Designing Learning in Global Organizations: What Our Brain Can Teach Us


March 02, 2018

Designing Learning in Global Organizations: What Our Brain Can Teach Us

By Emma Proud

Director, Organizational Agility Mercy Corps

This blog was originally published on Linked In.

Mercy Corps is an organization of 5,000 people. We live in over 40 countries, and speak 26 primary languages. And of course, we all have different cultural backgrounds and personality types. We all learn differently.

How, then, can we design a behavior (and action) change program that works for everyone?

(We are working to support all our teams to embody our culture, ‘think big and disrupt’, and to ‘insist on seeking out new and better ways of doing things.’)

Well, we may all be different, but luckily we have a common denominator, and it sits inside our head:

Our brains.


How can we capitalize on this commonality? What does it look like to design with the brain in mind?  

First, we need to know what helps the brain remember, recall and apply information.

And what shuts it down, and blocks learning.

I’m definitely not a scientist, but luckily, the Neuroleadership Institute has done a lot of research and packaging to apply neuroscience to business in an accessible way.

So in the next few blog posts, I will share some of the things we know about the brain, and ways to apply them to learning. Thanks to the NLI for the AGES model that drives this.

For learning to happen, our attention needs to be firmly on one topic.


Attention tells the brain something’s worth remembering.  

If we want to tell our brain that something is important enough to remember, that information needs to be the sole source of focus.

It’s like we need to shine a bright light on the materials, to say “Over here! Remember this!”.

There are a few things that can get in the way…


Ever wondered why your mind wanders, even if the presenter is interesting?

Turns out we can only focus for about 20 minutes at a time.

After that time, to keep people engaged, it’s important to introduce something new or novel.

I’ve always been a fan of energizers, but it turns out that if we dive into something completely different (even an unconnected game), our brain is taxed switching between tasks.

So we should mix up presenting content with something new or unexpected.

I like asking participants to turn to their neighbor and discuss how the content is relevant to them.

This energizes, builds social connection and helps people translate the material to their own context.

A quiz, or even a moment’s reflection does a similar job.


As we all probably know by now, there’s no such thing as multi-tasking.

Our brain can’t do two things at once.

Instead it has to switch between them which takes a lot of mental energy.

Interestingly, even things you wouldn’t think of as multi-tasking affect your ability to learn.


Do you take notes on your computer when you are listening to a presentation?

People who multi-task on computers during a lecture score lower on recall tests straight after the class.

And amazingly, even if you can just see someone else taking notes on a computer, you are distracted, so your recall (and test scores in research) are lower!

This is a good, brain based reason for ‘no computer’ rules in learning contexts. And if someone must use a computer, ask them to sit at the back, where no-one else can be distracted.

Do you struggle to concentrate on what the presenter is saying when there are slides bursting with dense paragraphs of text?

That’s because reading and listening both need our brain to process language.

As we can’t process language in two places at once, our brain has to decide, should I read or listen?

We have to switch, mentally, between the words we are reading and listening to.

Much better, then, for slides to contain a visual that reinforces what the presenter is saying.

Applying the science

It’s fascinating how much science there is about how we learn. And the implications for designing a learning program are huge.

We are going to be incorporating some of the science into the design (and content) of the work.

If it’s interesting, we will keep posting about it as we go! (Please do let me know!)

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