Skills Development


Wisdom shared by Lee A. Pseudogrammaton:meditate



A Solution for Multitasking?

The research on multitasking and what it does to our brains shows that it is really quite problematic. It overloads our sensory systems, induces negative mental and physiological conditions and reduces accuracy and effectiveness of work.

Peter Bregman recommends ways to overcome the problem of switchtasking in his book titled “18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Your Distraction” but the fact remains that retraining the mind to “unitask” isn’t easy.

So if you need to focus intently on a single task, such as learning or a detailed project, there’s a tool you may find helpful.

The Phenomenon

The Binaural Beats phenomenon of sound induced brain synchronization was discovered in 1839 by Prussian physicist Heinrich Wilhelm Dove.

He found that when two different specific frequencies — known as Binaural Beats —are played through headphones, the brain  produce its own, imagined tone. The area of the brain that controls aspects of three-dimensional sound perception, the superior olivary nucleus, bridges the difference between the varying frequencies in with a common third tone in an attempt to normalize this audio into something we can understand.  Strangely, each person hears the “third tone” differently. People with Parkinson’s disease can’t hear it at all; women will hear different tones as they move through their menstrual cycle.

 In the early 1970s, scientist Gerald Oster confirmed, using fMRIs, that Binaural Beats didn’t just affect the brain but the neurological system as well as other parts of the body.

Since then, Binaural Beats have been clinically shown to physically affect the listener’s brain and body, even triggering the pituitary gland to flood the body with good-feeling hormones like dopamine. They can be mentally and physically beneficial, and have been claimed to reduce anxiety and to provide other health benefits such as control over pain.

Brainwave Entrainment

Binaural beats reportedly influence the brain through the entrainment of brainwaves, which Wikipedia explains as follows:

If different pure tones (sinusoidal signals with different frequencies) are presented to each ear, there will be time dependent phase and time differences between both ears (see figure).

When the perceived beat frequency corresponds to the delta, theta, alpha, beta, or gamma range of brainwave frequencies, the brainwaves entrain to or move towards the beat frequency. For example, if a 315 Hz sine wave is played into the right ear and a 325 Hz one into the left ear, the brain is entrained towards the beat frequency 10 Hz, in the alpha range. Since alpha range is associated with relaxation, this has a relaxing effect or if in the beta range, more alertness. An experiment with binaural sound stimulation using beat frequencies in the Beta range on some participants and Delta/Theta range in other participants, found better vigilance performance and mood in those on the awake alert state of Beta range stimulation.

Binaural beat stimulation has been used fairly extensively to induce a variety of states of consciousness, and there has been some work done in regards to the effects of these stimuli on relaxation, focus, attention, and states of consciousness.

Beneficial Effects

Frequency range Name Usually associated with:
> 40 Hz Gamma waves Higher mental activity, including perception, problem solving, fear, and consciousness
13–39 Hz Beta waves Active, busy or anxious thinking and active concentration, arousal, cognition, and or paranoia
7–13 Hz Alpha waves Relaxation (while awake), pre-sleep and pre-wake drowsiness, REM sleep, Dreams
8–12 Hz Mu waves Sensorimotor rhythm Mu_rhythm, Sensorimotor_rhythm
4–7 Hz Theta waves deep meditation/relaxation, NREM sleep
< 4 Hz Delta waves Deep dreamless sleep, loss of body awareness

By lowering the brain frequency, the listener can benefit from relaxation, reduction of anxiety, improved  concentration, and sleep induction. Other alleged uses include reducing learning time and sleeping needs (theta waves are thought to improve learning, since children, who have stronger theta waves, and remain in this state for a longer period of time than adults, usually learn faster than adults, and some people report that half an hour in the theta state can reduce sleeping needs up to four hours, similar to achieving a theta state in meditation.  Alpha-theta brainwave training has also been successful in the treatment of addictions.

A study of Delta binaural beat technology over a period of 60 days resulted in reports of significant decrease in trait anxiety, an increase in quality of life, and a decrease in insulin-like growth factor-1 and dopamine.

Overcome Sensory Overload

As mentioned above, one  claimed effect is enhanced learning ability. It has been claimed that induced alpha brain waves enable students to assimilate more information with greater long term retention, and more recently, theta brain waves has been linked to enhanced behavioral learning, as theta patterns(4–7 Hz)  in the brain are  associated with increased receptivity for learning and decreased filtering by the left hemisphere. Biofeedback training suggests that people can learn to increase a specific component of their EEG activity, and that such enhanced activity may facilitate a working memory task and to a lesser extent focused attention.

