While writing about learning by doing, I learned by doing

Written by Paul Matthews on 29 October 2018

The adventure started. Well, in hindsight it was an adventure, but then adventures always seem that way in hindsight, don’t they?

First it was going to be another of my Best Practice Guides, but it got too big for that. Then it was going to be an ebook, but it kept growing. It is a big subject. So, I bowed to the inevitable and started the journey to writing another book. Yes, I know; I said that two L&D books were enough, but I felt this new one on learning transfer was important!

A quote from George Orwell sums up why I didn’t want to write another book. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

The demon that was driving me on was the third elephant. One of the elephants in many rooms I have been in where a training programme is under discussion is learning transfer. When I point at the elephant, there is usually an acknowledgement of its existence, followed by a slide back into the comforting rut of course design and delivery.

To me, this elephant is BIG, bigger than the other two, and impossible to ignore. In reality, the case for proactively driving the learning transfer process is self-evident, but so many people choose to behave as if the elephant is not there. Why?

When I point at the elephant, there is usually an acknowledgement of its existence, followed by a slide back into the comforting rut of course design and delivery.

Ignoring this elephant is expensive. Besides, it really annoys the elephant!

So, in service of the third elephant I gathered material, read books, searched the web and kept my eyes open for anything or anybody who could contribute. And I found plenty. This elephant certainly isn’t routinely ignored because there is no research about it, or nobody else pointing at it. Far from it. So, there must be other reasons it is ignored.

And still the pile of books grew, the folder full of PDFs threatened my disk space and my Evernote account needed upgrading. To be honest, at times it was disheartening. Such a huge amount of compelling information available and yet such a small proportion of L&D people doing anything effective in terms of proactive learning transfer. A classic case of the knowing-doing gap.

It was also at times uplifting as I found people who were making it work, and also how simple it could be if we cut away all the extra stuff that vendors and researchers alike have attached to the concept.

The manuscript took shape and then a bold idea wormed its scary way into my head. I had promised to get an ebook done when the whole project looked much smaller, but now that wouldn’t happen. The nascent manuscript couldn’t be used as an ebook. What if instead an ebook, I gave away the book draft I was working on.

Now, I like to get things done right before I show them to the world, so this idea, which was really just ‘working out loud’ scared the c^%&* out of me. But I did it, and it worked! That taught me something valuable.

Over a couple of months, we had more than 1500 downloads of the draft book and people sent in feedback and encouraging comments, as well as some great ideas on learning transfer. And that triggered the next ‘epiphany’.

How could I get this collective wisdom into the book, and the idea of contributions from L&D practitioners was born. In the final book there are 27 pieces contributed by others, some small and some a few pages, but all valuable to give a broader viewpoint.

The work went on as I drew from my huge resources pile to go back and change, replace, improve, and in the back of my mind was the thought that it will never be good enough, I will never do the subject justice or put in all that I could. Time passed, and the wheel of life turned while the book was a constant presence, chiding me for any time I took off to do other things.

And eventually, after a concentrated spurt of late nights, and much later than I had planned, it was done, or as done as I had the courage for. I still wanted to change it, I was still discovering new ideas and creating new connections, but the deadline of the World of Learning show loomed and so it went off to the typesetter. 

Not writing a book left a void in my life and when I said this to a friend, he said I should get a Netflix subscription! I decided not to, because now I have another project, and it’s not a book. Wait and see :-)

PS The other two elephants are Performance Diagnostics and Informal Learning, but the tale of those two elephants is for another day.


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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