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September 2014
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TD Magazine

Combining Science With Instinct

Erika Garms learns the science of organizational development first, then allows her imagination to take over.

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Erika Garms is an organizational learning and change expert, who specializes in translating scientific theory into effective workforce development practices. She now owns Garms Group Inc., a consulting firm that incorporates neuroscience principles into its work to shape healthy and effective organizations.

Garms recently published The Brain-Friendly Workplace: Five Big Ideas From Neuroscience That Address Organizational Challenges (ASTD Press). She has spent more than 26 years studying how organizations function.

What sparked your interest in the learning profession?

I come from a family of teachers. I do think love of learning is biological to a certain degree—in addition to the family influence, I also have had friends since preschool who loved school and learning as much as I do. I baby- sat, taught swimming to infants and 80-year-olds, was a camp counselor and an elementary school teacher, and then entered the world of adult learning.

For me, learning feeds my soul—not only watching insight and growth happen, but also creating activities and programs, envisioning both the purpose and goals of learning, and orchestrating the details that make a difference.

What lessons have you learned during your career?

It has been said before, but first and foremost I must say I've learned to listen to my gut. I now understand some of the neuroscience that explains the phenomenon of the "gut reaction"—and understanding this helps me accept its wisdom.

I've learned that none of us knows the whole story; none of us knows the right answer or the best approach. We all bring unique perspectives and gifts to our work and there are, as Dewitt Jones says, "many right answers."

How have you seen the profession change in the past 10 years?

Learning has become simultaneously more universal and more individualized. Through technology, we have come to enjoy increasingly democratized learning resources (open source, massive open online communities) and then make use of these resources when and how we personally choose. I also think we have achieved a healthy blend of the science and art of learning, professional development, and change.

Who has influenced you most in your career?

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I've never been able to choose one in response to questions like this, so I'll share a few: John Dewey, Peter Senge, Malcolm Knowles, Bob Mosher, Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, Art Costa and Bob Garmston, Josh Davis and David Rock, Dick Kraft (one of my college instructors), and Ed Jones (one of my past supervisors).

What are you most excited about in the profession today?

As I mentioned earlier, I see a blending of the art and the science of learning, of developing people in organizations, and in shaping organizations. It's satisfying and exciting to witness the concrete and abstract, the intuitive and theoretical.

What advice would you give to those new to the talent development field?

Be curious; it's learnable. Soak up every opportunity to be exposed to new information, styles, techniques, and resources.

Exposure does not commit you to application, but it makes you a wiser professional (and a more interesting person). You will form your own philosophies, which are likely to be influenced by many others, perhaps those who are better-known and more experienced than you. Your voice is still valid and valuable.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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