Learning and training are entirely different things

I’ve been thinking lately about the methods of L&D that have been written and spoken about in the last 20/30 years. I’ve been writing this blog now for about 10 years. You can see the many topics I’ve written about in that time and they vary a lot. One of the consistent areas I’ve written about is the progression of learning theory and what we understand about learning. What regularly gets reinforced to me is that the design and delivery of training is normally what L&D is charged with and delivers. It seems to be more rare that anything close to a focus on learning is happening.

I get involved in the design of training solutions, and I don’t kid myself into thinking I’m providing a learning solution. What’s the difference, I hear many of you ask?

Quite simply this. Providing a training course is an information dump. It is made interesting and engaging and interactive through some quite helpful methodology, but there is little in the way of learning which takes place. This is mostly because learning doesn’t happen just because they’ve been on a training course. Indeed, many trainers will caveat their training with a variation of the following…

“This course will only serve to raise your awareness of this topic. You will have to practise in order to improve your capability in the topic.”

And if it’s e-learning…

“If you complete this e-learning you are helping the organisation remain compliant.”

A learning solution implies that the solution enables learning to take place. That solution could be any number of possibilities. It could be a coaching conversation. It could be reading a book. It could be listening to a podcast. It could be watching a YouTube video. It could be sharing your thoughts with someone else. It could be being incentivised to do the right thing. It could be positive reinforcement of good behaviour. It could be training to improve knowledge or a skill.

The move from a training course/e-learning to a learning solution is that you’re fundamentally asking different questions. Not just asking different questions, but also expecting different things from your suppliers/vendors.

Some of the vendors I work with and talk to are helping to advance a learning solution as much as they may want to sell me a training course/e-learning. They’re helping me to challenge what I’m doing and to provide more of a developed solution which isn’t just focused on the product.

And there are some vendors whose work I see and I understand that they are not interested in selling anything other than their methodology / product / ‘solution’. They say the right words when they’re ‘consulting’:

  • What’s your problem you’re trying to solve? What is it really? Is that the the right thing?
  • I understand your problem and can ensure the learning transfer will happen
  • In the training we can accelerate the learning so they improve their performance
  • We’ll design the e-learning so it has great UX and modern graphics
  • The e-learning will be bite size so it can be done quickly

Except these statements are examples of just being good at selling with the right words to sound like they’re offering something different.

And when I hear stuff around learning solutions? The language itself fundamentally changes.

  • What’s your problem you’re trying to solve? What have you tried already? What hasn’t worked before? What’s the right outcome? How will you get there as a leader?
  • Tell me about the way your team is currently working? When you’re done with the solution, how will you reinforce it as a leader? What processes will you need to have in place that you don’t now? How will the team reinforce their newly learned behaviour with each other?
  • How will this solution enable better business/organisational performance? What will other teams/leaders observe your team do differently they’re not doing now? What organisational outcome will improve because of this solution?
  • From this conversation, what do you want to happen next? What further thinking do you need to do? Who do you need to talk to in your team/amongst your peers/with your leader?
  • From all these conversations, is training still part of the solution?

This is a set of conversations which won’t stop in L&D. It’s a regular piece and is written about in many ways. Some advocate for training courses and e-learning like they’re being written off. Some advocate for resources and curated content as unheard of answers to problems we didn’t know we had. And in and amongst it all, many consultants are creating their own models, advancing their own theories and proposing new ideas.



What I’ve learned about getting buy-in

Relationships matter.

Over the years I get reminded of this at work in many different ways.

The way we talk to our work friends matters.

People get upset at work because relationships aren’t as they expected.

Our leaders provide leadership through the quality of the relationships they have with others.

Teams collaborate better because they have stronger relationships with some teams than others.

High performing individuals tend to be those who have strength of relationships to enable success to take place.

So I often have to remind myself that spending time to build relationships is a key way to get buy-in for my ideas and my things I want to get done.

And here’s some foul ups I’ve made along the way which taught me valuable lessons.

That time I was new to the organisation, sat through the induction, and immediately made judgements on what needed to change. I then proceeded to send out an email to all presenters from the organisation and let them know about the changes I wanted to make as the owner of the induction. I got an immediate backlash. I clean didn’t pay attention to the fact I spent no time before getting to know the presenters and their context and what they want new starters to know and understand. I just decided I knew best. Of course I knew little and had to spend time sitting with people and talking with people to understand their needs. From there we could move forward.

