The Two-World Theory of Workplace Learning — Critiqued!
Today, industry luminary and social-media advocate Jane Hart wrote an incendiary blog post claiming that “the world of L&D [Learning and Development] is splitting in two.” According to Jane there are good guys and bad guys.
The bad guys are the “Traditionalists.” Here is some of what Jane says about them:
- “They cling onto 20th century views of Training & Development.”
- “They believe they know what is best for their people.”
- “They disregard the fact that most people are bored to tears sitting in a classroom or studying an e-learning course at their desktop.”
- “They miss the big picture – the fact that learning is much more than courses, but involves continuously acquiring new knowledge and skills as part of everyday work.”
- “They don’t understand that the world has changed.”
Fighting words? Yes! Insulting words? Yes! Painting with too broad a brush? Yes! Maybe just to make a point? Probably!
Still, Jane’s message is clear. Traditionalists are incompetent fools who must be eradicated because of the evil they are doing.
Fortunately, galloping in on white horses we have “Modern Workplace Learning (MWL) practitioners.” These enlightened souls are doing the following, according to Jane:
- “They are rejecting the creation of expensive, sophisticated e-learning content and preferring to build short, flexible, modern resources (where required) that people can access when they need them. AND they are also encouraging social content (or employee-generated content) – particularly social video – because they know that people know best what works for them.”
- They are ditching their LMS (or perhaps just hanging on to it to manage some regulatory training) – because they recognise it is a white elephant – and it doesn’t help them understand the only valid indicator of learning success, how performance has changed and improved.”
- They are moving to a performance-driven world – helping groups find their own solutions to problems – ones that they really need, will value, and actually use, and recognise that these solutions are often ones they organise and manage themselves.”
- They are working with managers to help them develop their people on the ground – and see the success of these initiatives in terms of impact on job performance.”
- They are helping individuals take responsibility for their own learning and personal development – so that they continuously grow and improve, and hence become valuable employees in the workplace.”
- They are supporting teams as they work together using enterprise social platforms – in order to underpin the natural sharing within the group, and improve team learning.”
Points of Agreement
I agree with Jane in a number of ways. Many of the practices we use in workplace learning are ineffective.
Here are some points of agreement:
- Too much of our training is ineffective!
- Too often training and/or elearning are seen as the only answer!
- Too often we don’t think of how we, as learning professionals, can leverage on the job learning.
- Too often we default to solutions that try to support performance primarily by helping people learn — when performance assistance would be preferable.
- Too often we believe that we have to promote an approved organizational knowledge, when we might be better off to let our fellow workers develop and share their own knowledge.
- Too often we don’t utilize new technologies in an effort to provide more effective learning experiences.
- Too often we don’t leverage managers to support on-the-job learning.
- Too often we don’t focus on how to improve performance.
As someone who has enjoyed the stage with Jane in the past, and who knows that she’s an incredibly lovely person, I doubt that she means to cast aspersions on a whole cohort of dedicated learning-and-performance professionals.
Where I get knocked off my saddle is the oversimplifications encouraged in the long-running debate between the traditionalist black hats and the informal-learning-through-social-media white hats! Pitting these groups against each other is besides the point!
I remember not too long ago when it was claimed that “training is dead,” that “training departments will disappear,” that “all learning is social,” that “social-media is the answer,” etc…
What is often forgotten is that the only thing that really matters is the human cognitive architecture. If our learning events and workplace situations don’t align with that architecture, learning will suffer.
Oversimplifications that Hurt the Learning Field
- Learners know how they learn best so we should let them figure it out.
Learners, as research shows, often do NOT know how they learn best, so it may be counterproductive not to figure out ways to support them in learning.
- Learning can be shortened because all learners need to do is look it up.
Sometimes learners have a known learning need that can be solved with a quick burst of information. BUT NOT ALL LEARNING is like this! Much of learning requires a deeper, longer experience. Much of learning requires more practice, more practical experience, etc. Because of these needs, much of learning requires support from honest-to-goodness learning professionals.
- All training and elearning is boring!
Really? This is obviously NOT true, even if much of it could be lots better.
- That people can always be trusted to create their own content!
This is sometimes true and sometimes not. Indeed, sometimes people get stuff wrong (sometimes dangerously wrong). Sometimes experts actually have expertise that us normal people don’t have.
- That using some sort of enterprise social platform is always effective, or is always more effective, or is easy to use to create successful learning.
Really? Haven’t you heard more than one or two horror stories — or failed efforts? Wiki’s that weren’t populated. Blogs that fizzled. SharePoint sites that were isolated from users who could use the information. Forums where less than 1% of folks are involved. Et cetera… And let’s not forget, these social-learning platforms tend to be much better at just-in-time learning than in long-term deeper learning (not totally, but usually).
- That on-the-job learning is easy to leverage.
Let’s face it, formal training is MUCH EASIER to leverage than on-the-job learning. On-the-job learning is messy and hard to reach. It’s also hard to understand all the forces involved in on-the-job learning. And what’s ironic is that there is already a group that is in a position to influence on-the-job learning. The technical term is “managers.”
- Crowds of people always have more wisdom than single individuals.
This may be one of the stupidest memes floating around our field right now. Sounds sexy. Sounds right. But not when you look into the world around us. I might suggest recent presidential candidate debates here in the United States as evidence. Clearly, the smartest ideas don’t always rise to prominence!
- Traditional learning professionals have nothing of value to offer.
Since I’m on the front lines in stating that our field is under-professionalized, I probably am the last one who should be critiquing this critique, but it strikes me as a gross simplification — if not grossly unfair. Human learning is exponentially more complex than rocket science, so none of us have a monopoly on learning wisdom. I’m a big proponent of research-based and evidence-based practice, and yet neither research nor other forms of evidence are always omniscient. Almost every time I teach, talk to clients, read a book, read a research article, or read the newspaper, I learn more about learning. I’ve learned a ton from traditional learning professionals. I’ve also learned a ton from social-learning advocates.
In today’s world, there are simply too many echo-chambers — places which are comfortable, which reinforce our preconceptions, which encourage us to demonize and close off avenues to our own improvement.
We in the learning field need to leave echo-chambers to our political brethren where they will do less damage (Ha!). We have to test our assumptions, utilize the research, and develop effective evaluation tools to really test the success of our learning interventions. We have to be open, but not too-easily hoodwinked by claims and shared perceptions.
Hail to the traditionalists and the social-learning evangelists!
Clark Quinn wrote an excellent blog post to reconcile the visions promoted by Jane and Will.
If you want to share this discussion with others, here are the links:
- Jane’s Provocative Blog Post:
- Will’s Spirited Critique:
- Clark’s Reconciliation: