Last month, Josh Bersin wrote a thought-provoking blog post about how, despite all the advancements in technology and the Gen X/ Y debate aside, the way people learn hasn't really changed. He made some really simple, but astute points:
- Mastery (not in Dreyfus terms) means being able to apply knowledge - until someone performs a task themselves, they don't really learn it.
- People learn by doing.
- The purpose of training and development is to accelerate this process - and yet we don't pay adequate attention to 'workplace learning'. We're still stuck in the classroom paradigm.
- Management and leadership drive learning in an organisation. L&D has little control over workplace practices; a true learning organisation learns even beyond the traditional boundaries of L&D and it's the responsibility of the management, leadership and really everyone in the organisation to drive this culture.
Recognising False Elegance
I grew up in this industry doing a lot of standup training. I still do a lot of that. I've done a fair bit of elearning and I've seen and created some great courses and some awful courses. I've grown to believe that we live in an age of false elegance. Hear me out. Some of us have made it almost an art form in the way we engage and entertain people. Our training sessions just flow by and people seem so entertained, happy and involved that it's no wonder they rate our programs highly. In fact we make the experience so pleasant and memorable that they do amazingly well in the post-training assessment as well. Coverage is hardly a problem - we cover 95% of our target audience. Yet, when it comes to retention and eventual transfer of learning to the workplace, most of this amazing learning investment is lost.
Take the story further and we automate our flawed training processes by creating 'engaging elearning'. People love the slot games and tic-tac-toes that we add into our elearning courses. Best things ever! We now train 100% of our people at a third of the cost and quarter the time. In fact, we throw in bonus courses and still save ourselves a lot of money. Guess what, we still can't make a difference to the bottomline. The really effective elearning is where people actually practice real-world tasks, but we have little time for that post our fascination with card games and flashy animations.
This is what I call false elegance. Our solutions look really polished and slick, but under the surface they do precious little. We need better approaches and a renewed focus.
We're Living in Chaos
Dave Snowden's landmark work on the Cynefin model will remind you of your workplace. As it turns out, traditional elearning and training focusses on the 'Simple' domain of Cynefin. There are clear cause and effect relationships and therefore it's easy to determine how you can respond to problems in this domain. Definitely easy stuff to teach. With the fast changing nature of business, only simple, repetitive processes fall under this domain. Most knowledge work falls under the Complex, Complicated and Chaotic domains, where we our answer for causality is a broad, "It depends...". If your job is to train knowledge workers, think of how many times you say those words in a classroom versus giving a clear answer and you'll realise how little of what you teach falls under the Simple domain.
Our obsession with training however has meant that we try to dumb down chaotic problems by trying to break them into several best practice solutions. We then try to find an attractive package for this collection of pseudo-best-practices and push them down the throats of our unsuspecting learners through meaningless games and activities which have no relation to the real world. I'm not surprised people find it difficult to apply classroom learning to their day jobs.
We need On-Demand Solutions
"We have built our education systems on the model of fast food. This is something Jamie Oliver talked about the other day. You know there are two models of quality assurance in catering. One is fast food, where everything is standardised. The other are things like Zagat and Michelin restaurants, where everything is not standardized, they're customized to local circumstances. And we have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education. And it's impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies." - Sir Ken Robinson
Have you ever thought of why your employees access Google more than your intranet? Or why new employees seem to use your learning tools more than the grizzly old consultants? It's because on-demand is the real buzzword we should have been thinking of all the time. Information in context, trumps instruction out of context. The power of Google is in being able to provide answers to people's current problems and needs. A new hire doesn't want to look silly in her new job, so she does all she can to get up-to-speed with her new job. She's happy to go through badly crafted materials on your intranet because it answers her emotional need to feel competent. Isn't it ironic then that we focus all our efforts on creating entertaining sessions and pretty elearning when a similar effort to meet people at the point of need could potentially reap greater rewards?
Training seeks to solve tomorrow's problems using yesterday's wisdom. I'm not saying yesterday's wisdom is not valuable - indeed it is. All I'm saying that our work is changing in a way that yesterday's wisdom can only guide decision making for the new problems we'll face tomorrow. Our approach has some fundamental drawbacks, which Tony Driscoll very eloquently describes as the seven scary problems of our status quo. To me, it tries to overcomplicate what could be a very simple solution e.g. connecting a newbie to an experienced coach, or finding her some advice. We need to simplify our approach and move the availability of training and education to the workplace.
We need Diverse Solutions
We're beyond the point where a single solution can solve all performance problems. People learn iteratively and over time and when we look across learning paths for a capability/role, we'll notice that different outcomes need different learning solutions. More importantly, as Sir Ken Robinson says, "It's about customizing to your circumstances, and personalizing education to the people you're actually teaching." So, the model of courses needs to almost give way to learning suites. I remember my colleague Jason Yip saying he attended "Getting to Yes" training that he really benefited from . OTOH, a little Al Gore talk on TED has spurred me to learn so much about the climate crisis eventually leading me and my wife to support movements such as 350. And while learning styles don't really exist, there are two truths about learning:
- people have different learning preferences and workflows (not VAK - sorry);
- and different topics merit different treatments
Deep Specialisation in Business, Diverse L&D Skills
If whatever I've said until now is true - our age of chaos, the need to bring learning to the workplace, and the need to be diverse; frankly, it's really difficult for a 'generic' L&D consultant to achieve all this, without a strong appreciation of the business. The evolution of the modern L&D professional has to be in the direction of specialising and generalising at the same time. This is a bit of an oxymoron, except that learning professionals need to specialise in their organisation's business and generalise in the L&D space. This makes it easy for us to create contextualised solutions for the business that make absolute sense, as well as pick from a plethora of tools that this age has put at our disposal. Fortunately this isn't impossible - we just need to shift from our 'trainer' mindsets. As we open our mind to the possibilities, we'll realise that:
- Our job as L&D professionals is to ensure a timely response people's need to learn.
- When we need to push learning, we need to create the affective context for learning via stories, simulations, and scenarios.
- Training programs with simulated pain points and resultant skill practice create lasting impact and aid retention.
- Our job is not just to teach content, but to also create the context for learning in the workplace. At a minimum, this means helping people 'learn to learn'.
- We can't possibly account for all the knowledge in the enterprise or teach our way out of trouble. By connecting people to other people we ensure that collective problems merit collective solutions.
- Not all new solutions are technical - our facilitation experience still counts for something.
Our training departments aren't dead - they're reborn. All we need to do, is wake up to the reality of our modern world and revel in the options it has given us today. Workscaping can happen at every level - your next training program, your team, your office, and your entire organisation. The key is to think lean and find the most effective and yet the most timely ways for people to learn in the context of their everyday jobs. That's when we can evolve to being true learning organisations.
What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section of this post. Don't be bashful, drop in a line or two!