New Year, Old (Unfinished) Learning Business

January 11, 2013

Senge--Fifth-Discipline_CoverIt’s no secret that the most successful organizations have a commitment to continuous learning. We see this in the annual celebration of BEST Award winners through the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). We’ve read—and reread—Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization and walked away with a clear understanding of how the development of communities of learning is a winning proposition. We’ve inhaled and absorbed The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results by Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, and Andrew Jefferson, so we know that simple actions can transform one-time learning events into a cohesive learning process that makes learning stick.

And yet we don’t have to go very far to see that workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts still are seen by many managers and employees as something that we have to do when we really should be doing our jobs—a diversion away from work.

It’s not difficult to understand how we’ve reached this point. Many of us feel as if the pace of work continually increases with little compensation, so we find ourselves trying to do more with less and less discretionary time while recognizing that something has to give. And let’s be honest: there are plenty of staff training offerings that are more deadly dull than the list of ingredients on the side of a bag of potato chips—workshops or webinars offered to meet a legal or company mandate, or thrown together at the end of a budget year so we’re not left with unexpended funds in an organizational training budget. We and our learners are tired of being forced to look at PowerPoint presentations with cheap clip art and far too much (unreadable) text, delivered by instructors who are trying to cram too much content into too short a period of time—whether it’s face to face or delivered via an online asynchronous course which, by the way, keeps crashing because there’s a disconnect between the technology used by the instructor and the technology used by the learner.

On the other extreme of our learning landscape, we have first-rate learner-centric offerings that creatively meet our organizations’ and our own learning needs—yet we almost feel guilty for taking advantage of those opportunities because it means we leave our colleagues short-handed while we’re away from our worksite.

That, I believe, is the small but essential bit of unfinished business we need to address, and the beginning of a new year gives us an admittedly artificial opportunity to take a new look at this long-standing workplace challenge. Each of us—from highest level executive to least-motivated member of our organizations—needs to work toward seeing training-learning as an integral part of all we do rather than continuing to support the myth that learning is a diversion, something apart from work that needs to be quickly completed and checked off a to-do list so we can literally get back to work.

If learning becomes a recognized and cherished part of work, we’re taking a significant step toward developing first-rate communities of learning all around us. This, in turn, provides more motivation to make each of those learning opportunities as professionally polished as the products and services provided by the best organizations we can find. It also makes us better, more deft, at serving those who rely on us.

We’re not going to change the face of learning in a single year; transformational success stories along the lines of those told in Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons take a commitment to decades of changing attitudes and procedures. But if we do begin by fostering a greater appreciation for the magnificent results that engaging training-teaching-learning offers, and recognize that work and learning are completely intertwined rather than somehow in opposition to each other, we may be closer to completing another piece of unfinished business.

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Reports from the Field: ASTD and the State of the Training Industry

February 9, 2011

One of the most comprehensive and well researched annual reports on the state of the workplace learning and performance (training) industry recently offered encouraging news: executives and business leaders continue to see employee learning and development as a “key to survival, recovery, and future growth,” ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) Research Associate Laleh Patel writes in the “2010 State of the Industry Report” (p. 6).

Having examined the tendency for many to see e-learning in terms of how much money it saves and having reviewed the eLearning Guild’s exploration of how social media tools are being used to contribute to the efficacy of online learning, we find a complementary broader viewpoint of what is happening in the entire training industry through that ASTD report documenting employers’ “solid commitment to learning” (p. 9).

There are plenty of facts, figures, and statistics to show that “[a]lthough organizations grappled with some of the worst economic conditions in several decades, business leaders continued to dedicate substantial resources to employer learning” while the survey itself was underway (p. 5). The research also suggests that “the average percentage of learning hours available through technology…rebounded…reaching 36.5 percent, its highest level since ASTD began collecting data on the use of technology for this report 14 years ago” (p. 6).

And while it’s easy to become buried under all the information and ensuing caveats—expenditures on learning on a per-employee basis, for example, increased (p. 9), but that may partially have been the result of training budget reductions not matching the reduction in the number of employees who remained in the workplace (p. 11).

When we finally resurface from our immersion in this rich source of data, we are left with a keen awareness of some promising trends. Companies recognized by ASTD as the best in terms of providing first-rate workplace learning and performance opportunities—winners of ASTD’s annual BEST Awards—for example, “incorporate more than one week of learning activities into their schedules throughout the year” (p. 9)—a fine response to what many of us hear from administrators in organizations that still act as if encouraging learning in the workplace takes employees away from what they “should be doing,” as if learning were not part of all employers’ and employees’ work. The most lauded companies also displayed “the greatest reliance on (live) instructor-led delivery” (p. 16), which includes classroom as well as online learning opportunities.

The report, in summarizing what earns an organization a BEST Award, sets some interesting benchmarks for anyone interested in workplace learning and performance. Those BEST organizations “have visible support from senior executives and involve leaders as teachers”; “[p]rovide a broad range of internal and external, formal, and other learning opportunities, including knowledge-sharing, coaching, and mentoring”; and “[d]emonstrate effectiveness by monitoring individual and organizational performance indicators and linking changes to training and non-training activities intended to improve performance” (p. 20).

In other words, they care. As should we all.

N.B.—More information on 2010 BEST Award Winners is available online, and ASTD members have free access to the October 2010 T+D magazine articles describing what each winner did to earn the award.


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