The fourth sneaky elephant

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Written by Paul Matthews on 17 July 2018

There are three elephants on the rampage and despite the fact we often ignore them, most L&D people will at least acknowledge they exist if someone points them out.

‘Elephant in the room: an obvious problem or difficult situation that people don’t want to talk about because such discussion is uncomfortable.’

And there is a fourth almost invisible sneaky elephant that is present as a result of the first three trampling on the crops of your well-intentioned training courses.

Every L&D strategy should mention these elephants and have comments on how they will be addressed and dealt with. Most L&D strategies I see have very little, if anything about them and therefore fail what I call the three-elephant test.

First elephant: Performance diagnostics

Sending people on training courses that they don’t need is depressingly common. It seems that L&D is often willing to ignore the need for performance diagnostics and unquestioningly accept the order from a manager for a training course.

This is shopkeeper mentality.

Many requests for training will never make it through the performance consultancy filter into the L&D department because often the real cause of poor performance is related to the operational environment rather than the competence of the individual performers.

When L&D ignores the obvious need for ascertaining that a training course is required, and simply takes the order without a shred of evidence that the training course has any business benefit, they are ignoring the elephant.

The first step to address the performance diagnostics elephant is therefore performance consultancy. This starts with the premise that there is a performance gap that we need to bridge. As we start the consultancy process, we do not assume anything about the gap or its causes, or how it could be bridged.

We certainly don’t assume that a learning intervention is the solution. Many requests for training will never make it through the performance consultancy filter into the L&D department because often the real cause of poor performance is related to the operational environment rather than the competence of the individual performers.

In my experience, and that of others I speak with, around 80% of performance problems are caused by organisational and environmental barriers, in other words environmental incompetence, rather than worker incompetence.

Second elephant: Informal learning

In most organisations, informal learning is the second elephant in the room because, despite the popularity of the 70:20:10 model, people still do very little to leverage the huge proportion of learning that is informal.

They do at least talk about 70:20:10, but then often carry on delivering L&D services in much the same way as they did, perhaps with some extra blended approaches. If you look at what they are actually doing, you wouldn’t recognise much that will deal effectively with the informal learning elephant.

Third elephant: Learning transfer

How much sustainable behaviour change are you managing to achieve from the training courses you deliver? If you are like most people delivering training, the honest answer is ‘not that much’ or perhaps more honestly, ‘I don’t know’.


Now, maybe you as an L&D professional can take home your salary knowing that most of the training you do is a waste of time. Maybe the people who asked for the training are happy with that low level of impact.

Maybe, like some L&D people I speak with, you can ‘bury your head in the sand’ or look the other way and make nonsense noises while you plug your ears with your fingers. Maybe you say some nice words about learning transfer and do a few things that might help, but really you are just doing what you have always done.

Or maybe you are waking up to the reality that we should, as ‘professionals’, be doing much better than we are at producing business impact from our training courses.

There are many in L&D who would cough and splutter in indignation at that previous paragraph. How did you react? Maybe you are one of the very small minority of L&D professionals who are doing a good job of learning transfer and that paragraph genuinely does not apply to you, and if so, I salute you.

Or maybe you just feel very uncomfortable when someone calls out what should be obvious to all and says that the emperor has no clothes. In the parable of the emperor’s clothes, he did come to his senses and realise that he had been deceived.

He was living within an illusion where everybody was pretending something was real when even a child could see that it was not. Somehow, so many people are living within the illusion that training is working well, when even a cursory examination shows that it is not in most cases delivering on its promise.

Fourth sneaky elephant: The brand of L&D

If you don’t deal effectively with the first three elephants, the L&D ‘brand’ will suffer. L&D will lose credibility, and thus will find it harder and harder to operate with any influence. Sometimes operations people will even side-line L&D in their quest for developing their people. If you want L&D to have a seat at the top table, you need to deal with the three elephants.

Have a look at your L&D strategy. Does it pass the three-elephant test?

Ignoring these elephants is very expensive, and besides, it really annoys the elephants!


About the author

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, learning transfer, performance consultancy, and how Learning & Development can help achieve business targets.


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