To App, Or Not To App? That Is Today’s Question.

In the context of Learning & Development, Training, and other business settings, Apps are sexy, interactive, grab data, and spit out metrics. Learning Apps are not your brain. Typically, Apps in the workplace, are merely tools to address a curated body of information aligning with a singular objective and agenda.  A Sales App, for example, would not deliver the world’s knowledge of Sales, it would provide a perspective from its creators for you to emulate.  These would include select behaviors, situations, phrases, and tactics all assembled for you to ‘try on your own.’

AI is by definition “Artificial.”  Innovative companies are siding with “authentic,” “genuine,” and “unaffected” by technology.  Technology and Apps may have their place – no argument – but for Learning & Development, they fall short. Apps are not the panacea for deep understanding! In many cases, they are poor crutches for thinking and decision-making.

Along with my colleague, Dr. Kieran O’Mahony[1], I had the immense pleasure last week to present at a tier one innovative company in Beaverton, Oregon.  For more than eight years I’ve had the great fortune of collaborating with these creative people. First to embrace Brain-centric Design™ on a global scale, they were successful at optimizing metrics that enabled them to monetize learning for both efficiency of instruction, and increased Consumer Satisfaction.

This collaborative engagement showcases what’s happening in spaces where innovation is not based on an App. 

Here, and elsewhere in our business travels, the application that we see growing each day in importance and prominence is not App or tech: It is Brain.

While many companies, and management within those companies, hear the siren’s song in a phone-based App, innovative companies are turning to the one App we all have. The focus is on its user-interface and how it can best be optimized for learning & development.

It is no surprise to neuroscientists that Apps, which tend to be ‘single user, single screen, distracted mind,’ rarely result in learning with deep understanding.  Learning with deep understanding is not a mystery: It simply requires a human interaction—one human speaking to other humans, collaborating and co-creating in a safe learning space. As the geneticist and sociobiologist E. O. Wilson is happy to point out, today’s workers are inundated with information, but starved for wisdom.[2] The solution is within reach—every organization has the capacity to ignite individual contributors, generators of ideas and implementers of meaningful practices. It’s inside the head.

Sounds easy enough until you realize that presenting information and having learners interact with that information is not enough.  We’ve never really been taught a method where we’re allowed to think about our thinking in a cognitive way.  This metacognitive stance is the essence of individual ignition. We were brought up in a school system that is two-dimensional—right answers or wrong answers, sit and listen, be passive intake units. The most common result for instructional designers and trainers was a regurgitation of that behaviorist approach—sage on the stage; inch deep - mile wide syndrome. Ergo, most presenters deliver new information to their learners in this way. 

Be it an App, or a meeting, or a lecture, proposal, or presentation…we assemble, we present, we stratify, and we congratulate ourselves on our job well done because we were witty enough to add a game, append the word ‘Micro,’ defend our use of the color palette, add video, great graphics, and a host of other buzzwords all meant to do what?  Emulate what the brain does naturally.

Today, Cognitive Learning – i.e., learning that is constituent with How the Brain Works and How People Learn - is the buzz in the hallowed hallways of truly innovative companies.  There is a reason Google’s Deepmind emulates the brain’s neural networks…to make new neural connections…the very definition of learning.

“Neuro is finally upon us. Companies who place their trust in Applications and erstwhile behaviorist learning models are just moving deck chairs on the Titanic.” O’Mahony captivated his audience of global learning leaders during the recent L&D Summit.  “Remembering facts is not learning, it is memorization. Critical thinking, assessing situations, making decisions, and synthesizing big ideas—these cognitive skills are uppermost in the executive function of the prefrontal cortex. We all have this capacity, but sadly we too often suffer from EFI (Executive Function Impairment).”


[1] Dr. O’Mahony is a learning scientist in cognitive neurosciences from the University of Washington College of Education and National Science Foundation first Science of Learning center - LIFE (Learning in Informal and Formal Environments).

[2] American biologist, researcher, theorist, naturalist and author, E. O. Wilson is quoted from his work: Darwin's natural heir. London, 2001