Do we really “suck at training”?

If you do not know Clint Clarkson‘s work I would recommend his podcast. One of the features of his pod/YouTube are the #SundayRants where he lets rip on the (e)learning industry. I have found some of these to be funny, others quite familiar with what I have seen in my 15-ish years in the industry but also some where he plays to long standing tropes that (I would hope) are somewhat out-of-date. Overall, they are ‘close to the bone’ criticisms, many of which industry pros will have heard before at events like Learning Technologies, the Learning and Skills Group Webinars, etc.

On his pod feed was a link to a recent, five minute, video. For the rest of this post I am going to deconstruct his video, title “We suck at training” (link/embed below):

Claim 1: We have dehumanised learning

I think this is less about learning and more about the dehumanisation of big business. Humans are increasingly a cost to be justified in many industries, with increasing options for offshoring or automation of even traditionally ‘professional’ roles. This is the context that led to the CIPD show back in 2015 calling for a more ‘humane’ HR experience. As L&D often makes up just part of the ‘People’/HR offering it can be lost within that bigger picture, not least if the focus is primarily on compliance reporting. Thus the call here, for me, is to re-personalise our organisations overall – ESNs, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, etc. have rebuilt some of the damage from digitisation but forcing people through automated recruitment processes and then minimal human contact with distant leaders needs to stop. Advice from an old colleague comes to mind – most business problems would be solved if “people stopped acting like d*cks”.

Claim 2: “For the most part, learning doesn’t lead to better organisational performance”

It is noticeable that the slide shown in the video does not have this claim in quotation marks, the nearest I could find in the quoted source (Harvard Business Review) were a couple of different articles, neither of which I would necessarily disagree with:

(Clint does have the specific article on the slide but I can not see what it says from the video).

As for the claim itself, every learning professional (should)/will know this to be true. There need to be opportunities to apply learning, learning needs to be reinforced, individual engagement (and thus contribution to organisational performance) may not drop thanks to learning but that simply mean a steady hand on a tiller rather than improvement. This latter point is why I try to talk about “performance issues” as it may not always be about improvement per se. Indeed if we believe in an age of a ‘reskilling revolution‘ then L&D is really about transforming people’s lives and careers – no longer simply seeking improvement in existing roles. Even if you do not go along with the version of the future where large %s of people need reskilling we hopefully can agree that part of L&D’s role is to help and support people. That may be helping colleagues avoid stress related illness, feeling like they need to leave the organisation or a multitude of other alternative scenarios – L&D (can) rock! Too often though L&D end up being the ‘good guys’ in HR and to be humane we need other functions to come with us really – it is not about L&D catching up with others.

Claim 3: We need Ingenuity, Creativity and Courage

Yes, I think this really is fair and effectively mirrors the professional discourse. These could be seen as being aligned to (amongst other things):

  • doing more with less,
  • doing more better
  • and learning from mistakes of the past to challenge the future.

I have met very few L&D folks who would ever say they are happy with their offering and, in my experience at least, it feels old-hat to hint we have legions of L&D folks out there rehashing solutions without considering what is right for their organisations. This seems to be a trope on a lot of podcasts and other L&D media but it does make me feel how this can be the case – surely the 100s of people who attend Learning Technologies and other events are not then just going back to the office to be delivering what the business told them to?

Claim 4: “We start training today” with boring stuff

Really? Is this still the case? I see good examples where learning objectives are outlined, I see good examples where they are not. I know from personal experience that some organisations have insisted on learning objectives being outlined at the start of events but there can be justification for that – not least when learning management systems were poor and you had to access courses just to see what they were about and objective lists acted as a form of table of contents. As for the reference to Gagne, and whilst that was a theory in both of my learning related masters programmes, I think we all know that both in terms of learning theory and practice that the ‘grab attention’ rule is very nuanced. Indeed often the rules around this are enforced by regulators and accrediting bodies, it is not good learning but a single L&D team are unlikely to ever have the power to drag such bodies into the 21st century. But we can try through organisational channels.

