Why do you study for a diploma if you are not going to use it when you get it?

21 August 2019

The title of this article is deliberately misleading: it is not an article about people who finish a course of study and then start doing something completely unrelated to it, but it is about people who like the subject that they study, try hard to pass their exams, but then, for some mysterious reason, do not use what they have learned to do their work. In other words, this is a new article about transfer.

Applying the knowledge

There are some professions in which it is impossible to evade the crucial issues, and so, if you do not use what you learned during your studies, you simply cannot work, or you work so badly that you are quickly caught out and dismissed. Conversely, there are several professions in which, if you don’t work in the way that is taught at university, or if you have no idea of how the subject is taught in universities, it doesn’t matter very much. A clear example of this is right in front of you, because I myself set about writing articles without ever having studied anything related to literature, journalism, or anything similar, apart from the basic notions about language that are taught at secondary school. Other examples are the typical ones in which intrusion abounds, such as education, coaching, administration and, of course, business.

Transfer
But saying that a particular set of tasks can be done by anyone with any sense is very different from saying that a person who has received a specific training can do them better.
In business, for example, someone who has an overall insight into the way companies function, even if that person has a very specific task such as accounting or communication via the social networks, will be much better equipped to contribute value, because that person will be more aware of the effect of their actions and decisions on the rest of the organization, and will be familiar with the theory and the professional practice in other environments.

Transfer

Frustrated transfer

Nevertheless, I often notice that professional people who have received a specific training in business do not make purposeful and systematic efforts to transfer what they have learned to their professional practice. Why would anyone invest years of effort and money in a training that they are not going to use? I have several hypotheses:

1. The belief that theory is one thing, and practice is something very different. It is obvious that in the real world things are not quite the same as in the textbooks. In a textbook, the examples are selected to illustrate the theory, and the cases are simplified so that the key factors can be identified quickly and it can be quickly seen how the theory helps one to understand what happens, and to find solutions. Perhaps everything is the result of an inadequate understanding of how science works (the social sciences, in this case). Do people think that theories come out of the blue? That they are illusions of the scientist who creates them? That they are not verified by means of empirical data? No. Science progresses slowly, and no theory is perfect. Science is heuristic, and constantly under review.
But it is certainly based on reality, and a large part of the arduous task of
scientists is to determine how the available data support or disprove the theories
which try to explain the various phenomena. For example, a director who pays no attention to theory believes that his relationship with the employees is not
important, and that they will give the best of themselves for the company as long
as there are attractive incentives.

2. Going to work headlong, without thinking about what you are doing. The theory about solving problems holds that an important step in being effective is to have a good understanding of each problem. This seems obvious, but, in practice, we tend to go rushing to work on what appears to be the essential question without investigating the reasons for the request, when those reasons can very often lead us to define the problem differently. For example, someone who has received training in business could re-define a request such as: “Please complete this client database” as “Could you systemize this database so as to improve our communication strategy and our sales?”.

3. Laziness. Our contemporary Daniel Kahneman has taught us that slow thinking is difficult, and one could even say that it is painful. When we are faced with a task, and a problem that does not remind us of anything that we have studied, we should systematically review what we do know about the subject, think about the various approaches, seek the information which we lack, and then consider in what way everything that we know can be applied in the case in question. It’s too much, isn’t it? And if, on top of that, we have no guarantee that this will enable us to find a good solution, the best thing would be to rely on “intuition”, which can often mean anything at all, from trusting that our unconscious will find the solution to having enough overconfidence to believe that the first idea which occurs to us is correct, to getting carried away by our stereotypes or by our fears. That is why the memory is so important: the more we have in the hard disk, the less we shall need to look for in the external devices and the quicker the processing will be (to use computing metaphors applied to the human brain).

4. Few people expect to do that. This could be merely a preconception of mine, but what I often see in many professional environments in the world of business is that a professional person’s value is judged more by their ability to handle
technical tools (especially those in office automation), their interpersonal skills
(and please don’t misunderstand me – I believe that these are of paramount
importance for professional effectiveness), and their attitude, than by their ability to apply theory to their tasks. If we combine this with the previous reason, why make the effort to transfer, if nobody asks you to do this?

Transfer

Perhaps this simply means that having theoretical knowledge, or not having it, makes no difference to professional effectiveness? This seems to me to be a good question, especially at the present time, when people seem to believe that it is better to employ people who have suitable generic skills (curiosity, ability to learn, emotional intelligence, thoroughness, capacity for hard work) and then to teach them the specific knowledge that they are going to need in their work. But while the answer remains unclear, why not take advantage of those nights of insomnia by studying for an examination, of those Martian reflections on a subject which interests you, of the mental effort required to understand a complicated concept as explained by an impatient teacher, and of three or four years of etceteras?

Author: Gabriel Zuñiga, director of studies of TBS Business School en Barcelona.

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