Why is training the first to go?

Keep CalmI often hear learning professionals bemoan the fact that the learning function “gets no respect.” More specifically, when times are tough, I often hear that “learning is the first budget to be cut.” It is seen as nice to have, not essential.

How could this be? In a complex and rapidly changing world, don’t we need to staff our companies with people who can think on their feet, process data quickly and accurately, and make good decisions?

$170M Savings

We saw a striking example of the impact of a well-designed learning process in our work with the claim organization within a Fortune 200 property and casualty insurance company. The problem was that claim adjusters were not documenting medical disability claims using objective, specific language to justify their decisions. Insurance companies measure the potential losses from such things by doing random audits of files to determine how many cases they would lose if they were taken to trial – a statistic called Loss Improvement Opportunity or LIO. In this case, the LIO was three hundred million dollars ($300M) – five times industry average. An expensive custom eLearning program had been put into place, but it didn’t solve the problem.

Our solution was a two-week learning process that taught the concepts related to medical disability management via eLearning. Then, using web meetings plus discussion forums, we introduced a sequenced case study. Next, learners were given a sample file, and asked to post questions they would ask of the medical specialist in private forums seen only by them and the instructor. Instructors role-played medical specialists in a web meeting to answer these questions. Learners then documented the file (which had no “right answer”) using the SMART principles they had been taught. Senior adjusters served as coaches and gave detailed feedback on the cases, then another web meeting was held to discuss key learnings. The process was repeated with a second file and – if required for certain learners – a third.

Six hundred claim adjusters were trained using 12 senior claim adjusters as coaches over a six week period. Within two years, the loss improvement opportunity dropped from $300M to $130M – a $170M savings.

A 10x Increase in Speed to Proficiency

We saw a second example of the impact of a well-designed social learning process in our work with the underwriting organization of the same company.

The company had a problem. Each year, they recruited 20-30 college seniors to be underwriters and sent them for eight weeks of training at headquarters over the summer. Then they would send them to various field offices across the US. When they were sent into the field, all too often they would systematically unlearn the new techniques and best practices taught in headquarters. Senior underwriters in the branch – often in supervisory positions – would tell the newcomers about the “real world” and “how things are really done.” New ways of using information technology to research customers and other techniques taught in class were discouraged by old timers.

First, we created an online community for the recruits. Prior to hire, from January through June, the trainees interacted with an underwriting VP as well as program alumni. In the coffee shop they discussed the favorite sports teams and where to jog when they came for training; in other rooms they were able to ask alumni questions about the underwriting profession. After the summer training, when they got to the field, the community center re-opened and trainees were assigned to participate in it for four hours a week for eight months. Underwriting techniques were reinforced with stretch assignments and successes shared in round-tables. Coaching rooms allowed them a private place to ask questions and receive feedback from their mentors and buddies – graduates of last year’s program. Bi-weekly conference calls provided other round table opportunities, and notes were posted in the community center

I asked the CLO why he was continuing this program for the sixth consecutive year of underwriter training. “We like it,” was his response.

“What could we tell our other clients?” we asked. “Tell them all we like it,” he replied.

“Could you put a number to ‘we like it?’” we inquired. “Forty million dollars. That’s how much each of these underwriters was underwriting after eight months in this program,” he explained.

“Was that compared to – say – $39 million otherwise?” we wondered. “No,” he replied. “This happens to be the amount underwriters with nine years of experience in our company write, on average. And we’re getting it after eight months – over ten times faster than with our old methods.

What would you give to be able to tell that story to your CFO?

Key Take Aways

As you can imagine, these programs were not the first to go when budgets were tight. Why? Let’s look at a few key factors.

