Archive for January 2012

If you’ve not been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard mention of the 70:20:10 model – the one which suggests 70% of workplace learning takes place from doing the job itself, another 20% from talking to people, and a mere 10% from course work and reading materials.  Charles Jennings, in his recent article traces this model  back to research based on a survey of executives performed in the late 90’s.

A number of thinkers in the learning space have opined  that if that’s the mix accomplished executives experienced,  that in order to produce more accomplished workers, the  mix of learning opportunities we provide for other workplace learners should be similar.

To say we are skeptical is probably to understate the case.

For one thing, even if the executives accurately describe their experience, that doesn’t tell us a thing about whether that experience was optimal!  Is training and course materials such a small part of their experience because  they deemed it not valuable, or because it wasn’t available to them? (I have a dear friend, who is a leader in his field, who describes finding himself in a bookstore realizing that the reason he wasn’t finding anything helpful was that he was really looking for a book on “How to do this thing you want to do that nobody has ever done before”!)

For another, the kind of learning which works for the highly accomplished might not be best suited for the rest of us. Benn Betts wrote a great critique last July suggesting that we need to use the concept of the learning curve, and that the quality of experiential learning can be significantly boosted by preceding it with good formal instruction.

People are highly adaptive. Given time and proper motivation, many of us can figure almost anything out.  But as employers, we don’t want to devote unlimited time to this process, we need our folks productive, quickly.  And while we recognize the value of practice, we don’t want newbies doing their initial practice runs on real customers, or on multi-million dollar mining machinery.  Well-designed training provides a safe, guided space for the transmission of concepts,  and then the application of those concepts in a simulated work environment. Learners gain skillfulness in the exercises, which builds confidence and aids in the transfer of what’s learned in training to performance on the job.

Of course, if the only formal contact with organizational knowledge is what happens during new-hire training, that’s not very effective either.

We had a client with a problem. They’d developed some new tools for underwriting, which were showing promising results, but uptake in the field was slow.  Each year they’d bring new hires into headquarters, train them formally for a few months, then send them out to the branch offices.  But the “seeding” effort was failing, because the new hires reported directly to old-school branch managers, who quickly dismissed the stuff taught at home office as “not real world.”  Yup, the new trainees were learning a boatload of stuff informally which was in direct conflict with the official word from corporate HQ.

The solution was to move some of that formal training online, and to extend it into the early months in the branch. The exercises required of the trainees in the branch were structured to involve the field managers, which made it possible for training staff at HQ to see (and correct) what trainees were learning from their bosses, and of course, communicate more effectively to all levels of the field just what the new procedures were to be.  Additionally, forums were created to give the trainees access to each other as an ongoing community of practice, so that they could continue to be resources in each other’s ongoing informal learning.

Informal learning is indeed ubiquitous. It’s critically important.  It will happen whether it is “officially” supported or not, but an enlightened organization will want to facilitate the formation of informal learning networks.  What they may find, however, is that some of the best support for that informal learning network can be that provided by an excellent base of  formal training!

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Sometime around the mid-point of the last century Tom (Thomas Henry) Delaney wrote the famous blues lyric, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” Over the years the phrase has been used to describe all kinds of situations where people “say” they want the benefits of something, but are unwilling to do what it takes to realize those benefits.  One could also call this the Wishful Thinking perspective.

One of the tell-tale attributes of people who embrace the Wishful Thinking point of view is the tendency to cut out essential pieces of “doing what works” and still expecting to get the desired result.  I’ll cop to the fact that I’m particularly guilty of cutting corners in my diet & exercise program and still wondering why I’m not slimmer and fitter.

In my experience, when it comes to the subject of demonstrating results in workplace learning, our profession is laboring under some serious wishful thinking.  This is because:

  • On one hand, people want to believe that the training they are investing their lives in delivering is making a difference.
  • On the other hand, in far too many cases, there is no evidence (using existing measurement tools) that substantiate that this training has a positive impact on performance.

Because of the lack of ability to demonstrate results, several schools of thought are emerging.

  • On one end of the continuum there is a school of thought that says, “We believe in our hearts that our training does add value, but it’s too hard to quantify, so why bother trying to measure it at all.”
  • At the other end of the continuum, there are people who believe that, in fact, traditional training approaches do not add much value and put 80% to 90% of the focus on informal learning.

