The problem with learning


15 years ago, I delivered a delegation workshop to some hungry new managers.

At the close, a broad smile spread across my face as I basked in the glory of the glowing feedback; Vin, a particularly motivated learner, had written:

“BEST course ever! FANTASTIC trainer! Going away with lots of tools that I’m going to practise with my team straight away. I’ll let you know how I get on!”

Days and weeks passed. Vin didn’t write. Vin didn’t call. So I tracked him down, eager to discover how I had helped transform his life.

“Ah yes!” – a slightly frazzled Vin remembered that he’d been on a course. He’d really enjoyed it. But that was it. He’d done nothing. He’d been too busy. All I’d done was waste eight hours of his time.

You’re thinking, ‘“No surprise there. Sounds like a fairly standard course. Happy sheets? 15 years ago! Things have moved on”. And you’re right. But the Problem hasn’t gone away. The Problem with Learning is persistent, pervasive and dangerous. And it’s lurking, right now, in your organisation.

Learning & (not) Development

So, what is the Problem? In L&D, we still focus largely on learning, not development. And learning without adequate development won’t create impact; acquiring the knowledge and skills to throw a javelin is useless if you don’t regularly practise it and can’t do it in the heat of competition, when it counts (obligatory Rio 2016 analogy). The goal is changing behaviour to improve performance. But we generally don’t talk about behavioural change. And real change rarely happens.

In the UK, we spend £45 billion on learning each year. But only 30% of organisations report improved productivity and engagement from their L&D initiatives.

So why is this happening? Here are some reasons:

  • We’re trying to change behaviour that’s not crucial to business results – 75% of organisations say L&D isn’t fully integrated with the business strategy

  • Managers are not involved enough in supporting behavioural change. Only 5% of employees work in a ‘productive learning environment’ - fair, open, relevant, safe, and clear, despite such environments increasing productivity by up to 14%

  • Learning isn’t relevant, personal or aligned with career aspirations. There is often no link with an individual’s intrinsic motivation and only 26% of Heads of L&D say that learning aligns with career goals

  • Employees are overwhelmed, distracted and impatient – 1% of a typical week is all they have to focus on development, so we need to make it easier for people to apply new behaviours

Changing behaviour and habit is hard and takes time. But there are solutions and we know what they are - we’re learning much from behavioural science; have a look at Caroline Marsh’s excellent blog here.

I’m sure you’re tackling this problem too. Let us know what’s worked and we’ll share it here, along with our own research.

Ben Waldman