Free Binaural Beats

You need to use headphones for bianural beats to work. There are numerous online and mobile sources where you can listen to Binaural Beats. You might start with this one, some of the ones here . There are sites like this with an embedded player, and there’s even a forum for binaural beat enthusiasts here with more files for download.

Related Snap! Articles

“Multitasking is a polite way of telling someone “I haven’t heard a word you’ve said.” – Dave Crenshaw

I have highlighted research about the problems with multitasking, which shows that the brain actually cannot effectively do two things at once. Dave Crenshaw, founder of Invaluable Inc., has written a book summarizing this research, called The Myth of Multitasking: How Doing it All Gets Nothing Done.  It shows that multitasking –which is really switchtasking – is a less effective and efficient way to work.

Switching costs results when people must go back and review what they’ve done before they resume work on a task. The more complicated the task, the greater the cost. Saying you are good at multitasking is like saying you’re good at using a less effective method of getting things done. No matter how good you are at switchtasking, you will get less done than the person who focuses on one attention-requiring activity at a time.”

Test Yourself

Dave uses the following demonstration to show why multitasking doesn’t work. Referencing the form in this link, Dave’s takes you through an exercise to prove the downsides of Multitasking:

The results may prove to you the following problems with multitasking:

  • Things take longer
  • Number of mistakes increase
  • Stress levels increase.

Unlearning Multitasking: You Can (Un)Do It!

So can multitasking be unlearned?

Peter Bregman’s book on how to overcome the problem of switchtasking, titled “18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Your Distraction” has garnered such credits as the Gold medal from the Axiom Business Book awards, best business book of the year by NPR, and was selected by Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Post as a top 10 business book of the year.

Peter conducted a personal experiment to give up multitasking. His objective was to sustain focus on one thing at a time for that period of time. His personal findings:

  1. Being free of multitasking was delightful.
  2. I made progress on challenging projects.
  3. My stress level dropped dramatically.
  4. I lost patience for things that wasted my time.
  5. I had patience for useful and enjoyable tasks.
  6. There was no downside.

He says there was no downside, as no project was left unfinished, and no one expressed frustration when he didn’t answer calls or return emails immediately upon receiving them. Peter holds that the best way to fight distracting interruptions is to create productive ones, a practice that can be easily implemented in 18 minutes a day. In the short videos below, Peter briefly reviews the methodologies provided in his book:


Part 1: “The Run Walk Method”

Part 2: Tip on To Do Lists

Part 3: How To Leverage Your Weaknesses

Part 4: How To Get the Initiative to Get Things Done

Related Post:



Multitasking: When Several Things Can Go Wrong at the Same Time…

…This is your brain multitasking.

A study by Zhen Wang and Clifford Nass from Stanford University, analyzes what happens in a brain while a person is multitasking. Multitasking, at first sight, looks very productive and seems the best way to solve several problems at the same time. However, the study shows just the opposite:

  •  Students who engaged heavily in multitasking activities reported feeling great, but their test results were much worse than those of people who weren’t multitasking.
  • The daily output of multitaskers decreased.

What is Going on In our Brains When we Multitask?

The study concludes that our brains can’t actually multitask at all. Multitasking splits the brain, creating what researchers have called “spotlights.” The brain is just frantically switching between activities. The image below shows the different brain activities for various tasks that the brain switches between. It simply jumps back and forth as you focus on each task for a few seconds at a time:

Stanford researcher Clifford Nass wondered whether those who multitask heavily develop outstanding skills in: filtering information; switching more quickly between tasks; or improving their memories. The results?

We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.

People who multitask a lot are in fact a lot worse at filtering irrelevant information and perform significantly worse at switching between task, compared to singletaskers. Another problem is that by multitasking, we unknowingly we put a lot of pressure onto ourselves to juggle more and more tasks.

Lindsey Pollak, author of Getting from College to Career  warns that dividing your attention among multiple things may prevent you from allocating the time and attention that is necessary to do an excellent job, and can make you more susceptible to errors.  She points out that it also consumes more time and energy than one might think. Pollak says that while people believe it’s more important to be able multitask than to unitask,

they are equally significant. It’s absolutely important to know how to unitask because some projects and decisions require deep, uninterrupted thought. If you can’t do that, you might make an okay decision or do an okay job. But if you can really focus on one thing, you’re more likely to do really well.

Becoming a Proficient Serial Unitasker

While multitasking is unavoidable, when you have to engage in an important conversation, make a major decision or a complex project, you’ll need to be able to effectively focus exclusively on that one task – “unitask.”

Teri Hockett, chief executive of What’s For Work?, a career site for women emphasizes that undivided focus and energy leads to the best possible solution to any given problem:

When a project reaches a critical phase, or a deadline must be met, where nothing else matters but the task at hand, I want to be surrounded by people who recognize and understand that their complete attention—or unitasking—is of utmost importance.

