Last month, my daughter had a school assignment to review the movie, “Supersize Me.” The film is Morgan Spurlock’s documentary about his self-imposed sentence to eat nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days. The movie details Spurlock’s personal experience on this diet in literally nauseating detail: gaining 25 pounds in 30 days, damaging his liver and skyrocketing his cholesterol. Not a very appetizing film, but certainly provocative.
In the movie Spurlock opines on the culture, politics and economics that encourage eating on the run. In the fast-food industry, speed is the ultimate benchmark for success. If restaurants can reduce “through time” it will mean literally millions of dollars of business. Seventy percent of fast-food revenue is earned at the drive-up window. Though the average transaction time is down to a mere three minutes, it’s been stuck at that level for five years. So researchers are working on stochastic models to predict what customers will order as they approach the window to reduce that time even more. It reminds me of a cartoon that shows the surprised face of a woman as she opens the door for a pizza delivery man: “That’s amazing!” she says. “I was just thinking about ordering a pizza.” The inscription on the back of the delivery man’s shirt reads, “Mystic Pizza – We know your mind!”
Talking with my daughter about her assignment got me thinking about the learning profession. In either nutrition or learning, should speed be the ultimate good? Spurlock makes the argument that we are gaining speed in eating at a terrible cost to our well-being. Are we gaining efficiency in our learning systems at similar costs to our organizational health?
Too often we evaluate our training tools and our learning systems entirely in terms of efficiency: Online learning saves hours away from one’s desk; a DVD eliminates the need for an instructor to get to the field location. Like a fast-food researcher, our learning metrics too often count the number of butts in seats, hours suffered or the cost per hour delivered to determine success.
I am not arguing that the bottom line isn’t important, but rather that we might be mistaking what the bottom line really is. Too often we forget to ask what will make a difference in business performance and instead settle for mere efficiency of throughput. If Spurlock asks us to reconsider what matters most when we eat, I am asking you to consider what matters when we learn. After all, learning is, or should be, a high-return investment. Epiphanies do not occur on command. Insight and innovation are not measured by a timer. Peter Drucker reminded us that effectiveness is the real goal for organizational learning, not mere efficiency.
As learning professionals, we have a responsibility to do more than merely serve up what the customers are buying at greater speed and less cost. We have a responsibility to influence our organizations to create more nuanced, substantive, viable ways to track how well we support our learners and our business.
In contrast to the fast-food approach is the 1989 International Slow Food Movement whose Manifesto follows, “We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat fast foods … May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency.”
The Slow Food manifesto reminds me of the delicious movie, “Chocolat,” in which Juliette Binoche portrays a lovely, mysterious young mother dedicated to influencing her daughter and those who surround her to savor the moment—slowly—and to extract from it all the flavor and wonder of a fine chocolate truffle. She reveres experience rather than time, and in this way, embodies one of the finest qualities of the superior chief learning officer.
Surely there are minutes or hours padding your learning systems that could be cut in the name of efficiency. But before you cut, consider what it is that will evoke shining moments of true insight. It is fully savoring these tiny morsels of luscious dark chocolate, rather than the speed of a three-minute drive-through, that should mark our success.
Fred Harburg is a managing partner at Venture Works and has held numerous international leadership roles at IBM, GM, Disney, AT&T and Motorola. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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