I’d like to offer another perspective for consideration.  That perspective is this:

Most seasoned workplace learning professionals know what’s needed to design and execute on a learning process that can produce the desired capability development.   Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons (e.g. resource availability, customer appetite for doing what’s needed, not wanting to rock the boat, lack of leadership support, etc.) we end up compromising and cutting corners on what we know works. When we cut the corners we know we shouldn’t cut, the net result is a training that doesn’t produce the results we want.

Next month, in Part 2, I’ll discuss our experience on the corners not to cut if you do not want to leave the development of  new knowledge and skills to chance, and you want to produce real demonstrable results.

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The 2011 Talent Shortage Survey, conducted by Manpower Group last year shows that an average of 34% of companies across the globe are facing a lack of required talent.  It seems that companies are seeking far more specific capability sets and it is taking them much longer to fill the vacancies they have.  Most are hoping to “make do” until the world returns to normal.  But more and more it is looking as if that particular “normal” no longer exists.

According to the Manpower Group report:  “Instead, organizations are operating in the “new normal,” where the economic pressures of the last few years have forced them to do more with less, and they’ve discovered that they can accomplish amazing things despite reduced resources—as long as they have the right people in place. Talent is becoming the key competitive differentiator, and countries and companies with access to the right talent are positioning themselves to succeed in the rapidly changing world of work.”

If our people are talented enough, we should be able to train them to fulfill new roles. To do so, we need to start by asking  “What level of capability is really needed for any particular role in an organization?”  To begin to answer this question,  we can use a model  built on three levels of capability:

As defined in this model this is the ability to know intellectually what a topic is all about, what its terms mean, what models are part of that topic, in what kinds of standardized situations various models and terms are relevant, and the ability to both understand and explain the various procedures and processes are associated with a topic, role, or job.  This is a fairly easy level of capability to develop and verify.  It requires providing the learner with the needed information in and easily understood manner and then testing the learner to see if they can correctly do the things listed in the definition.

Obviously, skillfulness requires acquiring knowledge but it goes beyond that.  Skillfulness is the ability to apply principles and procedures in a specified way, repeatedly, and predictability.  It is the ability to do an action, effort, process as defined with little or no variation.  In tennis, for example, it is the ability to get the serve in the right place the first time, every time.  In a processing center, it would be the ability to perform the process as taught over and over again without flaw in standard situations
This level of capability requires a bit more to develop than knowledge alone.  It repeated practice until the ability to apply the correct procedure to the situation flawlessly becomes nearly second nature.  Verifying that this level of capability has been achieved is often done through a variety of means such as tabulated error rates, direct observation, and speed of process rates.

As with skillfulness, proficiency requires the development of the preceding levels of capability.    The proficient person is the one who understands the capability area so deeply that they can extrapolate the fundamental principles of the capability in order to deal with completely new and unexpected situations and to develop even better processes and procedures.  Developing and verifying this level of capability requires a far more complex process than just the memorization of information or the repeated practice of skills.  It requires that the learner be placed in unfamiliar and unpredictable situations and required to solve new problems.

So how do you train to proficiency?  Some highly sophisticated (and very expensive) simulations are able to do this in a measurable way but the cost of that approach makes it a solution that can only be afforded for a limited range of needs.  The most cost-effective process of developing this kind of capability is to put the learner into situations in which he or she is confronting new and unexpected problems and attempting to solve them using the knowledge they’ve attained and the skill they’ve acquired but doing that in a way that they get continual and immediate feedback from a more proficient practitioner.  This is the basic, Learn, Do, Learn model.  In many cases employees acquire this level of capability with sufficient time just through the process of informal learning and trial and error.

But it is also possible to apply structure to this development process and greatly reduce the time and effort required.  A claims organization with a major insurer took its adjusters through a coached case study, in which at each juncture, the case got more and more complicated.  Adjusters were asked to write up the appropriate documents at each stage, receiving feedback from coaches who were recognized as subject matter experts. As a capstone exercise, they  brought  a case from their own files for the group to analyze using the tools practiced in the case study.  This combination of both informal and formal learning processes resulted in a dramatic reduction in losses experienced by the organization.