10 Tips for Effective Unitasking

Jacquelyn Smith of Forbes, in her article Quit Multitasking: How To Unitask And Get More Done provides some solutions that can help you to become a more proficient unitasker:

See: In Pictures: How to Unitask at Work

This lists Ms. Smith’s recommendations along with a few others:

  1. Eliminate any outside distractions – just as when you are driving and need to focus on directions, you turn down the radio, you need to eliminate workplace distractions.
  2. Schedule time to unitask. If you know you have an important project or a big decision, schedule exclusive time to devote all of your attention to that one task.
  3. Allocate a specific amount of time.  When people first take up meditation, they often become frustrated that they can’t still the mind and focus their concentration for very long. Meditation teachers often recommend that you schedule just a short set  amount of time, like 10 minutes. Ms. Pollak says: “it might make it less scary.”
  4. Choose the right time of day to unitask. Pick a time when you’ll have the fewest distractions, or work on it over the weekend. “Sometimes you can accomplish a task that might take you the entire workday to do, in an hour on a Sunday,” Ms. Pollak says.
  5. Close your door or post a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign or status on instant messager, send out an e-mail, or verbally inform business partners when you need to make yourself unavailable. Just don’t do this too frequently so as not to appear isolated or unresponsive.
  6. Consider finding an alternative work space – If your workplace in noisy and filled with distractions, and the task doesn’t require you to be online, go to a library or private place where you can focus with fewer distractions, so you’ll be less tempted to go online and be distracted by things like Facebook or e-mail.
  7. Clear your desk. If it’s messy and you happen to catch a glimpse of some paperwork or a post-it note with a reminder, you might be tempted to focus some of your attention on those things, as well.
  8. Disconnect. Turn off e-mail, phones, instant messager, etc. for a period that you’re unitasking. If you can’t disconnect completely, silence your devices and disable notifications. You can also set your phone to go directly to voicemail or set up an auto-reply on your e-mail to let people know when you’ll be available again, and how they can reach you or a colleague in the case of an emergency.
  9. Face a wall – If you are on an important call or need to clear your head, turn your chair around to face a wall or the door.
  10. One conscious breath – A technique that stems from ancient meditation practice is to direct your attention to your breath. Don’t try to slow or change your normal breathing pattern; just become consciously aware of it.

Whistle While You Work: Listening to Music Isn’t Multitasking

Stanford Professor Clifford Nass mentions:

In the case of music, it’s a little different. We have a special part of our brain for music, so we can listen to music while we do other things.

It may not always work, but quiet music may calm your mind and help you focus.

3 Techniques for Gen Y

Unitasking may be particularly difficult for the Millennial Generation  of Buffer offeres some suggestions that helped him develop a “singletasking workflow online:”

I would have 2 separate email inboxes open, TweetDeck at the same time, as well as Facebook and an instant messaging tool…I felt very much on top of things, hitting “command + tab” all the time to check if I missed anything in one of the windows. With every tab switch it felt as my head would get bigger, whilst I would get less and less done at the same time. Both my brain and my work was rather scattered…To solve my multitasking madness, there were in fact 3 key changes I made to develop a full-on single tasking focus:

  1. The single browser tab habit – I would limit myself to only keep 1 browser tab open whenever I am working. That way I had to really prioritize what the most important task was that I had to work on…Some key tasks I am juggling are email support via our HelpScout inbox, Tweets for our @bufferapp account, blogposts…and emails from my personal inbox…Now I work through them one by one. Only my HelpScout inbox is open. Then only TweetDeck is open to reply to any Tweets. Then I move on to close everything and only open Word to start writing. And finally I move to my personal email inbox, closing everything else again.
  2. The evening planning routine – Every evening, I would sit down and jot down what I would want to get done the next day…There was only a slight problem with to do lists. I wouldn’t stick to them. So I added a twist to it. Besides jotting down what I wanted to do, I would add a brief brainstorm with Joel. Doing this seemed like a small change, but made a huge difference. When we sat down for just 10 minutes every evening, to briefly walk through the tasks of the next day, everything changed in terms of productivity. The reason was that instead of just writing tasks down, I was forced to also think through the tasks and explain them to Joel. If you keep a to do list, but rarely stick to it, try the same and find a colleague, spouse or friend to brainstorm 10 minutes every evening. You can do this for each other and frankly, it becomes a lot of fun to meet up for this quick brainstorm every day.
  3. Change work location at least once a day –To regain focus after finishing one task and moving on to the next one, just spending 5 minutes as a break, getting a drink or similar didn’t work. Nor did closing the laptop for 5 minutes or standing up from my desk. I had to physically move from one place to another.So most times, I work out of my apartment for the first half of the day, then I have a list of coffeeshops I can go to, or the lounge area in our apartment building.