  1. The learning programs were aligned with the business. In the first situation, each year the VP of Claims had to explain why their losses were five times the industry average. Solving this problem was a key priority for him, and the learning organization helped him do it.
  2. The results were business results. In neither of these cases did the Chief Learning Officer (CLO) report on how many people liked the programs. In fact, in the claims training, pretty much everyone hated it (except the CFO). The results were expressed in terms that were meaningful to corporate executives – cost containment and revenue increases.
  3. Program goals focused on job proficiency. The programs did not focus on compliance. The programs did not simply make people aware of concepts and processes. The programs required that learners demonstrate the skills they were to use on the job.
  4. Learning was a process that took the time that it took. In the first case, the program was a two-week process. In the second, it was an eight-month process. In both cases, however, the calendar and seat time was what was required to produce the required results.
  5. The programs were social. In the claim program, most of the social interaction was in the form of focused feedback from coaches. In the underwriting program, most interaction was in the form of being able to ask mentors and other learners how to handle various situations.

Are we our own worst enemies?

In the scores of companies – large and small – that I have worked with, I have observed that training programs like the ones above are the exception rather than the norm. Instead, I often see the bulk of the mind share, budget dollars, instruction and design efforts, and learner seat time focused on such things as:

  • Creating compliance training that often boils does to training “so we can say we did it,” for litigation risk management.
  • Rapidly developed eLearning that is all too often a “data dump” from subject matter experts, with little focus on (a) the skills the new worker needs, nor (b) how to best transfer the required knowledge and skills.
  • The communication and assessment of basic facts, rather than a focus on critical thinking.
  • Training events (i.e. courses and classes) rather than learning processes.

It might be an interesting exercise to audit the efforts of your training department by asking the following questions:

  • Do your activities address the key needs of corporate executives?
  • How much of your training focuses on compliance v. skill building?
  • Would line managers generally agree that after training, staff can hit the ground running, or do they believe that managers are still responsible for the bulk getting new folks up to speed?
  • What portion of your training is assessed?
  • What portion of those assessments use the metrics of the business, rather than learning metrics (i.e. Kirkpatrick Level 1 or Level 2 results)?

Bonus questions for those developing eLearning internally:

  • What portion of your eLearning courses incorporates a coherent instructional design v. simply disseminating content?
  • What portion of your development and review process focuses on catching minute grammar errors or finding the ultimate graphic for a slide?

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TrainingIn the days before PCs were on every desktop, and all human knowledge available on every smart phone, companies had training departments, staffed by training directors and trainers, who executed training plans. Now we have learning organizations, chief learning officers, and learning strategies.

It’s interesting to think about the differences between training and learning.

Locus of behavior

The one that is most striking to me is that training is something the instructor does, while learning is something the learner does. We might say “I received training” – where ‘training’ is used as a noun, but when we use training as a verb, it’s something we deliver to someone else.

Conversely, we cannot use ‘learning’ as a verb describing something we provide to someone else. We can train them, we can teach them, or we can instruct them. However, unless we are from the far reaches of Appalachia, we can’t learn them; even there we would larn’ them instead!

Dictionary definitions

I don’t want to get lost in the varieties of specific definitions, but as I use the first definitions that come up when googling the terms, training is “the action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behavior.” Learning is “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught.”

There are two points that are of interest to those of us in the learning profession.

  • Training is specific – it’s a particular skill or behavior. This certainly accords with my experience providing training. Good training is training that has behavioral learning objectives. We talk about lifelong learning and learning to learn; we don’t talk about lifelong training or training to self train.
  • Training is accomplished through the act of teaching, or instruction. Learning may happen through “experience, study, or being taught.” While one may quibble with the exact wording of the definitions, there is a face validity in the notion that learning happens through a variety of modalities, only one of which is being taught.

What do we “do” in a training department?

I would suggest that, insofar as we think of ourselves as being in or leading a training department, we determine training requirements, design and deliver training, and report on its results.

There are robust methodologies for each of these tasks, including: Problem analysis, job analysis, training needs analysis, ADDIE, pre- and post tests, SMART objectives, training delivery guidelines, and a host of others.

The resulting training, when well-developed, has certain common characteristics.

