The Big Question

The Learning Circuits Blog posed “the big question” and it sent a meme ripping through the blogosphere. I have really enjoyed the posts around this topic and thought I might throw my .02 into the mix.

The Big Question

The big question this month is what questions should we, the learning profession, be asking?

Here is my unfiltered stream of consciousness on this:

Why do we dismiss learning that is not within our jurisdiction by calling it INFORMAL?
The workplace is where learning happens. Furthermore, the work context itself it is where the motivation to learn or “teachable moment” becomes manifest (i.e. Oh crap I need to do this and I don’t know how…let me Google it real quick).

What will happen to the training profession if we continue to apply our understanding of how to help people learn ONLY in the FORMAL context?
If we to be truly honest about the state of learning today it is pretty grim. I have identified 7 scary problems in learning today. As you read through them and ponder their compounding effects, you gotta ask youself why we continue to paint ourselves into a corner.

Autonomous Learner – Web 1.0 and 2.0 technologies are making it easier and easier for people to become free range learners. They are no longer bound by the classroom and we need to start thinking about our audience as clients rather than captives. I know within our own context at IBM the search engine gets hit way more than the front end of the LMS/LCMs. We need to go where the clients are at and find ways to apply what we know to help them where they’re at.

Routinization – We have really only applied technology to pave well trodden formal learning cowpaths to date. We have applied technology to increase the speed with which we do what we have always tone…teach and train. Technology knows nothing about quality but will speed up anything you apply it to. We know that traditional training has a big set of issues in terms of impacting performance and transfer. Speeding this process up within a digital context is only rendering the inadequacies of traditional training faster.

Time – The current ISD process is too slow. Bringing knowledge from the edge of the firm, packaging it into nuggets and pushing it back out takes too long. We need to stay on the edge. Knowledge is the lifeblood of organizations….people’s conversations are the transport mechanism….organizational wisdom is the outcome.

Packaging – If given the time (which no-one has today since the average attention span of a human being is akin to that of a ferret on two cappuccinos) everyone would like a five course meal. The reality now is that people only have time to go through the drive-through. Our traditional packaging (i.e. the course) does not meet the needs of our users (yes I said users not students). Courses are organized around topics not tasks. People’s need and motivation to learn emerges largely from a task (i.e. work) context. Oftentimes they just want instructions not instruction. Information in context (i.e. a Google search on negotiation) trumps instruction out of context (i.e. signing up for Getting to Yes course).

Performance – Any way you slice it….people’s lack of knowledge is only PART of the reason organizations don’t perform well. Mix in the wrong set of data, tooling and processes with a dash of conflicting consequences and sub-optimized intrinsic motivation (i.e. job fit) and extrinsic motivation (i.e. greenbacks) and it becomes clear that we simply can’t be held responsible for moving a business performance needle all by ourselves.

Transfer – Even the best courses have a transfer issue. Not necessarily because the learning did not stick, but the resulting desired behavior did not become manifest. Knowing something doesn’t automatically imply that people will act upon that knowledge. My mother knows smoking is bad for her….but still smokes like a trooper. So do we just pass the buck to someone else and say well we did our job…they know the stuff or do we step up to creating the affordances in the workplace that enable transfer, change behavior and impact performance. C’mon people….the clock is ticking.

Value – Many of us seem to be happy that we are finally getting recognition in the executive suite. Learning is getting a seat at the table. Personally I am very frightened about this. Why…lets do the numbers. Training budgets are about 2% of payroll or (.44% of revenue) on average. If we maintain speed and course and throw technology at doing what we have always done, at best we can get to 100% improvement in productivity. We put the same number of butts through learning for half the price or we can put twice as many butts through. If we go with the former, then we deliver a whopping .22% of revenue back to the company. Not something that is going to have the CEO doing summersaults down the executive corridors.