Does Good Customer Service Hurt Profitability?

Executives frequently express fears that good customer service will cost them money. They fear that their service employees will forgive fees, fail to enforce policies, and spend too much time with their customers.

Rob Markey of Bain & Company, notes that, without a proper strategy, they’re usually right:

If all you do is “empower the front line” — grant your employees more freedom to wow customers — they will almost certainly strike the wrong balance between customer delight and shareholder returns. We know of one retail bank that gave their call center representatives the edict to “delight” customers and permission to waive up to $150 in fees for any customer without seeking any additional authorization. The result? Customer satisfaction rose a little, but fee revenue declined. A lot.

The Dilemma of Empowerment: The dilemma is that frontline employees need more latitude to earn their customers’ trust and need to be empowered to do what’s right for customers. Yet, employees often lack the experience, judgment, and discipline necessary to achieve this in feasible ways.

A Framework for Accountable Empowerment: Markey finds that the key to success in empowering frontline employees lies in helping them Help them become self-directing and self-correcting as they work toward a clear, understandable outcome. This is done by giving them:

  1. A framework within which to operate
  2. Feedback about how they are performing within that framework.

Best Practice 1: TD Bank

Click here to see the video: Turning Wow! Into a Science at TD Bank.

Background: TD Bank is a loyalty leader among major retail banks in North America. Continued retail deposit growth has funded continued expansion and new branch openings.

Strategy: Empowering Employees to Wow Customers: The bank has established a clear framework within which every employee understands the business objectives of earning customer loyalty, and every business practice is designed to encourage both systematic and spontaneous attempts to wow customers.

Strategy: Holding them Accountable for Business Outcomes: The bank has established a culture in which every employee:

  1. Knows the business outcomes TD Bank is trying to achieve
  2. Has clear rules about how to do that
  3. Is provided frequent feedback on how they are contributing to the bank’s success.

Tactics: The “1 to say Yes, 2 to say No” rule Customer-facing employees are taught that their job is to satisfy customer requests if at all possible using these guidelines:

  1. As long as they stay within the bank’s policies, finding a way to say “yes” is something they are expected to do independently.
  2. If a policy does prevent them from satisfying the customer’s request, they are expected to not simply tell the customer “no” but to seek the advice and support of a supervisor.

Principle: Inertia Leads to Customer Dissatisfaction: It is often easier for an employee to rely on the letter of a policy and move on to the next customer than to take time to seek a creative solution — making it easier to say “no” than “yes.” Requiring employees to seek additional advice in these situations makes it harder to say “no.”

Results: Of 16 banks included in the 2012 Temkin Experience Ratings, TD bank ranked #2 with an overall score of 77%, second only to PNC, which scored slightly higer at 80%. By contrast, larger banks scored considerably lower: Citibank – 51%, Bank of America – 55% and Chase – 65%.

Best Practice 2: American Express

Background and Strategy: Jim Bush, who leads American Express service operations globally, set up a similar system. Instead of focusing on traditional productivity measures largely aimed at controlling call center costs, he made it a key success measure to earn the enthusiastic recommendations of card members.

Tactics: To empower customer service employees to do the right thing profitably, he:

  • Removed call center scripts.
  • Ended traditional behavior-based quality monitoring metrics
  • Eliminated limits on average handling time.
  •  Substituted guidelines for hard limits, judgment for scripts, and coaching for monitoring.

Because employees are deeply involved in figuring out how to meet fundamental business objectives, management doesn’t dictate how employees achieve those outcomes, but still makes sure they receive abundant feedback on how well they are doing.

Principle: Operating in a highly regulated industry and in a business where it’s possible to be defrauded by unscrupulous customers, American Express has elaborate rules and policies. But it found that it can also give far greater latitude to customer care professionals armed with a more sophisticated understanding of how they help the company achieve its business objectives.

Results: Service expenses actually went down under the new system as employees devised and shared solutions to common customer issues. Better yet, among customers who are promoters, American Express sees a 10-15% increase in spending and far better retention rates.

The 2010 U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction Study by JD Power, based on responses from more than 8,500 credit card customers showed that for the 4th consecutive year, American won out over Discover, US Bank, Wells Fargo, and the other competitors.   According to the report:

American Express ranks highest in customer satisfaction for a fourth consecutive year with a score of 769 and performs well across all six factors that drive satisfaction. Discover Card follows with a score of 757 and performs particularly well in the interaction factor. U.S. Bank ranks third with a score of 727.  The common denominators of performance among the highest-ranked issuers are exceptional rewards and benefits offerings; superior service experiences across phone and online channels; and a focus on reducing problems and resolving those that do occur with minimum time and effort for customers.

