what’s wrong with workplace learning?

13 03 2007

in my previous post i talked about how jay cross’ observation that training, like psychology, has historically been a field built on a cornerstone that we come to understand and improve human abilities by identifying weaknesses and deficiencies and fixing them.  psychology is slowly being brought out of this negative perspective by the positive psychology movement and the discoveries enabled by new brain imaging technologies.  but what of training?

as I began writing my follow up post, my ideas expanded and i realized that I had two posts (at least)  to play out, so here’s a post on what’s wrong and I’ll follow it with a solution.

well, first we need to understand what the desired change is. for the purposes of this discussion i’ll put forward this overarching goal for learning:

to serve our organization as a integrated strategic contributor helping to drive profit and shareholder value by assuring that the workforce has the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities to meet their individual and collective performance goals.

obviously, i’m addressing the strategic aspects of the learning function as a whole. while there are specific issues to be addressed by course designers and developers, facilitators, delivery support personnel, technologists and the other specialist who work under the learning umbrella, i believe there is a critical need for a rethink of the underlining purpose and orientation of the role of learning in the organization. one of the things that came out of learning circuit blog’s december big question was that as a profession we are generally unsure of who we are and what we are supposed to be doing. until we know what we are trying to achieve, we’ll never bring an end to this occupational cakewalk we’re in.

are we a m*a*s*h unit?

employees are shipped off to us when they can’t do what they need to do. when something goes wrong, a good day or two of training is just what the doctor ordered. stat! we’ve gotten darn good at triage and meatball surgery. working with impossible deadlines to create learning instances just in the nick of time is our forte. we know it’s not the best that can be done, but we happily take the pat on the back for having pulled it off again.

but while we are operating in this crisis management mode, we’re falling into a trap of having to do more with less yet faster. don’t believe me? let’s look at the numbers according to astd’s 2006 state of the industry in enterprise learning report – considered by many to be the standard source for industry data in our field.  t+d magazine trumpeted that US organizations spend $109.25 billion on learning and development. while the huge amount of money spent on learning each year is remarkable, the reality is that  we are being pushed to produce at a rate greater than the increase in investment.

(note that I am using these numbers as possible indicators of issues that may exist, not as facts.  they are compelling, but more definitive and precise research needs to be conducted to consider any of this to be factual.  My point is this summary data points to issues to be explored further.)

If we use the expenditure per employee as a baseline number and compare it’s year on year percentage increase to the rate of increase (or decrease) of the data that relates to the workload of learning professionals, we begin to see some interesting data. in mosts cases the increased demand on the workplace learning professional is substantially greater than the increased investment. For example, in bmf companies from 2005 to 2006 astd projects a 25.54% increase in the number of hours of learning that will be provided per wlp staff member. but astd is projecting less than a 1% increase in expenditure per employee at the same companies. you might assume that much of the increase in the number of hours will come via reuse of digital content, but the report projects a 16.13% increase in repurposing of content.

similarly, while there is a decrease in the number of employees each wlp is hypothetically responsible for, the increase in the number of hours received by each employees results in an overall increase in the workload for wlp’s.

these productivity gains are, on the whole, a positive for the learning function.  in large part, our ability to decrease costs and increase efficiency is what improved our standing with in the organization and got us "a seat at the table."  but an alarm went off in my head when we discussed our instructional models back in november on lcb.  most of the suggestions were for cutting back on parts of the models we use.  cut back on assessment or reduce design efforts.  much of the thrust of the rapid elearning movement is to cut out development time.

all of this feels like it comes from a very strong focus on project management.  decrease the scope, cut the budget, lessen the time to delivery.  all tactics to increase efficiency and productivity.  true, we work in a business environment, but efficiency and productivity really don’t have much impact on human learning.

not assessing what needs to be learned makes designing an effective learning experience a matter of random luck.  developing content without the expertise of someone who understands adult learning will likely lead to demotivation of the learners.

we are so busy fixing problems, reducing costs, and increasing productivity that we may be missing the boat on what we need to be doing to insure our corporate survival.  tending to the wounded is all well and good, but i’d rather avoid finding myself in a similar position as hawkeye pierce on m*a*s*h was, when overworked and under appreciated with no sign of let up, he went awol to go to the frontlines to get them stop fighting. 

the learning needs of our organizations will only increase in the future.  for our own sanity, we have to find a better way to meet them.



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