  • It is usually event-based, with a discrete starting and stopping time – or in the case of self-paced training, an estimated number of hours to complete the work.
  • It has a defined set of objectives.
  • It has an instructional design.
  • It is developed by the trainer or an instructional designer.
  • It has a pre-defined assessment methodology.

Isn’t that enough?

If you agree with my proposition that we need to be in the readiness business (see http://q2learning.com/blog/?p=981), then while training may be important or even necessary, it is not sufficient.

It is not sufficient because you can’t learn to ride a bicycle at a seminar. The acquisition of complex skills usually requires a process over time, and cannot be accomplished during an event.

It is not sufficient because in a rapidly changing environment, key personnel (perhaps all personnel?) need to be able to respond to new situations, use new technologies, adapt to a changing social environment.

It is not sufficient because the training model does not encompass some of the most important learning modalities: informal learning, learning from experience, learning from performance support tools, mentoring, and coaching – to name but a few.

A thinking shift

As learning professionals, to add value to the organization we must be in the readiness business. To be in the readiness business we must shift our thinking out of the “providing training” box to enabling learning.

Only then will we begin to consider how readiness is best to be facilitated throughout the organization.

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Stop with the Content Already!

Table does not existWe have a fundamental category error in our approach to training that gets us thinking about the wrong things from the outset. This category error leads us to create training that is all too often out of touch with business needs and learners’ learning styles.

Content is not Learning

Not only is content not learning, but disseminating content is not the same thing as training. The bottom line is that whether it’s in the classroom, death by Powerpoint, or mind-numbing 100-slide eLearning courses, telling people content alone does not provide learners with the knowledge and skill they need on the job, except in isolated cases.

If content equaled learning, libraries could replace universities.

As I think back to my college days, one of the first classes I attended was on metaphysics. I had no idea what “metaphysics” meant, other than that it was in the philosophy department. And on the first day, Professor Roderick Chisholm sat on a table in the front of the room and challenged us to prove to him that the table upon which he was sitting actually existed. For every argument we made, he had a counter. And then he gave us articles in the library to help us understand what he did, and to propose counter arguments. But the library alone wouldn’t have been taught us what we learned in the classroom and afterwards, in the student union, talking to him about the meaning of life and other such subjects.

And this brings us to the fundamental category error in our profession. Today’s LMSs laud themselves on being SCORM compliant. SCORM being the pre-eminent standard that ensures that who creates an eLearning module using whatever authoring tool, it will work in any SCORM conformant LMS. Sounds great! And what is SCORM? The Sharable Content Object Reference Model. And this is the problem.

We’ve been in the wrong business. We’ve been in the business of making contentobjects. We are trying to make compelling content. Pundits tell us the content is king. And oddly enough, we have no standards or even a construct called a learning object.

The Light’s Better

There’s an old story about a man who’s strolling down a walk late at night, and he finds a young man sitting under a street lamp, looking extremely despondent. “What’s wrong,” the man asks. “I lost my car keys and I can’t get home and I can’t find them anywhere,” replied the youngster. “It’s ok,” said the man. “I’ll help you find them.” And they looked everywhere. In the gutter, by the railing, in the grass – but after 15 minutes, there were no keys to be found. Finally, the man inquired, “Are you sure you lost them here?” Pointing to the left, the teenager replied, “No, I dropped them about 100 yards over there.” “Then what are we doing here?” the helpful man asked incredulously. “Well,” came the simple reply, “the light’s better here.”

Unfortunately, it seems that all too much learning these days – especially rapidly developed eLearning – focuses on what’s easy for us to do and what’s easy for us to track and record – where the light’s better.

SCORM problems

If we agree that SCORM-based learning has, at its heart, a fatal problem – concentrating as it does on content, the question arises – so what’s missing? Certainly, at the very least, two things:

First, people like to learn from people. We’ve been doing it that way for 20,000 years or so, and we’ve sort of gotten used to it. In fact, as learning professionals we have a name for it – it’s called social learning. Unfortunately, since it doesn’t fall into the pre-Experience API SCORM standard; because it’s messy; because it’s not as easily tracked and measured; the typical LMS either doesn’t support it at all or very well, and it’s relegated to “that other stuff.” The pre-work. The post-work. The stuff that isn’t really as important as getting your ticket punched.

