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​How Do You Learn?

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​A fellow IIA International Conference attendee and I were talking about what we hoped to get from the conference. For me, since I’m in this state of semi-retirement where I often find myself on the outside looking in, a primary objective was to find out what the new and different ideas and challenges are that exist for internal auditors.

The gentleman I was speaking with agreed that this was a fine and worthy aspiration. But he brought up a more specific task with which he had been charged.

Seems that his boss expected him to come back and train the entire department on what was discussed during the conference. The attendee was specifically instructed to come back from the conference and provide updates, ideas, and actual training for the entire staff based on everything he heard, learned, and experienced.

I’m guessing this sounds a little familiar. Over the years, I’ve heard a significant number of people explain that such was their assignment. In fact, I’ve had bosses who have requested/demanded the same from me. In fact (and even worse), I have asked people who worked for me to do just that.

Let’s look at this one through the prism of common sense. The participant is being requested to take two-and-a-half days’ worth of information obtained during seven concurrent sessions and six general sessions — information covering such disparate subjects as agile auditing and diversity and data analytics and quality assurance and various other internal-audit-but-in-no-other-way-connected concepts — and turn it into a one hour/one day/one week (your mileage may vary) set of presentations.

Even if the participant decides to focus on a single subject, it is a herculean task.

And, for the poor sap who is sitting in the presentation with the Damoclean sword of an upcoming presentation hanging over his or her head, how much attention can be paid to what is being said. Yes, the words will be there. Yes, the slides will be there. But it is nearly impossible to focus on the actual information that is being delivered. The attendee has the trees, but no forest.

It is understandable that we want instantly tangible results from an investment in any learning or training. (Again, I have fallen into the trap of requesting this impossibility from employees myself.) But years of experience have shown me that, particularly when it comes to conferences, instant results seldom occur. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I attended a conference session that was so transformational it changed the way I or my department worked. (One example, Benford’s Law. Another, balanced scorecards. And there may be a couple more, but they don’t spring to mind, even after digging a while.)

No, the value in attending conferences (and much other training — chapter meetings are a good example) comes from the attendees hearing new concepts and ideas. They may not be instantly applicable. But they rattle around, mixing with previous thoughts and lying in wait for just the right combination of other concepts to develop into something unexpected, something new, and something of value.

There is a quote from Steve Jobs about creativity that speaks to why we should all be learning as much as we can, whether it is of value or not. "Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.“ And this doesn’t happen unless there is an influx of ideas — unless training is not about what was learned, but about just learning.

There is nothing wrong with taking stock after training, determining what you know now that you didn’t know before. And there is nothing wrong with asking your employees to take similar stock.

But don’t expect immediate answers.

Another quote about creativity (and I apologize for not remembering who said this one): Creativity is like a joke; you don’t get it until the end.

And the same can be said for the results of much training.

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