Accelerated learning

Sep 25, 2017

Ditch the lecture-and-listen style of training and replace it with something much more effective – the do-it-to-learn-it style.

In the ultra-competitive AEC job market, professional growth is becoming the new perk. Employees and candidates – especially millennials – want to know how they can gain new skills in their roles that will lead to additional responsibilities and promotions.

What skills do they want? In a recent survey that Johnston Training Group conducted of engineering firms and engineers, asking what non-technical skills engineers desire and that firms value, communication ranked head and shoulders above the rest. And it’s no surprise. Communication includes business development, presentation, writing, and relationship skills – the soft skills that AEC technical professionals often struggle with. The selection panels we interview tell us over and over: “Everyone is qualified; we’re deciding whom we want to work with. If they can’t communicate effectively, it’s a deal-breaker.”

Put on the training wheels. The demand for improved communication skills inevitably leads to training. But training is often done in a lecture-and-listen style (pedagogy) rather than a do-it-to-learn-it style (andragogy). And because technical professionals want to be expert at something before they do it, the binder of information goes in a drawer after the training, and people go back to their old habits.

How can a training program create permanent change? Accelerated learning. AL is effective because it:

  • Uses andragogy instead of pedagogy. Training consists of small, interactive groups where participants can influence the agenda, share knowledge, and give each other feedback.
  • Uses real-world situations. Participants use real project interviews, business development conversations, and proposals when learning. This makes it real and leads to greater investment in the skills being learned.
  • Creates learning that lasts. As participants learn by doing, get feedback from their peers, and see the positive results, they decide to change life-long habits themselves – something that is much more effective than being told “how to do it.”

While every AL program is different, here are five basic steps to get started:

  1. Include participants early. Ask your people: What kind of training do they want? What kind of training do they need to meet the firm’s goals? What feedback have you received from clients and selection panels? Who are the people at the firm who already have the skills? Take all this into account with both leadership and the participants and build the learning objectives together. Including participants gets them invested in the program.
  2. Make it memorable. In typical training situations, firms find the people who are good at, for example, business development, and have them explain to a group how they do it (often over lunch). This can be useful for gleaning some information, but again, because the participants are not actually doing the skill, they will not retain it or be able to “own it.” A better way to get information from skilled peers is to have participants interview them and report back. Give them three things to find out and have them explain what they found to the group. This gives the participants the ability to get the information they value most and share how they will use it, and makes it memorable for future use.
  3. Practice makes… Practice to many technical professionals means sitting around a table and discussing an upcoming situation (with notes). In AL programs, practice is simulating the situations as much as possible. The goal is not to “do it perfectly,” it is to be as effective as possible. If you are preparing for a project interview, rearrange the room to match where you’ll be meeting. Bring in co-workers to stand in for panel members. Record with video and play back. Participants will gain valuable knowledge by watching/hearing themselves. Keep groups small (eight or fewer) to keep interaction high. This is where the real learning and improvements happen, and most people avoid it. In the JTG Business development program, participants call their contacts in the very first session (much to the participants’ surprise).
  4. Facilitate, don’t dictate. The group leader must facilitate, not “dictate,” the training. The goal is to build trust and draw out all knowledge from the group so people can use what is beneficial to them. Not “watch me and do it exactly like this,” but “watch me, yourself, and others and find what works for you” (within the guidelines the group has decided on). Participants must see and decide for themselves what works – not just be told. A facilitator builds the agenda in advance with input from participants, tailors the content to the group’s needs, and helps the group establish and follow guidelines. Everything is done for the benefit of the group as a whole. This enables participants to learn together, trust each other, and bond as a team.
  5. Keep the momentum. Keep the learning going and measure the results. Once the training is complete, participants must have permission to remind others if they go back to old habits. Leadership must encourage the new ideas by supporting their use after training is over. Participants should be given ways to practice their new skills to stay sharp. The training resources, such as before-and-after videos of the participants’ presentations, should remain available for future use and inspiration. Finally, regarding those goals that were set at the beginning of the program? Make sure they stay front and center to keep people motivated.

Take Nike’s advice: Just do it. Accelerated learning is the exact opposite of the way technical professionals prefer to acquire knowledge. But for soft people skills, it is the most effective way to learn. Accelerated learning programs enable technical professionals of all ages and experience levels to learn quickly and permanently change old habits. AEC firms using AL programs are reaping a wealth of benefits, from attracting potential candidates to empowering their own people to be more effective interviewers, business developers, writers, and communicators.

Scott Johnston is a principal strategist and facilitator at Johnston Training Group. He can be reached at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.