But I would argue that this is the heart of many learning processes. It’s not an after thought. And I would suggest that we must enhance and extend the LMS to support this within our organizations.

Second, there are many critical jobs in areas such as sales and operations where good enough isn’t good enough; where the company lives or dies by the proficiency of its workers. In today’s increasingly complex and rapid changing world, these job skills – the ability to execute on complex processes using critical thinking and adaptive decision making. And as one of my colleagues titled his book, you can’t learn to ride a bicycle at a seminar.

The most important jobs and the most important skills are generally learned by a process over time.

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Refrigerator TruckI was thinking about a conversation I had a few years ago with Richard Flanagan, co-author of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning. We were talking about the organizational training, and in particular, how so much training does not seem to be focused on business results. It reminded me of a story told by Wayne Hodgins. He relates how prior to home refrigerators becoming commonplace, people used to store their food in ice chests, and ice was delivered to their door by ice trucks. Within a few years after home refrigerators became commonplace, all these ice delivery companies had gone bankrupt. This was all the more odd since they used refrigerators in the delivery trucks, so they understood the mechanics of the new technology. His conclusion? These businesses failed because they were short-sighted about what business they were in. They thought of themselves as in the ice business, where if they had thought of themselves as in the food preservation business they might have been the early adopters of refrigerator manufacturing. What I came away with from my talk with Richard was the same question. What business are we in?

When we proclaim the wonders of rapid eLearning, it’s pretty apparent to me that we’re not in the behavior change or performance improvement business. In fact, it’s not at all clear whether we’re in the learning business at all, or simply in the content publishing business. And if learning were the same as content publishing, universities could all close their doors in favor of libraries.

So what business are we in? What business do we need to be in in order to stay in business during the next down cycle? I would suggest we need to be in the readiness business; and this may create as fundamental a change in our activities as it would have for the ice delivery businesses above.

And the related question comes down to this: Will the VPSales and the CFO be strong allies for you in maintaining and increasing the training budget next year? If not, are you in the right business – and what would it take to get there?

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Building Great Teams

My pal Miteamke Sellers just posted a very nice summary of the findings of the Games Outcomes Project on his blog. The project details the results of a survey of “roughly 120 questions” sent to game developers in November 2014. There were 771 responses, of which 273 were complete and referred to projects that were completed (i.e., “neither cancelled nor abandoned”).

As a project manager, I’m struck by how well the best practices detailed here apply beyond the sphere of game development. It’s mom and apple pie, this time with metrics!

Mike observes:

Here’s the very short summary-of-the-summary. Great, successful teams:

  • Create and maintain a clear, compelling vision of what they’re doing
  • Work effectively, staying focused and avoiding unnecessary distractions and changes — but without extensive crunching
  • Build cohesive teams that trust and respect each other, hold each other to high standards, but allow for mistakes too
  • Communicate clearly and openly, resolving differences and meeting regularly
  • Treat each team member as an individual — professionally, personally, and financially

So what’s not on this list? Two big things leap out immediately:

  • Having a production methodology is important [#26 on the list], but whether this is Agile, Waterfall, or something else has no effect.
  • Having an experienced team is also important… it doesn’t appear directly on the list, but if it did it’d be down around #36 out of 40 on this list of significant factors.

How large do these factors loom in your leadership courses? In your training organization?

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blisterpack (Mobile)I just had such a great Out-Of-Box-Experience. My experience was with a new desk chair, manufactured by SPACE . I ordered it online, so of course, it came needing to be assembled. When I opened the box, I got the usual assortment of parts and fasteners, with one brilliant difference. Instead of the bag o’ fasteners most assemble-yourself stuff comes with, the folks at SPACE put the fasteners and the Allen wrench in a nicely LABELLED blister pack. There was none of the usual scrutiny of a drawing of various screws trying to figure out which one goes where. They included a standard assembly diagram, with the usual steps and arrows for what goes where. But that painful ritual of digging a fastener out of the bag, trying to figure out whether it’s the right one by looking at tiny drawings was eliminated from the process.

