Using imagination can give a competitive edge to employees

Engaging employees' imagination during training can help create revenue.

"Imagination" may topple "innovation" as the king of the buzzwords if a new experiment run by University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Canon Australia is anything to go by.

The experiment included 26 Canon employees split into two groups – one group was instructed to use their imagination to learn facts about Canon products, while the other group used traditional, rote learning methods.

The experiment is detailed in Canon Australia's Imagination for Business report which surveyed 400 senior executives from different organisations around Australia and an experiment managed by UNSW using imagination as a learning tool.

According to Canon Business director Imaging Craig Manson, the imagination-based training was a legitimate business tool for enhancing the information retention for its employees.

“What was interesting was there was a significant increase in those that had used imagination in terms of productivity, so how fast they learnt and in terms of how they retained that knowledge,” said Craig Manson, director of Canon Business Imaging.

Professor John Sweller from UNSW, who co-ran the experiment, said research had previously been carried out using imagination as a learning tool on school children.

“We found that the people who had been asked to imagine, as opposed to study, did better on subsequent tests. In other words, they learnt better ... we wanted to see whether we could get the same sort of result in an environment where we were using adults who were concerned with industrial/commercial processes,” he said.

The experiment with Canon was simple – one group was asked to look at material, study it and learn it. The second group was given the same instructions, with the additional task of imagining the procedures detailed in the manuals. The imagination group recorded an average score of 63 per cent, while the study group scored an average of 29 per cent.

“If you can imagine using the machine, then whenever you look at the machine, it will immediately fit with what you’ve got in your mind. In other words, the machine will have no surprises,” Sweller said.

However, he concedes there can be the danger of people imagining procedures incorrectly, which could be rectified by having the physical machine as part of the training process.

Although encouraging creativity in workplaces might be nothing new, Manson points out there is a difference between creativity and imagination.

“[With] creativity, you make something ... I personally like to think of imagination as conceptual thinking, where creativity is how you actually bring that to life,” Manson said.

Sweller said while using imagination outside of training processes is not part of his specialty, companies could use imagination in other aspects of their business.

“...when you transmit information to people, [it’s important] that you know what sort of information you’re transmitting [and] that you know what affect that information will have,” he said.

Despite the findings from the experiment, the survey component of the report found employers place imagination at the bottom of the list of 15 key workplace characteristics. Of the 400 senior executives surveyed, only 36 per cent utilised imagination in their training processes. Nearly half believed imagination could improve a company’s productivity, but only 38 per cent believed it could help a company’s revenue. However, organisations which did value imagination were some of the highest earning companies.

Manson said imagination in the workplace could be an under-valued asset due to some companies seeing imagination as a “soft” concept.

“But if you think about it as conceptual thinking, as I do and as we do in our business, conceptual thinking is critical to be able to innovate and create new products and new opportunities in your business. Maybe people see it as something else and maybe get confused by the word imagination,” he said.

Canon is now changing all its training modules to include imagination-based learning, which will cost it very little – Canon's trainers will just need to modify their teaching methodologies. It may take some time for other companies to get on board, according to Sweller, due to the concept being so new.

“They have to be convinced by it and they’ll start using it. It does work and it works very well. We’ve provided evidence that it works, but like many new things, it takes a while for people to get used to new ideas and new ways of doing things,” he said.

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @steph_idg

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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