What will happen to the training profession if we keep focusing on HOW to do what we have done in the past faster rather than revisiting at a fundamental level WHY learning matters to the people that fund us?
Too much emphasis has been placed on how we do what we have always done and not enough has been placed on what the fundamental value proposition of learning is to the organization. My work with Brenda Sugrue on the Strategic Value of Learning suggests that hard-nosed business people see learning’s value manifest itself in a number of contexts:

Leadership – Building the organization’s leadership and management capabilities.

Skill Gap Closure – Developing deep expertise of individuals within the business-units that provide a source of competitive advantage

Talent Management – Moving beyond individual skills to managing talent at a systems level. Building a stable of talent that is flexible and nimble and can adapt to rapidly changing business contexts.

Performance Improvement – Applying consultative performance consulting approaches to specific business situations to drive organizational effectiveness and business outcomes.

Business Unit Enablement – Aligning tightly with the operational needs of the business and governing the learning investment to yield optimized business unit productivity

Strategy Enablement – Learning not about creating programs it is about realizing the strategic agenda established by the executive committee. Learning’s job is to implement the people side of the business strategy.

Transformation – Executives are looking to learning to enable the organization to adapt to new business-models, sense and respond to customer demands and change the culture of the business to align with the environment within which it operates.

Globalization – Executives are looking to learning to take on a more strategic role in helping organizations extend beyond geographic boundaries. The accelerated globalization of the workforce requires more innovative approaches to learning.

Innovation – Executives are looking to learning to partner with them to cultivate a culture of innovation that will drive growth. This requires the application of collaborative and generative learning approaches

The first two (Leadership and Skill Gap Closure) are all about our bread-and-butter value proposition…they are focused on Individual Capability. The next three (Performance Improvement, Talent Management, and Business Unit Enablement) are all about driving Business Unit Productivity, and the four (Strategy, Transformation, Globalization and Innovation are about Enterprise Sustainability.
Learning's Value Drivers

Speaking strategically, we are placing the majority of our emphasis (i.e. investment and energy) in the lower left hand corner. We are busy trying to apply technology to increase the speed which we develop individual capability. The problem is, as outlined above in the seven scary problems, the expectations that our executives have for learning are much more grandiose that we are currently capable of delivering.

For me, I think the big question was best summarized by the CFO from a Fortune 500 company who said, and I quote:

“At the end of the day training needs to decide if it wants to continue to be an offshoot of HR or become a strategic part of the organization”

I’m Game…anyone else want to play?

Leave a comment


  1. SIGN ME UP!!! Welcome to the bloggosphere Tony! You ROCK! This is some of the most amazing stuff I’ve read from my peers in the learning community in a long time. I love your style. I believe my post on the February Big Question came mostly out of frustration knowing all of what you are saying here is true. We’ve got to turn the eLearning titanic before it hits…well you get the idea.

  2. Tony – Thank you for joining the bloggosphere. I find your commentary on how to make training into an important part of the organization most interesting.

    Maybe it’s been my experience – but I wonder if even our CEOs are truly interested in having training come to the table as a strategic partner.

    Many talk the talk of innovation and growth, but when you present something that actually encourages innovation within the ranks of an organization, there is tremendous pushback – from middle management on up.

    They WANT us to continue to be the “efficiency” experts. The ones who teach how to do more things faster and in a more standardized fashion that can be easily controlled.

    It is our challenge, as individuals and as a field, to subvert that.

    Please keep it up. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  3. Jingjye Yang

     /  May 30, 2007

    Thanks Tony. It’s a nice and big question.
    I think everyone should think about this, especially for students.
    In my viewpoint, the important things for learning are motivation, active not passive, and learning by thinking, and as you said, alway asking why not just how and what.

  4. Amazing post.

    The question on why training is not seen as a strategic part of the organisation has much to do with the fact that it’s seen as “an expense” by CEO’s. It’s a drain on financial resource. HR is too busy, in most companies, to include training in it’s priorities. (Particularly because the effects of training are so difficult to measure as opposed reducing unauthorised absence etc)

  5. I read this article fully concerning the comparison of latest and preceding technologies, it’s awesome article.

  1. Thoughts (OK Rant) on this Month’s Big Question « Learning Matters!

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