It’s such a simple thing. It can’t possibly cost them much more than just putting the things in a bag. And it makes me wonder whether they might make other things I would like to purchase, just because the assembly experience was so much more pleasant.

Interaction designers work hard to make the user experience for their products one which welcomes users and makes their earliest interactions with the system pleasant ones in software, as well. But over time, feature creep and the desire to reach into new markets can complicate our systems to the point they no longer deliver the experience we once worked so hard to create.

A customer wrote to our support desk the other day, asking what report he should use to find out how his learners scored on a particular learning activity. He’s been with us for some time. The report he has used for years to pull this information is still on his system. But a recent upgrade pushed it to the “additional reports” page and off the main page of his dashboard, and he never has learned the (fairly long and complex) name of the thing, he’s just been used to pulling that report that starts with an “L” from the middle of his report list. We were able to point him to the report, and offered to put it back on his dashboard. In response, he asked “Is there any talk about making report names more intuitive?”


We struggle a LOT with labelling, in part because different organizations often use very different terms to talk about the elements of a learning experience. We recognize that what is “intuitive” to the software designer and the developer may not be intuitive to the user, so we do talk to our customers about what they call things. We even change our nomenclature as the term of art in the field changes – which then makes it hard for users who have accommodated to the previous naming scheme to find things in the new order of the ages. We also make it possible for organizations to customize the nomenclature to the org – but that can raise support issues since our support staff tends not to be versed in specialized customer nomenclature.

So it makes my heart sing to receive this blister pack, in which they eschewed using whatever technical jargon might differentiate the different fasteners in favor of the very intuitive “Screws for Armrest.” And it makes me wonder what we can do to make our user experiences similar.


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Where is your ESI?

WhereIsYourDataIf you are like many readers (and this author!) your may first need to find out “What the heck is ESI?” Electronically Stored Information is what the lawyers call all that stuff we knowledge workers produce that lives on our local machines, in the corporate network, in the cloud, and these days, on wearable devices.

Jonathan Swerdloff makes a compelling argument that a wise organization will take the time to compile a data map – “a document or series of documents that identify the who, what, and where of the ESI held by an organization.” Swerdloff, an attorney, sees this as necessary preparation for the day that an organization faces litigation. He points out that putting this document together requires a level of due diligence which probably extends to surveying employees, who may be storing organizational information in places unknown to the IT department.

But really, putting this document together has a strategic purpose, as well. So many of us are on multi-organizational teams these days, and those teams choose a wide range of places to share information.  It’s probably important to find out who, if anybody, is storing project information in a partner org’s system or in Basecamp, shared documents in Dropbox or Google Docs, or meeting notes in the chat logs at GChat or Skype.

Even people whose work is entirely within the organization may be storing information elsewhere. When the priority is to get the work done, many choose to request forgiveness later, rather than ask permission up front to use a cloud-based tool. And of course, a simple misconfiguration can result in critical emails going out under an employee’s personal, rather than corporate account.

Creating the data map may well expose some deficits in the organizational toolbox. If you find that your most effective employees are using tools you are not managing, it may be time to bring some of that capacity into your organization.

We’ve been providing role-based training, team discussion and file space to organizations for over a decade now. We’d love to help you simplify your data map. Contact us at sales@q2learning.com

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predictiveanalyticsThe folks at Bersin by Deloitte have a brief out about how talent analytics can be harnessed to improve decision making in the human resources arena. They’ve taken a look at some of the new predictive analytics products designed to model retention, performance, leadership and succession planning, and career planning.