That time I decided the executives didn’t need that much of a briefing before an important programme launch. I was ready to just plough on ahead with my plan to roll out the programme and have the Chief Executice do the kick off presentation. I thought as an experienced business leader this would be a walk in the park for him. What I didn’t pay attention to was the importance of the briefing wasn’t to prep him for the kick off but to help provide assurance and context for what I wanted to achieve from the programme.

That time I needed everyone to complete CPD logs in a system. It was one of my first projects to get completed for the business as their new L&D Business Partner. I wasnt confident about what needed to be done in the system and had to try and corral very different teams to complete their entries. They didn’t know me and here I was sending emails asking for completion to be achieved or we risked losing our membership to this body. They did it and we got there but only because I realised I needed to spend time with the business leaders and get their commitment to helping me achieve this piece of compliance.

That time I didn’t openly share what I was working on and created distrust with my manager. I was going through some personal stuff and it was affecting the quality of my work. I knew it was happening and I couldn’t shake the guilt of not being productive and in delaying important deadlines and meetings. I eventually had a frank conversation with my manager about what I was experiencing and we could then have a conversation about improving my performance. That was hard and I realised I perform better when I let people know there’s stuff going on for me.

Relationships matter. They’re the bedrock of performance achievement in so many ways. I also know it’s a lesson I have to regularly re-learn.

The difference between delivering on learning and delivering a business need

As L&Ders we learned in our craft to have to determine the learning need. It can only be through identifying a clear learning need that we could build a course to resolve it. This was gospel (and for many still is).

What did this process normally look like? Asking questions like:

  • What skills do your team need?
  • What are they lacking?
  • Where are their strengths?
  • What technical skills?
  • What role specific skills?
  • Etc

And on the surface, these are good questions. They certainly do get managers thinking about the training their team members might require. From a personal development perspective these might be exactly the things to ask.

But what is still sorely lacking across L&D is the ability to determine what is the business need, and is a training course the answer? Too often the answer is yes, because that’s what L&D believe they need to prove.

But what does this mean? How do we understand business needs differently to learning needs?

It is very different addressing the performance needs of an organisation against its learning/training needs.

It’s rare a business will need a training course to address communication skills or project management skills or financial management. In those examples, a training course will often be one part of a bigger more organisational perspective about where it needs to develop. For example, understanding budgeting processes may surface several needs:

  • How to use Excel to format the budget data
  • How to write a report for the Finance team to audit
  • How to effectively plan annual activity to make good use of the annual budget
  • Supply chain management and how to select the right external partners

Most of that can’t be resolved by a training course. Or rather, it could, but it’s the wrong efforts of the L&D team to build a course to either deliver on those things as discreet modules or as a complete course.

The business need is for managers to be better at financial management or better at project management. So what it then needs from L&D is a scaffolded approach for delivering on that need.

  • What training needs to take place?
  • What on the job projects should people be seeking to achieve/accomplish?
  • How are people expected to perform with their new skills?
  • What will the business measure as a result of these new ways of working?
  • What data will help to determine if things are moving as expected?
  • Who in the business will act as a mentor/champion/sponsor to enable the change to happen?
  • How is the wider business being informed and communicated to about these new ways of working?
  • What tech can be used to enable things to happen more effectively?

Those are mostly business priorities. Very few of them will be a learning need that require a traditional workshop or course to resolve.

And it’s a fair ask of the modern L&D team. For many a year business leaders have been lead in a certain direction, and this move to a more organisational and performance based perspective isn’t an easy one.

L&D is not about simplicity

Many trainers start off with trying to distill models into soundbites for training. Into a model. Into easy to understand stuff.

I think along the way we confused effective training with being comparable to teaching children. If you can explain it in easy to understand terms, you’ll make a good trainer.

As you deepen your career in L&D what you start to understand is that making difficult topics easy to understand isn’t the aim. Learning isn’t a simple act. Its multi-faceted and it’s not entirely understood. We know there are certain activities which help learning to take place. But we don’t genuinely know the full range of mechanisms which lead to actual learning.

We’ve got to an evolution in our language where we can codify many different skills and practices. We can articulate much of what we experience. And we’re realising a lot of what happens in life is interdependent on many other things.

Life is complex. Learning is complex. When we try to simplify, that’s not what learning is about and nor should it be. This is in part why there is a distinct move to being focused on performance consultancy as the practice which L&D should be adopting. At work, we need to do stuff. Yes the learning is important, and there’s a fine balance of needing training, needing the right resources to enable performance, and needing the right knowledge and having it accessible through different means.