This is all the more significant considering that American Express charges the highest transactional fees of any credit card company, are harder to qualified for, and charge  high annual fees, which discourage many merchants from accepting them. However,  they have better customer service.  They are better at fraud protection and card replacement, have the best rewards program in the industry, and carry a sense of prestige for their cardholders.  You are not just a cardholder…you are a “member”…and “membership has privileges.” Millions worldwide are willing to pay for “better”.

The 3 Components of Accountable Empowerment

Strategy and Execution: If you want to earn the loyalty of your customers without losing your shirt, don’t just set your employees free to do “whatever it takes” to delight customers, but implement a framework within which your employees can succeed. Such a framework needs 3 componants

Expected Results: Assuring that your employees have the freedom within a framework to become self-correcting and self-directing has tangible business benefits:

  • Increases your customers’ loyalty.
  • Helps your company grow profitably and sustainably.
  • Lowers employee attrition
  • Lowers costs.

The Mindful Manager

Here is an excerpt from a Huff Post article by Adam Weinberg, President World Learning, that make a point about some fundamental business skills that are not necessarily taught in most formal curricula.

It is interesting to note that they coincide with certain principles of Buddhist practice related to overcoming mental conditioning, which is what is needed to “think outside the box,” but that also inform judgment and action and impact results. Please note that Buddhism as described herein is not properly religion, but rather a methodology for the practice of mental cultivation.

“In its essence, leadership is about putting theory into practice — figuring out what needs to be done, learning how to do it, but then finding the motivation to take meaningful action…As an educator, I think about the obligation to help rising generations acquire a few key attributes that are in short supply. Three of these are at the top of my mind these days.

  1. First, we need people with stellar cross-cultural skills. The future will not only be shaped by how well we transcend differences, but how well we synthesize differences into new ways of thinking and acting.
  2. Second, we need people who can practice insight to see through complexity and chaos to find simple and elegant solutions. Fundamentally, it is about making connections that previously eluded us between seemingly disparate thoughts, in ways that allow us to find clever, simple and practical solutions to problems that seemed intractable.
  3. Third, we need to nurture patience and perseverance. Most things that matter take time. This will become truer over time, as the organizations that shape our lives and the problems we face grow in size. Change happens when a group of people stick with an idea over a sustained period, working through early setbacks to eventually succeed.

Modern society does not foster these traits. Educational institutions can be a countervailing force when they create spaces for young people to work together over sustained periods to identify problems and engage in problem solving that encourages them to ask new questions, draw connections, and find new ways to address old problems.”

Business Skills and Buddhist Mindfulness

A Wall Street Journal article by Beth Gardiner discusses how business schools are beginning to embrace the teaching and studying of mindfulness, the Buddhist approach to increasing awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings, a practice whose popularity has been growing in the corporate world.

Some M.B.A. and executive-education courses offer techniques to help executives calm their minds and increase their focus, which, they hold, “are crucial for those hoping to succeed in an increasingly frenetic environment where distractions from an always-buzzing phone to pressure for strong quarterly profit reports constantly impinge on decisions.”

The technique is important for executives who want to become aware of reflexive, emotional reactions that can lead to bad decisions.

Surveying Institutional Mindfulness

Ms. Donde Ashmos Plowman, dean of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Business Administration has also examined the mindfulness of organizations, a concept previously introduced by Karl Weick, at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

Mindful organizations are those that pay close attention to what is happening within the organization, and are ready to correct mistakes rather than punishing workers who report them and respond quickly to changes or problems, Ms. Plowman said.
Since critics have accused business schools of culpability in the many high-profile lapses of corporate ethics in recent years, Dean Plowman felt that studying the schools’ state of institutional mindfulness might provide indications of their readiness for self-correction. She tried to quantify the mindfulness of 180 different business schools by providing questionnaires to deans and other administrators.

The researchers noticed that deans rated their schools’ mindfulness more highly than did those working for them. Ms. Plowman concludes:

It’s easy for people at the head of an organization to end up in a bubble. That really alerted me to say, ‘What do I need to do as a dean to improve the way we communicate?’

Mindfulness for Culture Change

Lausanne, Switzerland’s IMD business school leadership professor Ben Bryant introduces executive education students to techniques for concentrating on their breathing and becoming aware of sounds to help them center themselves at the office or in a business meeting.

Mr. Bryant feels it is worthwhile to help decision makers better direct their attention. He states that, for CEOs in particular:

It’s the smallest things that they do that have huge ripple effects. Because their lives are so busy and so loaded up with things, they miss too many opportunities to make either themselves or their organizations different.

