Training and Learning: Understanding the Difference

Do You Create Training or Learning

Do you ever hear clients, or even colleagues, use the word training in the context of learning? Or use the word learning when what they mean is training? I hear it quite often. And yes, it feels like I’m splitting hairs on this topic. But words matter. The two words that have been related to our work the most, for decades, are Training and Learning. These words are different. They are not interchangeable.

I like to think of training as an event. Trish Uhl also reminds me that Training is merely a tool: One of many to choose from when solving business problems. Both are correct and depend upon your perspective as a professional in our industry. If you are a training developer you probably think of your final output like a product. So you tell people that you are creating training. You don’t tell people that you are creating learning. If you are a CLO within a large L&D organization, utilizing your training department is only one of your responsibilities. And your learning and development solutions may or may not involve them. The idea of training as an event has a long history which is why I like using it because it rings true for non-training professionals.

Defining the Work We Do

Learning is a process, not training. Effective training supports and influences the learning process. So, if we were able to create a long term training experience, that was able to follow a learner through their entire learning process, then you might be able to say that training is a process. But most of our current training solutions have a much shorter time line than someone’s learning. For me, it just feels comfortable defining a simple difference between the 2 terms.

For several years now I’ve been using the following simple statements to define the work we do.

Training is an event

Learning is a process

Technology can support them both

Performance improvement is our goal

These four statements pretty much sum up what I believe is the work that we do in corporate training. The statements oversimplify the work that we do. I know that. I have had many colleagues add additional clarifying statements to each of them, but they end up being long sentences that might as well be paragraphs. Brevity was the goal. The statements were an experiment to see how few words could be used to clearly state the work that we do within corporations to add business value. I like how they turned out. You may not.

Training is an Event

Let’s start with the first statement: Training is an event. Webster’s Dictionary defines the word event as something that happens: occurrence. If we are to stop there, and work within that limited definition, we can safely say that we create the “something that happens” too the people we train. This is perhaps why Trish Uhl’s phrasing is probably better: Training is a tool. And yes, human beings can and do learn without the occurrence of a pre-fabricated training event. But the key word there is LEARN. Learning is something you do. Training is something that is done too you.

Training events are a moment in time. Instructional designers craft these moments in time. The moment in time may be a week, a day, an hour, minutes, or even seconds. And it doesn’t matter if you define when the moment in time will occur or not. The point is that you must devote time to the event, that could otherwise be used to do something else. Can you train yourself in certain things? Sure you can. But should we call that training? During a twitter conversation I was offered the example of learning photography on your own. You learn photography by taking pictures, mostly. But you may also watch a YouTube video, or even read a book, about some of the fundamentals or advanced techniques. No matter what activity you have chosen to engage in, you have selected a moment in time. It’s a moment in time out of your schedule devoted to training yourself with the intent to learn something you can apply. Repeating this process of training yourself, by consuming content, and practicing the craft, supports the learning process. But the learning process is driven by you, not the training.

Learning is a process

That brings us to the second statement: Learning is a process. I hope nobody feels the need to argue this statement. There is ample research to support this claim. To be more precise, Learning is a long term process. If you’ve endured a training event, like elementary school, high school, college, or corporate training course, you understand this point. You never remember everything that was presented. The studies have shown that most participants, in your standard run-of-the-mill training event, only retain and can recall 10% of what was presented. And that percentage drops over time. I would challenge anyone to recall more than 10% of what you heard during any keynote presentation. I will not go into all of the details, research, and neuroscience of learning here. You should already know the basics. If not, then you’ve got some reading to catch up on.

I will keep this post confined to the first two statements. The remaining two incite much less debate. Training and learning are the terms that seem to be the most confusing.

Think of it like this…

I can train you, but I cannot learn you. 

As individuals, we are responsible for our own learning. You can lead an employee to the training room, but you cannot make her learn. The work we do as training professionals is too create training content, or environment, or experience, that makes it easier for someone to learn: Better, faster, cheaper, than learning on their own. As in all parts of the business, being efficient is important and valued. This is why it’s important to understand WHY you are creating training. In many cases, training is not the most efficient or effective way to solve a business problem. At times, simply allowing access to people and content is enough for employees to improve their performance.

Maybe interchanging training with learning is just so common that when we hear one we think of the other. I would hope this blog post would start a conversation about the words we use. My intent is not to point fingers, but simply expose a small elephant sitting in the L&D room. Should you really call yourself a learning professional when the work you do is creating training? I have my own bias, but I’m not yet convinced that we are all on the same page. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Or maybe it does.

My Question to You

Do we, as an industry, even care about the difference between training and learning? When someone mentions training but you know they are talking about learning, will you correct them?

Let’s talk about it. @Litmos