We also need to be careful that we don’t swap out concepts such as “micro-learning” as meaning simple learning.

As we grow and learn more about our organisations and the context in which we’re delivering solutions, what we understand is that learning solutions are normally inclusive of a range of stuff. Making training simple isn’t the aim we should be striving for.

Training practice I wish we’d see less

1. When you want to genuinely explore a topic and the trainer asks – what are the benefits of using this methodology? And – how does it benefit the person receiving? And – how does it benefit you?

They’re all nonsense questions. They don’t reveal insight. They don’t help explore the topic. They’re just filler. It’s most likely because of poor planning or poor understanding on the part of the trainer.

2. When the trainer isn’t comfortable with debate and they say – we’re not discussing what we’re here for, can we get back on track? Or something similar.

It’s really poor capability on the part of the trainer that they can’t and won’t engage in debate. The people may be going off piste, and that’s ok. They’re in a line of thinking they need to explore, and they need to express. How they do that, and how you engage with them on it matters. It’s rare someone goes into controversy, and more often than not, they’ve been alerted to a line of thinking they hadn’t arrive at previously.

3. When the trainer wants to gain ‘engagement’ and they say – raise your hand if you believe this thing I’m about to say. And – raise your hand if you’ve experienced this thing I’m about to say.

Dear. Fucking. God. Because the people we’re with are children and we’re back in the classroom? This isn’t engagement. It’s interaction for the sake of it. It does nothing beyond asking someone to raise their hand against a highly leading and suggestive statement. That’s not agreement. That’s called compliance. That’s not training. That’s called obedience.

4. When the trainer claims – I am so good at this, I know what’s best for you. You may not want to do this thing, but that’s because you’re closed off to stuff. I’m clearly more knowledgeable than you and know what you need. The trainer may not say these words, but everything they do intimates these things.

I hate this. It happens because there are trainers out there genuinely believe they have so much human insight that they can ‘read people’ and they ‘know psychology’. That’s just not what people need in your training. They want to learn about the content, not be told by you what you think about them. You as the trainer have no position of authority over the person in your training. If they choose to try stuff, it’s because they’re feeling safe to do so, not because you’ve demanded it of them.

5. On virtual training, a trainer doesn’t know how use the tech and they make claims about virtual training being less superior to in-person training.

Well, don’t try go virtual if you don’t know how to do it well. There are many examples of brilliant training being delivered virtually, and your opinion doesn’t matter.

6. When the trainer only has examples from their own experiences.

Because the world revolves around them. That’s why they’re a trainer, because they can recount their personal stuff, and after all they’ve practised their story and can do storytelling really well.  Forget that it’s not relevant or completely misjudged.

I’m gonna stop there. Add your own below yo.

Vulnerability in the workplace

In the work I do, I get to work with a lot of different groups and leaders. It’s a privileged position where I have access to senior people in a way most people won’t. Inevitably you find that they’re just as human and foibled as the rest of us. They have the same kinds of insecurities and vulnerabilities.

One of the more interesting observations is that more and more leaders are becoming attuned to the acceptance of their foibles and the stuff they just don’t do very well. Instead of being stable geniuses or providing strong and stable leadership they accept that they can’t do everything and rely on the strength of the team to help them deliver.

It’s the expression of their vulnerabilities that I find particularly interesting. They don’t demean themselves. Instead they’ve learned to have humility about what they struggle with. Instead of “I don’t have data analysis skills and that’s a weakness I’m not proud of”, they say things like “I don’t have data and analytics skills and I accept it’s never going to be a strength for me.”

I believe that when we have better thinking in a safe environment about our vulnerabilities, we can express them in ways which are free of judgement and they are accepted.

What I find further interesting is how management teams then react to opening up about their vulnerabilities. Most leaders I come across are not the critical and judgemental types. They want to grow and enable their teams.

When I talk to management teams about the level of trust they have with one another and how that enables, or not, how vulnerable they are with another, it creates two different conversations. On the one hand they’ll say “we trust each other”, and on the other “I’m unsure how vulnerable I want to be with the team”. That second statement is a very valid standing and I don’t seek to create forced discomfort.

One of the elements of trust is the empathy we have with each other. That when I have something to say it can be heard. I feel included. I feel valued. That if I’m struggling to hit a target or achieve a goal, I can share that without judgement. And in fact the team and the leader create a safe environment where I can express that without my credibility being at risk.