Claim 5: It is a smart phone world

Unfortunately, having worked in a school for a while, my views of smart phones have changed. A year or so back I would say that people should be self-managing in their usage and that, as learning professionals, you should never ignore the power of having such a tool available to many. Unfortunately, observing behaviour in a school, you see the addictive behaviours that come from the device and the negative impact that come from that. Where I perhaps differ from Clark is that I doubt learning will ever be able to claim a learners attention in this environment, from a young age we are creating our bubbles of interests and training our brains to hope for dopamine shots from notifications, comments and messaging. I once ran a training session in Russia where the culture was that people could come in and out for phone calls and emails as the expectation was that people were still contactable despite being in face-to-face training. I feel now we really need to be harsh on the rules of what we are aiming for – for example I know I can double or triple task but also know that if I am sat concentrating, making notes, etc. I am more engaged in that webinar, call, meeting, etc. than when I am doing more than one thing at once. If the phone, tablet or laptop is there and on we have lost the battle – ground rules and contracting are more important for learning, meetings, etc. than ever before.

I can be very self critical in this area – I know I revert to games, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn and other things when I should be doing something else. We all do it, L&D is not the only thing that (appears to) suck in the face of constant connectivity.

Claim 6: Shift toward human-centred (not just “rules-based”) learning

Now I suspect the establishment of “rule-based” learning is really an attempt at ‘evidence-based’ good practice, but, yes – as mentioned above – a slide of learning objectives is not good practice unless in makes sense in that human context. As someone who has authored guidelines, instructional design instructions, eLearning standards and more it is also the case that “rule-based” can be trying to simply aim for what “works” in the deployment environment you are working in.

Probably my worst ever workshop facilitation experience was where I had presumed the team I was with had been told the objectives/purpose by the manager. When I arrived (late thanks to the trains) I jumped straight into reflection sharing exercises, only for most of the most reflections to come back to me as variations of “sorry, why are we here?” It only really got worse from there thanks to dynamics in the room – knowing your audience, the human relationships, etc. are important (as mentioned in the video). This is tough at scale.

The need to be human-focused goes to the humane point but I feel the real challenge is that we are all different – again, learning design at scale is tough. There are ways to tackle this and technology continues to evolve to help, lets move onto how Clark thinks it can be done and I’ll address there…

Claim 7: Stories are more human than facts

The storytelling bandwagon has been going for quite some time and in general I do not disagree – real examples, interesting experiences, scary examples (especially for where things go wrong), etc. are all applicable learning experiences and tend to get the message across in memorable ways. However, I do think that it dismisses the fact some people are far more likely to remember facts and figures. Again, the experience of working a school has been illuminating for my thoughts on adult learning – from looking at younger learners (remember we were all there once) – there are people who simply work and learn differently to others. Simply calling for more storytelling, more gamification, etc. is saying we are going to target those %s of people we think this will help. I am obviously trying to avoid saying there are different learning styles at play here but numbers and facts are memorable – lets just think about some of L&D’s favourite theories, such as 70/20/10 and the faux %s related to learning by doing – these are easy to remember and stick in the collective industry consciousness.

Claim 8: Pictures are more human than text

I get the logic here but pictures (and other visualisations) are difficult to get right. Even worse you can distract from the main message. Text can be hugely powerful, not least in storytelling, and the librarian in me is always keen to point out to eLearning folks that we learned fine from books for a long time. In some ways, things have not changed since medieval times – you need people and/or resources to add value to your text and get the messages across that you need to get across. Then you can build into application, behaviour change, etc. In this regard traditional university eLearning (i.e. a series of resources often using the tutor’s voice across of mix media) can be superior to traditional corporate eLearning (packaged click-next SCORM stuff).

Is text “torment” as in the video? I admit I am certainly the world’s worse librarian for actually reading stuff – again we are distracted by our bubbles, smarphones, etc. I would actually advocate that part of formal education and L&D’s mission needs to be recreate in depth study for the modern age – this may well include reading, a lot.

Claim 9: Fun is more human than drudgery

Purpose is the key thing here for me – do people feel like they are contributing, are they aligned to what they are contributing, is training going to help them progress and contribute more. Fun is secondary to feeling value and feeling you add value IMO. Indeed we know that the science tells us things being hard can often improve retention – and that hard is not always fun.

“People show up for fun” – well this reminds me of the book ‘There will be donuts‘: I think I was given a copy for going to a meeting once. I would recommend a read.

Overall

I get that DisruptHR is deliberately funny and controversial event but I thought I would use it the other way to question if learning/Learning is really all as bad as (it is often) made out to be.

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