Neuroscience in actions - Applying insight to L&D practice

01 November 2014
Published: November 2014
This report reviews how insight from neuroscience is being used by organisations to inform L&D practice. The ideas discussed broadly connect to the use of neuroscience to:
  • inform learning/change management design
  • enhance learning/leadership development content
The report is relevant for L&D and HR professionals who are interested in hearing how other practitioners have used neuroscience to improve L&D efficiency and effectiveness.


There is one common theme: a sense that those who don’t engage with neuroscience are missing out, both in enhancing L&D effectiveness and their own credibility. Indeed, some think that a working knowledge of neuroscience will be an essential part of L&D professional knowledge in future. This may mean working with greater ambiguity as the field evolves, and abandoning or updating some older models and concepts.
The potential for change also represents a need for bravery. For stepping up and using new ideas and techniques in a sceptical environment requires courage.  It also necessitates having confidence in the subject matter and the analytical ability to determine the value of neuroscience – a value which should be firmly grounded in business need. Used effectively, neuroscience is a very helpful tool to enhance learning transfer and facilitate sustainable change. But it is important to remember that it is only one frame of understanding human behaviour, not the only method. It is therefore a tool to be blended with existing knowledge and other aspects of behavioural psychology. And a key part of this blend should always be organisational context and the wider business strategy.
Interestingly our interviewees did not often speak about the connection between neuroscience and technology. Application to learning was mostly connected to face-to-face learning, rather than e-learning, gaming or social technologies. Given the rise of these methods, this is perhaps a gap in practice, and a limitation of existing interpretations of neuroscience.
Many of our case study interviewees recognise that they are not neuroscience experts, but that they have developed an interest, and then spotted an opportunity to take action. Sometimes this meant taking a pragmatic approach and reaching a balance between knowledge required and time available. The lesson for practitioners is ‘find your level’; recognise that you don’t need to be an expert to still make use of neuroscience – and this does not necessarily mean compromising the quality of the original scientific findings if you choose the right source of information.
There is, however, a real danger of information being misinterpreted as interest in neuroscience grows. This means that as L&D professionals, we need to take a critical eye to reports of the latest findings and be particularly diligent when applying neuroscience to practice. Building up knowledge over time can help with this process, alongside working with experts with sound credentials. It is also important to recognise that, as with any scientific discipline, knowledge is evolving as technology advances and new discoveries are made. As a result we need to continually stay abreast of new developments and evaluate our approach.
01 November 2014

The future of the profession?

Despite the great case study examples featured in this report, we have found that there are very few organisations openly using neuroscience in practice. There are two explanations for this:
  • Perhaps it is simply too early for widespread adoption, and there is a knowledge–application gap.
  • Many of the overall principles of neuroscience are finding their way into L&D practice, without being labelled as such.
Indeed, for many, neuroscience’s greatest value lies in its ability to offer an evidence base for existing practice and provide opportunities for reflective evaluation. Whether this is the case or not, given that skill development and landing change remains a challenge in most organisations, having greater knowledge of how people learn and how they respond to change must have value.
For now it remains to be seen how much of a grip neuroscience will hold for L&D practitioners. What is clear is that, for some, it represents the future of the profession. Whatever your views, it’s worth joining the conversation.
Five key questions to consider:

1. How useful do you think neuroscience is for L&D practitioners?
2. Does neuroscience represent a revolution or evolution of L&D practice?
3. Can neuroscience principles help you solve any particular business challenges?
4. How would you start to introduce neuroscience into your organisation?
5. Can you use neuroscience to prompt discussion/debate within your organisation?
Allens is an international law firm with offices throughout Australia and Asia, providing clients with access to leading lawyers and resources covering all commercial issues. The firm works with many of the world’s leading organisations – including 55 of the world’s top 100 companies and more than 75 of Australia’s top 100 companies.
In 2012 Allens started to explore how they could transform their career proposition in response to changes in the marketplace and client needs. As Jane Lewis, People and Development Director at Allens, explains,
‘this led to us embarking on a project where we are changing every element of our career progression and talent management processes.’
The first step of the project was to review and agree a new career framework, resulting in a move to a competency-based model:
‘We needed [lawyers] not only to be technical experts, but to engage with the client, the market and the business in a much more proactive way. In return we needed to deliver a clearer career path and be much more engaged in helping our lawyers to manage and progress their careers.’
Step two involved identifying key behavioural and cultural changes and the process needed to support this shift. Jane describes how insight into how the brain responds to change helped her consider questions such as,
‘how might this change be triggering a threat response for people, and how do we mitigate that? Are there opportunities, for example, to involve people in a consultation process, for example, or give them a role in leading a particular aspect of the process, to increase the reward response?’
Attention has now turned to learning and development methods, and the team are working with Jan Hills of Head Heart + Brain:
‘Over the last few months we’ve been looking at how we need to change our approach to learning, in a way that takes account of the neuroscience principles in terms of how people learn, and applying that to everything that we do.’
Jane continues to explain why this is so important:
‘About half of the competencies in our new career framework were either new areas of focus, or had much greater significance, compared with the previous framework. That change necessitated a very sharp focus on what we were doing from a learning and development perspective.’
This has resulted in increased focus on building core competences:
‘All the neuroscience research indicates that if you focus on core skills and talk about things consistently, it’s much more efficient from a learning perspective. You’re not “distracting” the brain from learning new skills by constantly talking about things in different ways.’
The programme design has also been altered to incorporate more opportunities to practise applying new skills and provide more time for reflection. Jane shares how in upcoming sessions,
‘we’re going to be teaching lawyers about how they learn, and the deliberate process they need to go through in order to develop new habits. We want to empower them to be a much more active participant in the learning process.’
There will also be a move from ‘learning being an event, to learning being a process’, with greater emphasis on pre-work and post-event reinforcement.
While it’s too soon to share full results, Jane feels strongly that this new approach will create ‘a much more powerful learning experience’. She also reflects on the positive stakeholder response:
‘In response to a recent development programme that incorporated neuroscience principles, one stakeholder said, “the impact on the participants was incredibly positive. … It has driven the exact behaviour we have been looking for. I am also starting to see a shift in the lawyers they are working with.”’
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