And I will ask those team members to share easy levels of information with each other as an example of the kind of open conversation you can have with each other. I ask them to write down their responses to: You Can Count On Me To… and Never Ask Me To…

Some leaders and team members are really ok with this. They know what strengths and values they have. They don’t have to ‘manage’ their answer. It’s clear for them and they know how to express it. For others, though, it creates a real moment of discomfort. They want to be seen to be able and capable. They don’t want to express what you shouldn’t ask them to get involved with because they don’t want to lose face or credibility amongst their team members. That small and very real moment of discomfort is important because it tells us about how we genuinely feel about vulnerabilities – both from those willing to share openly and those who are ok with it.

And a personal example I think is valid here, too. I often choose to be vulnerable with my wider team. I have been vulnerable with my immediate team and they give me strength in knowing I am not judged by them. We work through stuff and I nearly always have a way forward – even if that way forward is to accept the mistake or it is to do nothing. When I choose to do similar with my wider team I get met with different reactions. Some don’t know how to respond, so they don’t. Others have an opinion about my actions to date (or lack of) and let me know them. Others let me know they appreciate knowing more about what’s happening for me and they don’t judge me for certain decisions made.

I’ve done a fair amount of self development work in many different ways over the years, so I have a level of comfort and self awareness about my strengths and values and weaknesses. Like you can always ask me to be a sounding board for stuff. I’m really keen on hearing people’s ideas and where it takes them. But never ask me to be the one to do the careful planning or detailed organisation stuff. It’s just not my bag and I can notice some stuff and in all likelihood will miss not having thought of important stuff.

Its complicated stuff. In the writing above I’ve used varying levels of language to describe the kind of stuff it’s all related to. Credibility. Ability. Capability. Strengths. Humility. Vulnerabilities. Openness. Trust. Self-awareness. Leadership. It all adds into the mix.

There’s no conclusion of any sort here. It’s just to share my observations of how I help others to explore vulnerability and my reflections on the concept in the workplace.

Is there a right way to express appreciation?

It’s an odd question isn’t it?

It’s something that has occurred to me several times and it happens frequently enough. People trying to express appreciation for something and feeling they have to add in a bit of “constructive criticism” for “being helpful”.

We’re in an entitled world. And this is not a millennial thing. It’s a person thing. If you’re human in this day and age you’re pretty much gonna feel entitled to most things. If things aren’t given to us on a platter, we moan about it. We forget, very easily, that we are probably at our most privileged in life than we have ever been. For those of us growing up and living in Western economies, very little is unavailable. Sure there is inequity all over the place, and there’s unfair discrimination happening in 50 ways from Sunday. Just because we have abundance doesn’t mean we have things figured out.

The entitlement we have is at odds with appreciation. In fact, I think entitlement is the arch enemy of appreciation. We are poor at expressing appreciation well because we feel entitled to the thing we’re either waiting for or receiving.

When people say things like…

Had a good night out and Bob’s Bistro, just a shame that the cutlery wasn’t clean!

Had a good day at the theme park, it would have been so much better if there weren’t so many people there!

Cor I was lucky to get the train but almost missed it cos of all these school kids in my way!

About to receive the Nobel Peace Prize! Would be so much better if I didn’t have to travel to actual Sweden to collect it 🤷🏽‍♂️

Was so lucky to be seen so quickly at the A&E but left annoyed because the pharmacy was shut and have to come back tomorrow to collect my medicine 😡

You get the idea.

I see it happen so much. People are trying to express gratitude and can’t help but say something negative alongside it.

I learned a long time ago, it’s very possible to accept things as they are, and to be grateful what is present, not what is missing. I learned that my sense of entitlement doesn’t mean I actually deserve stuff. If I want something, I have to put the effort in for it. If something hasn’t gone the way of expected, in most cases I can influence that so it’s better, or I have to accept that’s what it is.

You can ask for clean cutlery and be very polite about it. You can manage your time better so if a delay happens it’s not a concern. You can understand people only work so many hours and they can’t be at your beck and call.

Moreso, I believe, it’s about how we manage our sense of entitlement. It’s ok to feel entitled, as long as it doesn’t turn you into someone who thinks they’re positive and grateful but is actually needy and greedy.

That sense of entitlement is strong in a lot of us. “But if I don’t say it then how will they know what I really think?” “If I don’t provide criticism how will they get better?”

It’s very possible to express appreciation without saying something negative. It’s also very possible and acceptable to give criticism when it’s solicited or when it is genuinely needed to be said.