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Editor's Letter

Taking a Break for Learning

Effective learning is as much about time off as time on.

Mike Prokopeak, VP, Editor in Chief of Chief Learning Officer magazine

Living in a world that is constantly on is tiring. Instead of meaningful milestones, life more often feels like an endless series of appointments.

To add insult to injury, we’re simply not getting enough rest to cope with it all. Fed by flashy smartphones and addictive apps, we are in the midst of a sleep crisis. According to analysis by the Rand Corporation, our collective lack of sleep is costing $411 billion in the U.S. economy alone. We stay up too late answering emails, checking off to-do lists, responding to texts and mindlessly surfing the internet.

The consequence is rising health care costs and higher disengagement at work. But it’s also taking a big bite out of our ability to learn. Research points to a significant correlation between sleep and our ability to wrestle with abstract concepts and retain information.

Companies need mentally agile, lifelong learners who can compete in a fast-paced business environment where knowledge goes obsolete faster than an Internet meme. But those workers are in short supply and their mental bandwidth is shrinking by the day. Houston, we have a problem.

From a learning point of view, it’s natural to respond to a faster pace by amping up content development and putting more learning programs in place. Any spare moment is an opportunity whether it’s a minute on the elevator, the commute home or after the kids are in bed.

A growing number of elite learning organizations recognize that becoming an agile, lifelong learner doesn’t mean ravenously consuming content and knowledge in a constant stream of words and numbers. Turning off is what’s needed to turn on.

Take Accenture, this year’s No. 1 company of the Chief Learning Officer LearningElite. The Ireland-based professional services firm serves up top-tier content to 420,000-plus employees. They deploy just about every learning and performance technology possible to support consultants from Bangalore to Boston, Dublin to Dubai. From hyperpersonalized content streams to Pinterest-style learning boards, they try it all.

But what stands out most about Accenture’s approach isn’t the content, process or technology. It’s how they think about the whole person, what they call “being a truly human company in the digital age.”

Rahul Varma, Accenture’s senior managing director for talent, describes state-of-the-art technology and facilities when he talks about the firm’s new India learning center. But more significant is how the firm infused ancient Vedic wisdom and Zen philosophy with the latest neuroscience to create a place that is as much about learning about oneself as about acquiring skills and knowledge.

Learning needs time and space. I experienced that on a recent visit to 1440 Multiversity.

A few years ago, Joanie Kriens and her husband Scott, the chairman and former CEO of Juniper Technologies, bought the campus of an old Bible college outside of Santa Cruz, California. Their vision was to create a center for learning that focused on the intersection of personal and professional development with health and wellness. The result, a sprawling 75-acre campus set in redwoods near the Pacific Coast, is part hotel, conference venue, spa and nature center. It’s a destination to unplug, reflect and feed our human needs in an increasingly digital world.

That point was brought home after checking in to my room. Shortly thereafter, my colleague texted: “Someone stole my TV.” Sure enough, a look around my room revealed no television or screen of any kind.

It’s a simple but powerful thing. Waking up the next day, I brewed a cup of coffee, opened the doors to the forest outside and took a few moments to start my day in a natural way before flooding it with information.

Lest you think this is all new-age puffery, bear in mind that mindfulness and meditation have gone mainstream. In his book “Stealing Fire,” author Steven Kotler documents how groups as varied as scientists, executives and the Navy SEALs are tapping into alternate states of consciousness to solve complex problems and drive ever higher levels of performance.

Accenture’s not doing it just because it’s nice. It’s part of their “durable” learning model that aims to have a positive long-term effect in an age of change.

What sets companies apart isn’t simply their ability to do more. It’s their ability to do right.

Mike Prokopeak is vice president and editor in chief of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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