background material, in my book Minds at Work.


[1] [1] Formal training happens when knowledge is captured and shared by people other than the original expert or owner of that knowledge. The knowledge can be captured in any format—written, video, audio—as long as it can be accessed anytime and anywhere, independent from the person who originally had it.

[2]Andrew Jefferson, Roy Pollock.”70:20:10: Where Is the Evidence?”, ATD Science of Learning Blog,

Tuesday, July 08, 2014.

[3] Ibid., ATD Science of Learning Blog

[4] Informal or pull Learning is what happens when knowledge has not been externalized or captured and exists only inside someone’s head. To get at the knowledge, you must locate and talk to that person in real time. Pull learning is learner-centered and in response to just-in-time need for knowledge and skills.

[5] We believe that learning is a process of adapting and adopting. Learners adopt what the lessons they learn in a formal program. They then adapt those lessons – through a self-directed process of trying, failing, succeeding and learning from experience – during a constantly changing set of circumstances.

[6] Weibell, C. J. (2011). Principles of learning: 7 principles to guide personalized, student-centered learning in the technology-enhanced, blended learning environment. Retrieved July 4, 2011 from

[7] Clark Quinn, “77 Tips on Today’s Hottest Topics from DevLearn Thought Leaders” On Cognition and How the Brain Learns, 15-18,The eLearning Guild, 2015.

[8]Ibid., p.18


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