In instituting “the mindful approach to changing culture,” Professor Bryant notes that the engineering approach to corporate change that CEOs and managers tend to be comfortable with, while a good start, it is also extremely limited.

The Engineering Approach to Changing Culture

Of six levels of innovation culture that can be identified, 3 of these – slogans, incubation and compliance – form an “engineering approach” to shaping culture. They represent clear, relatively easy-to-implement actions that can be taken to “fix” the company so that its culture encourages innovation:

Slogan level:  A slogan should reflect company culture, and many are also created to shape culture, but the reality rarely lives up to the rhetoric. A disconnect often exists between what an organization says it values through the slogan (innovation) and the message being sent out by top management to employees (make the numbers with no surprises).

Incubation level: This level appoints a chief innovation manager or creates different groups, such as corporate venture units, “skunkworks” and new product development teams to be  responsible for innovation. According to Professor Bryant, research shows that 80-90% of company corporate venture units fail, however, and are also not sufficient to shape an innovative culture.

Compliance level: This refers to systems and processes put in place to direct innovative behaviors and activities, including: suggestion schemes to encourage creativity; NPD processes and stage-gating to help with decision making and coordination of innovative ideas; and reward and recognition programs. These processes are designed to “drag” people into an innovative way of thinking, but even these are still not enough to make the transition to a truly innovative culture.

3 Levels of Innovation Culture

The last three levels of innovation culture – attention, disruption, and interaction – that form the base of the pyramid. Forming the “mindful approach,” these take into account the fact that people watch and take their cue from top-level leaders – and every word and action of such leaders is important. Because achieving these levels requires managers to change often unconscious behaviors and overturn rituals, routines, and processes that reinforce deeply routed traditional values rather than inspire innovation, the practice of mindfulness should inform their thoughts, words and actions.

Attention level: Even if a company has implemented an engineering approach to changing culture, it will do little if the top-level leaders are not paying attention to actions and people that promote innovation. If managers are focused on processes and outputs that never deviate from a defined standard, there will be no innovation. Also, giving attention to people based on their place in the organization’s hierarchy instead of their expertise also impedes innovation. Leaders who truly want an innovative culture need to “switch their attention to variance over the mean, context over content, risk over creativity, and knowledge over status.

Disruption level: Senior managers need to manage the tension between conformity and disruption to allow innovation to occur. The way in which people who do not conform are treated sends a message to other employees, and an army of “good soldiers” will never become innovative.  One way to achieve this is for managers themselves to act disruptively, but with skill – pushing the company out of its comfort zone and showing direction, much like some of the iconoclastic stories associated with Zen masters. Small, symbolic actions that take people by surprise can lead to real culture change.

Interaction level: What happens “in the moment” when a leader interacts with employees is critical to a company’s culture. Whether a leader inspires fear or challenge, and shows ambiguity, or focus, defensiveness or a willingness to learn, pessimism or optimism, such information is communicated in a split second, and often unconsciously. This level is the hardest to achieve, requiring leaders to be constantly self-aware in every interaction with their people.

Mindfulness for Self Management

Jeremy Hunter, who teaches at the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University outside Los Angeles, believes mindfulness should be at the center of business schools’ teaching because it is about improving the quality of attention, which is key to productivity in the modern workplace.

In a series of four seven-week executive-education classes, and a separate course for M.B.A. students, Professor Hunter teaches what he calls self-management, “managing your insides so you can deal with your outsides better.” He often starts class with a brief meditation, and covers topics like managing emotional reactions and dealing with change:

To me, it’s fundamental to how work gets done these days. Basically, that’s what work is, attention.

Best Practice: One of Professor Hunter’s student became frustrated with weekly work meetings where staff were more focused on their cellphones than the discussion.  After taking the course, he became convinced that the answer was  to insist that everyone depoist their phones into a box before starting. The weekly gathering soon became so much more efficient that it was cut from from 90 minutes to an hour.

Mindfulness for Leadership Effectiveness

At Harvard Business School, leadership professor William George focuses on helping businesspeople to better understand their emotions. He ran a two-day conference in 2010 on mindful leadership with a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, and has meditated regularly since 1975.

In his executive-education class on leadership development, he instructs students who include CEOs to open up to others about their toughest experiences.

Such conversations can increase self-awareness, which Professor George sees as central to good leadership. It isn’t a lack of intelligence that causes executives to make poor decisions, but a lack of awareness of the feelings that drive their reactions, he said.

It’s the inability to admit your own mistakes, or your fear of failure, your fear of rejection, your desire to be seen as Mr. Perfect, or Ms. Perfect in front of groups, that’s what leads to failure. It’s amazing to me how executives in their 40s or 50s who are running giant enterprises can get really into this.

