The Big Picture of Learning
The bigger picture of learning in the organization goes beyond courses. Frameworks like 70:20:10 as promoted by Charles Jennings, and Modern Workplace Learning as represented by Jane Hart, suggest that most of the valuable learning doesn’t come from courses. I don’t disagree; it is not that courses aren’t valuable, but we overuse them in respect to other approaches like performance support and the social network, and we don’t do them well. What becomes important then, besides doing them well when we do use them, is to understand when and how to use them.
To be clear, when the gap between what workers need to do and what they are doing is the ability to make better decisions, there is little better preparation than courses. When it is knowledge or skills that absolutely, positively have to be in the head, you are going to want formal learning. What we have to be careful of, however, is to ensure that a course is the right solution.
What happens is that someone in the organization comes in and says “we need a course on X”. In the past, it has been the usual approach to accommodate that request, but there is a problem with this response. The people who are requesting the course are not typically experts on learning. Their solution to most any problem is to throw a course at it, as that is what has historically happened. As we explore solutions more richly, however, we begin to differentiate problems where courses make sense from ones where performance support is a better solution, or other interventions make sense.
Performance Consultants Ask Why
The field of performance consulting has developed as a front-end to course development to determine what the key gap is in performance, and then what the root cause of the problem is. We need to ask: “what is not happening that should be”, and accompany that with “and why?” Because sometimes it is not a lack of ability to make a decision, but instead a lack of knowledge about what the alternatives are. And sometimes people are perfectly capable of doing what is needed, and the reason they are not is instead about beliefs or myths about what to do, or incentives to do otherwise, or there may be barriers to doing it that are in the environment not in the head.
The problem with using courses as a solution to a knowledge problem is that putting knowledge in the head is much more problematic than the ability to make decisions: our brains are bad at remembering rote and arbitrary information. So generally it is far better to make that knowledge available in the world. Tools like lookup tables and checklists have reliably demonstrated the ability to improve performance without requiring courses. Similarly, aligning beliefs, incentives, and consequences may be a far better solution if the gap isn’t a lack of ability.
An issue is that the folks who are asking for the course are not necessarily eager to do more than make the request and expect the solution. They may simply expect you to oblige. And while accommodating the request is easy, it is no longer right. Being an order taker is not truly in the interests of the organization, but to move beyond that requires a degree of professionalism to pull off. You will have to ensure that requesters respect your expertise about how to meet the need as much as you are expected to respect their expertise in their role.
How will we know if training solved the problem?
So, the proper response may still be “sure”, but that must be accompanied by the question “what is not working now that should be?” More importantly, the question also has to be “and how will we know when it is fixed?” It is time to get quantitative. As a wise colleague once opined: “if you are not measuring, why bother?” And what you should be measuring is not how much it costs you per hour per seat, but instead what needs to change in the workplace. Ultimately, it will come down to money, but it may be represented in customer satisfaction, time to close deals or success rate, a reduction in errors in processes, or other elements that are holding back organizational success.
You will have to also get them to agree to let you understand whether there’s another solution. Initially, this can be challenging. They may not want to hear that other factors are in play. It is easy for them to assume it is a learning problem, but they are not the experts. And there will be circumstances when the answer is a course. Make sure that you are clear on that, and you have done the due diligence. If it has to be in the head, a course is absolutely the answer. (And if it has to be done, do it right!)
This change is more than just being willing to talk to the business unit. There are new skills required in terms of performance consulting analysis, and designing performance resources when that’s the needed solution, or even consulting on incentives and consequences to help alter behavior. However, the cost to not change is even higher. There is a growing awareness that ‘spray and pray’ and ‘text and next’ don’t cut it. There is a related growing interest in metrics around learning. And you need to be prepared to justify that what you do is based on learning science, not on legacies from an industrial age that are no longer relevant in an information era.
At core, formal learning (training) is a tool to improve the ability of people to make better decisions. It takes a good conceptual model and lots of practice, among other things. It also, however, has to be used at the appropriate place and time, and not in lieu of more appropriate solutions. Using formal learning correctly is part of an overall strategy for a performance ecosystem where the right solution is to hand, not just courses. The associated need is to align the appropriate solution with the appropriate need. The broader picture of learning, which goes beyond courses to include mentoring and collaboration, which recognizes that innovation and problem-solving are also situations where you don’t know the answer when you start, are also part of supporting learning. Really, the goal is to recognize that the role is supporting organizational performance, and formal learning is just one of the tools in your repertoire.
And this is an opportunity for those charged with learning in the organization. There is a vision where the organization is using formal learning to develop core skills, using performance support to optimize execution, and is facilitating the interactions and culture that support continual innovation. That is a properly valuable role, and one that those who understand how our minds think, work, and learn can take, in partnership with technology and operational roles. That is where you can be, and it includes being clear on where courses sit and their unique contribution to overall success. So get strategic, and broaden your focus to put courses in the proper place.