I have delivered thousands of learning programs to organizations and executives around the world. Not to brag, but I always got great “happy sheets” — people loved to come together and be “edu-tained” by me. But here is the existential problem: I don’t think it made much of a difference. Sure, people had a great time, learned some new tidbits to talk about at a weekend barbeque and got excited, but I don’t think they ever did anything materially different. In my darker moments, I sometimes think I spent nearly 20 years running “recess from work.”
As learning professionals, we should all be terrified. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that what we’ve been doing under the banner of “learning” is wasteful and ineffective. We need to fundamentally rethink how we conceptualize what learning is and what it does in organizations.
Learning Should Not Be Recess From Work
People need to learn new things; we all know that. But we must learn to build learning around real work, not as an escape from it. Having worked with dozens of business schools and consultancies, let me reveal a bit of a secret: They are peddling snake oil. While they talk about “customization,” what they really mean is rearranging the LEGO blocks of their content, inserting your company logo into the PowerPoint presentation and adding a handful of questions that relate to your company. Customization, in their view, is about sprinkling your organizational context on top of their content.
This is wrong and broken. If learning is going to work in the ways that organizations need it to work, it must be built from your organizational context and sprinkled with critical bits of content, not the other way around. Every organization I have ever encountered is a jungle gym of learning: People learn in teams, they learn new work practices, they adapt to new bosses and interfaces. What we fail to do is capitalize on how people truly learn in organizations and harness those realities to enable new levels of performance.
As an example, we recently did some work with an organization that wanted to run a program on adaptive leadership. Full disclosure: I love the concept of adaptive leadership, and I adore what Marty Linsky and Ron Heifetz have done with it, as a concept. But in terms of impact, adaptive leadership — like most abstract concepts that people try to push on populations of employees — is novel but useless. People don’t need new ideas; they need practical ways to rewire the local pressures that are driving them to do things that are counterproductive.
We ultimately focused the content of the adaptive leadership program on critical leverage points and the ways that people actually learned and worked in the organization: We leveraged leaders as teachers (as the hierarchy was quite powerful). We focused on convening cross-team meetings around applied adaptive ideas at critical interfaces in the value chain. While this integrated and leveraged “adaptive” principles, it focused primarily on the context of real teams and real work. Finally, we identified key mechanisms in how teams actually worked that could be targeted and tweaked to make them sustainably more adaptive.
Did we “teach” adaptive leadership as pure theoretical concept? Absolutely not. However, did people in the organization start to operate more adaptively and work in new ways that tangibly and measurably improved performance? They sure did. For learning to work in the 21st century, we have to move beyond our fascination with content and start to develop a deeper fascination with the context of how work gets done. Leverage exists for learning in every organization, and we need to prioritize making learning more applied as a means to enable new ideas and ways of working to flourish.
For those efficiency-minded readers, let me also offer this caveat: E-learning is not the answer. If you think a library of thousands of e-learning modules will make a difference in how your organization works and how your leaders lead, you should ask one question: What is the completion rate of e-learning modules? In moments of curiosity or boredom, employees may open an e-learning module, but all of the data that I have seen and all of the people in e-learning whom I have talked with suggest that completion rates of e-learning modules are low. People are telling us that they don’t want to learn alone.
The Ice Cream Cone Problem: A Focus on Embedment, Not Abstractions
Corporate learning can be viewed as an ice cream cone with sprinkles. Typical approaches to corporate learning view content as the ice cream and the context of real work as the sprinkles. For impact, and a more embedded approach to learning, we have to invert this paradigm: Context has to become the ice cream with content used as the sprinkles.
Organizations need to tackle embedment differently by answering two fundamental questions: Why do people do what they do, and what would make them change? There are three provocations that learning professionals must get their heads around to start to make the turn toward embedment.
First, content is a commodity. If people want to learn something new, there have never been more free avenues for them to do it (Khan Academy, Ted.com, innumerable MOOCs and podcasts); we have all of the content we need. Because work is social, and people become domesticated to the norms that surround them, what people need are ways to rewire unspoken assumptions and legacy relationships. They need help with the context of work, not more content to comprehend. This is where embedded learning needs to begin.
Second, learning needs to disrupt the status quo. Learning people like happy sheets — the nice comments that you get at the end of a well-executed “recess” learning program. The sad reality is that we are awful at helping leaders and teams learn new things and how to work in new ways. If learning is to be embedded, it needs to create productive tension — maybe even bordering on offending people. The reality is that local tribes develop their own ways of working, they construct internal enemies and they work around new initiatives with adroit skill. Learning needs to reorient to address these realities and make them the subject of some uncomfortable conversations about what is, and what is not, tolerable.
Third, learning needs to be built into how work gets done, not away from it. Too often, leaders and teams view learning — or “training” as they call it — as a wasteful distraction from real work. And it can be. We miss the reality that the best venues for teaching and learning occur amid real work. For learning to reshape organizations in the 21st century, it needs to be team-based and leader-led. In other words, it needs to connect to real relationships, real power and make explicit the challenges where teams fall down. It needs to leverage the power that exists within organizations — particularly hierarchical power — to engage in new ways. Sometimes, learning may need to help rewire how functions work and how key interdependencies in the value chain operate.
Learning is critical to competition in the 21st century. Unfortunately, we are relying on broken models and assumptions that are keeping us from focusing on where learning can truly transform how organizations operate. The step toward a focus on embedment is critical for us to begin this journey.