The comments spurred by The Wall Street Journal article shows the increasing acceptance of mindfulness as an organizational tool.  Dr. Gaby Cora of Executive Health and Wealth Institute writes: “This is exactly the core of my work assisting C-level executives and entrepreneurs who are leading under pressure. I help them maximize their performance and productivity while being well, healthy, and experiencing peace of mind.”

Moving training to an online format is a priority or top priority for 51% of training executives polled by the Training Directors’ Forum (TDF)  Yet, only 25 percent or less of their training is offered online.

To Train or Not to Train

Today, about 30% of all higher education students take at least one class online, and demand for online courses exceeds demand for traditional courses across all institution types.  But the question of whether elearning, including online universities, is any good often holds employers and employees back from going forward.
One of the disadvantages of distance learning for employers and employees alike is the cost vs value question. Although you may be paying for an expensive university level education, are you really getting your money’s worth?  While most employers do acknowledge distance learning, certain employers do not. Degrees from some well advertised online universities, according to one reviewer, “carries the weight of a feather because this university has earned a reputation for ridiculously easy coursework, allowing them to pass out diplomas like napkins.”

Employee Development Drives Employment

According to the Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for workers in certain occupations is higher than the official 8.2% figure. — For the “transportation and material moving” sector, it’s 10.3% and for “construction and extraction,” 13%. However, for those in “management, business and financial operations” it’s only 3.8%.

This illustrates that the skills of many workers are increasingly out of sync with the demands of the job market, and the gap is likely to grow, due to lack of employee development training. According to a study published last month by the McKinsey Global Institute, by 2020, the world will have a surplus of up to 95 million low-skill workers and ashortage of up to 40 million college graduates.

Employee Development Drives Business Results

Only a minority of companies provide formal training to employees, with employers balking at the cost. However, two decades of private industry and academic research, summarized in 2010 by Tim Lohrentz of the National Network of Sector Partners, confirms that employee development can improve employer bottom-line profitability by increasing revenues and lowering expenses.

The measurements come from a variety of methods including surveys, questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, tests, observation and performance records. A review of the employee development literature reveals the links to profitability in the following five main ways:

1. Increased ability to take advantage of innovation – which can be measured by:

  • Better team performance.
  • Improved capacity to cope with change in the workplace.

2. Increased rate of employee retention – The Milken Institute Review reported in 2004 that firms that made large investments in employee development outperformed the control group in stock prices. As reported by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employee Research benefits In 2003, the benefits of employee development are highly correlated to profitability, including:

  • Savings in recruitment and hiring.
  • Increases in job satisfaction.
  • Increases in customer satisfaction (for direct service industries.)
3. Reduced rate of employee absenteeism – 98% of 500 CEOs surveyed by The Conference Board reported at least one business benefit from workplace training, with 33% reporting a reduction in absenteeism and another 40% saying workplace training led to increased employee retention.
4. Increased quality of work or service – A 2003 study from The Aspen Institute highlighted studies that correlated employee training with reduced production error rates. A more recent study found that 92% of firms participating in a Massachusetts training program in 2008 reported increases in quality and 91% reported increased productivity. Improvements can be measured by:
  • Decline in waste
  • Decline in product rejection or error rate
  • Increase in customer satisfaction or retention
  • Better health and safety records
5. Increased productivity – which can be measured by:
  • Less time spent per task or per unit
  • Increased output of products or services
  • Time savings for managers and supervisors
  • Improved capacity to use new technology

Studies from the United Kingdom show that training has a positive impact on productivity, with some companies gaining up to an 80% increase in productivity which can be attributed to training. Increasing the proportion of employees trained by 5% is linked to a 4% percent increase.

New eLearning Fix : Free Online Education

The New York Times’ online “Fixes” article category focuses on solutions to social problems and why they work. David Bornstein‘s article,  Open Education for a Global Economy,  highlights a significant new development in the delivery of education: free online learning.

The distribution channels of education have changed — and  the future of learning is free and open.

The Khan Academy offers 3,200 video lessons, with 168 million views, TED Talk offers 1,300 talks, with 800 million views, and videotaped academic lectures are available at Academic EarthOpen Courseware ConsortiumOpen Culture), and MOOC (Massive Open Online Course, offered by companies like Udacity and a growing list of universities, including M.I.T., Harvard and Stanford)

Alison: Free Work Skills Development

Unlike academic instruction, which is increasingly free online — since you can take hundreds of lessons in algebra or calculus at the Khan Academy — quality workplace skills training and certification is usually pricey. Sites like, which offer training in software tools, require a paid subscription. Udemy, a relatively new education company with some excellent free courses, charges fees for many courses that offer workplace skills. If you’re a would-be programmer from Egypt, there is a world of difference between a free course in Microsoft Access and one that costs $99.

