Libby Webb argues that we need to move away from learning that is intermittent and disconnected from the job, to something continuous, innovative and focused on performance.
Often, and unfairly, workplace learning is cast in a negative light. Yet, it’s important to recognise when and why your learning and development (L&D) efforts don’t work and then to examine why that is and what to do about it.
Going through the motions
From onboarding through to leadership, from compliance to customer service, organisations have fundamental L&D needs. To meet them, programmes are put in place and learners pushed through the pipeline. At a basic level due diligence has been done and large numbers of people are certified as ‘trained’.
Superficially these programmes address the organisation’s needs. They provide a standard level of learning across the board. But even though these courses have been completed the real benefit in terms of performance will only be tested later in the context of, and with the experience of, work.
Shouldn’t that make us pause to re-evaluate the way we run our courses?
Learning as an event
The standard approach to L&D is to make it episodic, to focus on the programme or event. It’s a linear perspective where programmes have a defined end goal, marked by a test and a certificate of competence.
This works well for administrators and managers who need to demonstrate that employees have been trained, but it’s largely divorced from the actual practice of learning and development. Moreover, much of what is imparted in formal training sessions is forgotten the moment we leave the classroom or click through the final screen of an elearning course.
Training programmes are episodic, but learning is a continuum.
The truth of the matter is we continue to learn regardless of whether we’re participating in a course. And we learn especially while doing. Most of that learning occurs outside the classroom or LMS. It’s often informal and personal – a tip from a colleague here, a dawning realisation what works well there.
That piece of learning is all the more powerful, relevant and memorable from being acquired when it matters, where there’s a task at hand. How can we capture those informally acquired, but vital pieces of knowledge and share them more widely?
Learning by numbers
The answer begins with rethinking the way we run learning in the workplace currently. Too much resembles a self-fulfilling prophecy: the learner moves through a series of steps and comes out ‘trained’. Essentially these programmes mark their own homework. The learning is self-contained and the providers of the learning material determine its success without testing it in the context in which it needs to be applied.
We can see this especially in the area of compliance training or onboarding where learners are expected to reach a certain stage, but where there’s little follow up to see whether what they’ve apparently learnt can be applied when they need it. The learning finishes before its effectiveness can be measured. It’s as though it’s hermetically sealed and impervious to outside influences and events.
Yet, we know learning occurs in a myriad of ways and locations. This is particularly true in the modern internet age where we’ve access to huge sources of information at an instant no matter where you are. The influence of social media with its sense of collaboration and sharing raises expectations from learners.
Nothing is sealed off for them and any piece of required information is potentially instantly discoverable.
L&D programmes need to recognise that they’ve no monopoly on answers. They’re not (if they ever were) the sole source of knowledge. Learners have access to a far greater amount of knowledge and ways of learning than any standard course can provide.
The balance and focus have shifted fully in the learner’s favour and regular courses will struggle to compete. If previously unmotivated, bored learners sat in the back row of the classroom, now they have the tools not to bother showing up at all.
Training programmes are episodic, but learning is a continuum. This means not only that learning goes on beyond the confines and timescale of a course, but that individual learners will always be at different stages of learning. There’s no ground zero or baseline for a group of learners.
They will have different areas of competence and experience. A programme that assumes uniformity will produce a uniform result, but not necessarily one that will necessarily benefit the majority of learners.
When we look at the way we access information outside of formal learning, we’re especially struck by the variety of approaches to providing information (from a few characters in a tweet to a full-blown how-to video) and the personalisation of information.
It’s not only that you search for what you want, driven by your needs and framed by your criteria, but that the systems with which you’re interacting learn, adapt and tailor the information they provide based on a series of interactions. Amazon and Netflix recommend what you should buy or watch next based on what you’ve bought and watched before.
Learning in this way is a dialogue. There’s no final word, no fixed end point. The lesson for learning and development is that it doesn’t end with the final test or the awarding of a certificate. It carries on, and it carries on in the context of work.
Training isn’t working
There is a broader sense in which ‘training’ isn’t working. It’s not just that training can be ineffective and faces competition from alternative sources of information and challenges from the expectations of modern learners. It’s that training does not work. It’s divorced and excluded from the context in which it’s to be applied. And, as a result, can seem distant and irrelevant to learners.
Training is too often regarded as discrete from working. You do the training first, which prepares you for work which you do next. If you need to change your work, you do a course to prepare you.
Bringing L&D into work
Imagine instead though that learning was part of working. Consider onboarding training that allows employees to onboard themselves as they start their new roles. Think of the value of putting L&D resources in the workflow so that customer service agents or sales teams could have access to small, quick-to-digest chunks of learning on the job, as and when they need them.
The implications of what we know about the way people learn and the effectiveness of learning by doing – applying knowledge in context – suggest that learning and working need to be brought together as part of a culture of learning and development.
This means not just making resources accessible outside of the classroom or LMS, but also designing programmes that account for informal ways of learning or capture the learning that resides within experienced employees.
Put learners at the centre of any learning and development strategy. Make use of the skills they already have and facilitate the sharing of them by building a knowledge-sharing culture.
That doesn’t mean abandoning the traditional training programme with its assessments and certification, but it does mean recognising that learning doesn’t stop at the end of a class and is measured more by effective performance in the workplace than by the number of certificates acquired.
How to get L&D working
To bring learning into the workflow, you’re going to need a variety of strategies and tools. Rather than attempt to challenge the resources available on the internet, make use of the ones that work. Recommend and curate them, so you avoid the confusion that can arise when a simple enquiry returns a deluge of results.
Put learners at the centre of any learning and development strategy. Make use of the skills they already have and facilitate the sharing of them by building a knowledge-sharing culture. The sharing and recording of internal knowledge can feedback into more formal training.
Deploy readily available, free applications like Slack and Trello that promote collaboration. Consider investing in a Learning Experience platform (LXP) to shift the focus on to the experience of learning rather than its administration and management.
Above all, re-evaluate the fundamental role of L&D. Move L&D fully into the workflow so that it becomes part of working and removes the artificial barrier between learning and the arena of its application. Rebrand training as an internal learning culture that has many stakeholders.
Make training something that occurs while working and not something that takes people away from work. Sell it on its effectiveness and not on the numbers of people trained.
The reinvention of training
At a time when skills and reskilling are at premium, you need training more than ever. But it needs to be responsive, flexible and agile.
We must reimagine workplace learning and transform it from being discrete and episodic to being continuous and constantly inventive. L&Ds real focus needs to be concrete performance results, not dry learning outcomes.
About the author
Libby Webb is a marketing executive for Learning Pool.