We may not be able to reduce training budgets, given the need to equip existing staff to take on new responsibilities. Manpower’s survey actually shows that most companies worldwide are increasing their training efforts.  But we CAN make training more efficient and effective by identifying the level of capability we require for each role.

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The Learning Investment Model

learning investment modelHere we are bright and early in 2012, and many learning organizations are honing in on their priorities for the year, prioritizing the organization’s training needs. Here’s a thinking framework that may help.
Two colleagues of ours at a major P&C insurer – Tom Hilgart and Christina Keener – developed and used this model successfully to help prioritize the training requests they received from various departments each year.
The model differentiates operational training requirements (the “cost to play”) from strategic training requirements (the “cost to win”). Within each of these, some training can be purchased off the shelf, while other training must be developed for the organization. The result is a 2×2 matrix such as the one depicted.
Moreover, they suggest, the learning organization should target a level of effort for each quadrant. A robust, well-functioning organization, for example, may devote less than 10% of time, effort, and resources to off-the-shelf, operational training such as desktop skills. 20% of effort may go to strategic skills such as customer service that can be provided via off-the-shelf courseware. Custom training will take more resources, and 30% of the learning organization’s resources may be devoted to custom training in operational matters such as an ERP rollout, while the lion’s share, 40%, is invested in strategic, custom initiatives that cover the business critical skills, competencies, and processes for the organization – the “secret sauce” that differentiates you in the market.
There are two key points here. First, there’s nothing magic about the relative percentages. In fact, establishing these relative levels of effort is something that may change year to year, and should be done in collaboration with business units – the customers. Second, however, they suggest that for the learning organization to truly add value to the enterprise, that it is wise to move as quickly as possible to a position where the largest portion of dollars, mind share, and time are directed at Quadrant 2 – strategic and custom training that directly addresses mission critical skills.
In application, the application of this framework was collaborative in nature. The CLO would meet with his or her peers in the business, reviewing their training requests and assigning them to a quadrant. Then line of business owners would have a seat at the table that assigned weights to each quadrant and, within each, determined the priorities of the competing needs.
Would something like this model be valuable in your organization?
Do you know what share of resources you devote to Quadrant 2 – teaching your organization’s secret sauce to critical employees?

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What will MITx teach us?

Last month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced MITx, saying “MITx will offer a portfolio of MIT courses through an online interactive learning platform that will:

  • organize and present course material to enable students to learn at their own pace
  • feature interactivity, online laboratories and student-to-student communication
  • allow for the individual assessment of any student’s work and allow students who demonstrate their mastery of subjects to earn a certificate of completion awarded by MITx
  • operate on an open-source, scalable software infrastructure in order to make it continuously improving and readily available to other educational institutions.”

We find this fascinating.

This development suggests that MIT has decided that merely offering access to content, powerful as doing so is, isn’t really sufficient to ensure actual learning. MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative, now completing its first decade, includes nearly 2,100 MIT courses and has been used by more than 100 million people.  That’s certainly a grand success using the traditional “butts in seats” metric. But because assessment isn’t part of that package, they don’t know to what extent “use” correlates to actual incorporation of the material to the extent that users can demonstrate some form of mastery.

While no MIT profs will be performing instructor duties, the platform design is incorporating social learning technologies, to put learners in contact with one another.  There are aspirations to create  “a virtual community of millions of learners around the world.”

This is not just a public service. It’s also research project. MIT will undoubtedly be looking to see how well various online pedagogical methods work on a population which hasn’t made it through  their highly selective admissions process,  and which ones work well for their residential population.  What will they find? That the gifted students who make it through their selection process can learn from any process, no matter how ill-conceived?  That the kinds of courses traditionally offered to MIT students require significant adjustment in order to develop mastery in students who don’t come to the subject with MIT grade intellectual firepower?

And of course what are the implications for those of us in corporate training? To be successful, training has to result not only in intellectual mastery of the material we present, but also in actual behavior change on the job.  We think incorporating opportunities for learners to reflect on the implications of training materials in the company of peers and coaches is critical to achieving behavioral change, because work is almost always a collaborative process.  Wouldn’t it be something if those smart folks at MIT were able to prove it matters for intellectual mastery as well?

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