But now, for people around the world whose job prospects are constrained by their skill levels and who may lack the resources to upgrade them through conventional training, an Ireland-based company called ALISON — Advanced Learning Interactive Systems Online — is providing free online interactive education to help people acquire workplace skills.

It has a million registered learners, mostly in the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Nigeria and the Middle East. It is adding 50,000 learners each month, and the services it offers are likely to proliferate in the coming years.

ALISON offers some 400 vocational courses at “certificate level” (1 to 2 hours of study) or “diploma level” (about 9 to 11 hours of study) and plans to add 600 more in the coming year. Its most popular course, ABC IT, is a 15- to 20-hour training suite that covers similar ground to the widely recognized International Computer Driving License curriculum. ALISON’s certification is free, while ICDL certification can cost over $500.

Other popular offerings are project management, accounting, customer service, human resources, Microsoft Excel, health studies, basic study skills, operations management and psychology.

Last year, 50,000 users earned certificates or diplomas, which indicate that they completed courses and scored 80% or above on ALISON’s online assessment. Employers can verify an applicant’s knowledge with an online “flash test” of randomized questions (reminiscent of typing tests for stenographers).

Testimonials of a Superior Learning Experience

ALISON doesn’t have the capacity to track its learners’ career progress, but it has thousands of testimonials on its Web site. A typical example is one from Mariyam Thiseena, from the Maldives who found ALISON through Google and is currently pursuing a diploma in environmental engineering:

I love ALISON because you give the feeling that even the poorest person deserves an education.

Another student, Zakiyu Iddris Tandunayir, from Accra, Ghana, completed a diploma in social media marketing, and  has since received contracts worth $700:

I’ve been interested in social media for a long time, but when I discovered ALISON, I committed myself to it. I studied day in and day out. I passed my exam, then I set up a page on Facebook to do social media for businesses. I put my number in there and people started calling me. For my eight years of Internet experience I have never felt the way I feel now.

Leveraging For-Profit Educational Expertise

Vision: The decision to make everything on ALISON free remains the key factor that distinguishes the site from others of its type, and makes it globally valuable. Company founder Mike Feerick, who received an award last year from Unesco for innovation in online workplace education and has been recognized by Ashoka as a social entrepreneur:

My vision is that all basic education and training is freely accessible online worldwide and accessible by everyone. Education underpins all social progress. If we can improve the general education level worldwide, global poverty can be dealt with profoundly and a general standard of living can be vastly improved.

Growth Model: Feerick says that the scope of the problem necessitates a business approach. ALISON works to leverage and redirect the large supply of for-profit courses, searching for high-quality vocational offerings and inviting publishers to make some of their courses available on ALISON free.

Publishers agree to work with ALISON because the company generates business leads for them and shares its revenues, mostly from advertising, sales of certificates and token fees from learners.  For example, a graduate can purchase a paper certificate for $30 or one on parchment for $120, and opt to pay for premium access that loads slightly more quickly and has no ads. This model means that the more ALISON grows, the more free courses it will be able to offer.

Commitment to Quality:  Just as there is great variability in teacher quality, online education is mixed. Feerick notes:

There’s an enormous amount of learning out there. There’s also an enormous amount of rubbish. It’s hard to make out the difference if you don’t know what’s coming. We turn down a huge number of courses that are low quality.

Feerick’s staff members ask the following. “Is it good content? Is it interactive? Does it ask you to do something? Sometimes the content really lends itself to video — like language learning where you need pronunciation help. Does it flow logically? Is the content from a reliable source? Is there a way to assess the learning?”

An Expanding Enterprise:  ALISON is now offered through government workplace centers in 18 states. When a job seeker goes to EmployFlorida or Virginia Workforce Connection, he or she can work with a counselor to survey the job market and assess skill gaps and may then be referred to traditional brick and mortar training or ALISON courses. ALISON also supplies digital literacy training to public schools in the United States.

With all the cuts in education, Alison provides an alternative for public education. Jaime Maniatis, the technology instructor at the Daylight/Twilight Alternative High School, in Trenton, N.J., which serves students who have previously dropped out, uses the Alison ABC IT course, which is accessible from any computer in the building, is interactive and has quizzes that help keep students focused. This year, she plans to spend $165 for a premium service that is ad-free and allows her to track students’ progress in three classrooms.

Empowering Workers

As the cost of formal education has skyrocketed and the job market continues to change at a rapid clip, the responsibility for keeping their skills up-to-date will likely fall more and more on individuals. Many employees and employers alike will turn to online learning for convenience and affordability, and free programs meet an important gap.

Online Learning Infographic