News at Smith

Training Outcomes and Adaptability

Sep 01, 2006


Research by Gilad Chen

In today’s digital economy, where the pace of innovation is so rapid, the ability to adapt is a crucial skill, not just for individual employees but also for work teams. Employees must learn to master not just the essential knowledge and skills of their job; they must also be able to adapt that knowledge in cooperation with team members. Adaptability is particularly crucial for ‘action teams’ such as Special Forces combat units, search and rescue teams, orchestras, sports teams, or flight crews. These highly skilled specialists must cooperate and improvise in situations that are complex and unpredictable.

Gilad Chen, associate professor of management and organization, examined how training programs can facilitate adaptive performance at both the individual and team levels. Chen’s research is concerned with training transfer, the ability of an individual or team to apply or modify the knowledge and skills acquired during training in new, difficult or complex situations. This is the first study to look at training transfer at both the team and individual level in the same study.

Chen and his colleagues structured the study to apply principles that worked in training individuals to the training of action teams. In the study, undergraduates learned to operate a simulated but very realistic Apache attack helicopter in order to fly a complex mission. Participants were assigned the role of pilot or gunner and had to learn a specific set of tasks. After receiving individual training, participants were trained as teams. During their simulated mission, pilots and gunners were given tasks and information that did not overlap, forcing them to coordinate with each other to succeed in their mission.

At the end of training, participants were asked to play the same roles, but apply the tasks and procedures they’d learned in a much more complicated mission which involved more enemy targets in a dynamic environment. In order to succeed, participants had to coordinate their efforts to think through and carefully plan their tasks in context of the mission.

“It’s very easy to train people in a setting where everything remains the same,” says Chen. “On a battlefield, or in the fast-moving business world, it’s not possible to train someone in everything they might encounter. So training for adaptability is very important.”

At the conclusion of the two simulated missions, Chen measured participants knowledge (their mastery of their tasks); skill (how well they could execute the knowledge); and efficacy (participants’ confidence in their ability to complete their tasks).

Chen found that on an individual level, mastery of knowledge and skills were the most important factors for successful adaptation. But at a team level, motivation was more important than team knowledge or mastery. “Even if teams were composed of highly skilled and highly knowledgeable individuals, they could not adapt unless their member shared a collective sense of confidence and motivation to coordinate the effort needed for them to adapt well,” says Chen.

Individual adaptation seems natural and easier, says Chen, especially as individuals master tasks to the point where they become automatic; that confidence helps individuals to adapt knowledge and skills from one situation to another. A team is a less natural environment, and it takes longer for a team to develop the same confidence in their joint skills and knowledge, so it is consequently more difficult for teams to adapt. A team’s collective confidence plays an important role in their motivation. Teams that are collectively more confident exhibited better planning; they not only worked harder, they also worked smarter, developing more effective strategies to meet the team’s goals.

Chen feels that longer team training periods may help teams to adapt more quickly, because it allows more time for the team’s confidence to build. “If you train teams longer, it may help them coordinate their effort as a team and adapt more quickly,” says Chen.

Chen’s paper, “A Multilevel Examination of the Relationships Among Training Outcomes, Mediating Regulatory Processes, and Adaptive Performance,” with co-authors Brian Thomas, Georgia Institute of Technology and J. Craig Wallace, Tulane University, received the American Society for Training and Development’s 2005 Research Article Award. For more information about this research, please contact

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