Wisely, Bersin cautions HR Leaders to

  • Validate the accuracy of the predictive models over time and within different segments of the employee population.
  • Look for solutions that reveal the factors related to predictions and establish talent initiatives based on the relevant factors (e.g., initiatives designed to reduce turnover).
  • Make sure to check the quality of the data being fed into the model and work to improve data quality over time.
  • Put in place programs to help managers and HR staff to correctly interpret and act upon the data and predictions

It’s in this last area that I think the learning organization needs to be pro-active. Data is terrific, but managing to new numbers requires a lot more than just an introduction to the new dashboard. Conscientious managers will want to understand just what is captured and not captured in the new models. The organization will need the feedback from the field on where the model fails to capture unique aspects of the operation. Modelling, done well, is an iterative process. Therefore, so must be our training in how to use it.

An organization we know is planning to encourage (and capture!) informal learning around this culture change by presenting the new dashboards in the context of a software platform which also features space for forum discussions about the numbers and what they mean. They plan to sponsor periodic conversations about how the modeling assumptions are arrived at, and what it means, operationally, when a manager’s results show her performing above or below the mean, and to encourage managers to share their success stories in “moving the needle”.

How do you plan to attend to the human side of incorporating the new analytics? We can help! Contact us at sales@q2learning.com.

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virtual conferencingI recently picked up a copy of Harvard Business Review’s Ten Must-Reads On Teams.

Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson note in Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams that teams are getting larger, more complex, and more virtual, and that each of these factors mitigates AGAINST successful collaboration. Virtual teams do not witness the highly collaborative behavior of senior executives, nor do they have the opportunity to forge relationships by catching lunch together in the beautiful company cafeteria.  Gratton and Erickson observe:

We found some surprises: for example, that the type of reward system—whether based on team or individual achievement, or tied explicitly to collaborative behavior or not—had no discernible effect on complex teams’ productivity and innovation. Although most formal HR programs appeared to have limited impact, we found that two practices did improve team performance: training in skills related to collaborative behavior, and support for informal community building. Where collaboration was strong, the HR team had typically made a significant investment in one or both of thosepractices—often in ways that uniquely represented the company’s culture and business strategy.

As learning organizations, we can support our teams by making available training opportunities in building soft skills, which these days need to also cover how to communicate effectively using the more attenuated sensory channels –telephone, email, video conferencing, discussion sites — available to our virtual teams.

We can also make available online space for more casual interaction. Being able to show off baby pictures at the lunch table makes a difference – and it can also be done in the team microblog, if we are making one available.

Does your training platform enable learners to practice electronic communication skills? Ours does. We’d love to talk to you about it — drop us a line at sales@q2learning.com

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Learning Ties into the Business!

ideaimplementationresultsLike many of you, I receive a lot of invitations to industry conferences.  These days, it’s fashionable to include a video of people talking about the conference and how cool it is.    I don’t usually click, preferring to get this sort of information via text, but today, for some reason, I watched the video.

I was taken aback by the assertion by one individual extolling the benefits of this meeting that one thing this conference will do that isn’t done very often is to “talk about how it [learning] ties into the business.”

She’s right, of course.  We learning folks are not immune to the siloing which makes us crazy when we’re trying to leverage our efforts across the organization.  That we gather to talk about technologies and processes pretty frequently in venues where organizational strategy is not addressed is a prime sign of that.

I understand that conference organizers want large audiences, and that targeting particular organizational strategies as topics would likely narrow things down too much.

It’s effortful to integrate with the strategies in place in various divisions of our org, and hard to talk about it generally in a conference. But seriously, if our efforts are NOT plugged very directly into the strategic initiatives in our orgs, what the heck are we doing? And of what possible value could it be?

I have a theory that in the very best-run organizations, it’s difficult to tease out ROI for the training initiatives.  That’s because when an org is closely coordinating its efforts, an initiative will include changes to capital investment, staffing, and training.  And it will be very difficult to slice out which of these aspects is more responsible for the outcome than the others.

Are you up to speed on the top-priority strategic initiatives in your organization?  Are your learning folks actively involved in supporting them? If not, why not?

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