Bridging the Learning-Doing Gap: Rethinking Corporate Learning and Development

We all remember the concept of the Three R’s, (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic)?  Well in today’s world of corporate learning and development, these have been replaced with the Four C’s, which stand for today’s new survival skills in business:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving (making decisions based on information, and dealing with risk and uncertainty)
  • Communication (both seeking to understand others, as well as improving your own ability to make a persuasive case)
  • Collaboration (cutting across silos, forging alliances and managing diverse groups toward a common goal)
  • Creativity and innovation (understanding problems better –more deeply–and developing better solutions that are unique and potentially “game changing”)

These four have been researched pretty extensively (see the links at the end of this article), and if your corporate learning strategy isn’t targeting these, you may want to ask yourself why.

According to the highly touted AMA survey on critical skills, 75% of executives surveyed feel these are of growing importance today because of the increasing pace of change in business today (91%), the increasing need for global competitiveness (86.5%), the changing nature of how work is accomplished today (77.5%), and the way organizations are structured (66.3%).

It is estimated that we spend approximately $60 billion per year in North America alone, on corporate learning and development, which seems like a lot of money being thrown at the problem.  But what is the impact?  (Perhaps before we criticize the effectiveness of K-12 education, we might ask whether we need a corporate version of “No worker left behind”!).

Curriculum’s are Too Broad, and Too Shallow

I believe a lot of the corporate training is poorly conceived, designed and executed . . . a waste of money.   The way many companies approach this is to come to someplace like the Xavier Leadership Center with a list of topics that came from some form of internal needs assessment.  Then a curriculum is designed to cover all the topics for the amount of budget available, with many topics covered only in a superficial way (say a half day program).   Trying to teach communications or critical thinking skills in a ½-day (or even a 2-day) bucket results in only scratching the surface.

Learning Seldom Occurs in a Classroom

We can deliver certain concepts in a class.  Heck, with 40 PowerPoint slides and a couple of readings, you can deliver a lot of content.    But most of us LEARN it when we apply the content by ourselves in our own work environment.  If the outcome is favorable, then we may be inclined to try it a second time, and then gradually it becomes an acquired new behavior.   So forget a 1 day communications skills class.    Instead, follow it up with 3-4 days of coaching so people are challenged to actually practice creating and delivering presentations, writing position papers, or making a persuasive argument.    The coaching piece is the key.   When we try something new and fail, our natural instinct is to go back to the old way of doing things.   If a coach can help re-direct, or refocus you, thereby improving your rate of success, then you will be more encouraged to keep at it.

Sure adding 3-4 days of coaching time is more expensive,   but why not cover fewer topic s in your corporate learning curriculum and go deeper?   Your focus should be not on LEARNING OBJECTIVES but on BEHAVIOR OBJECTIVES.   Who cares if you learned the concepts if you can’t successfully apply them?

Consider Nonconventional Learning Strategies

If you accept the idea that a classroom is not the only place learning can take place, you are almost there.   Think about it, from the moment of birth, we instinctively learn by trial and error, observation, curiosity and personal experiences.   So shouldn’t we leverage ALL of these learning mechanisms?   So have you considered things like:

  • Formal mentoring and coaching experiences. Connect less skilled people with other more practiced individuals to help them develop new skills.
  • Job rotation experiences.  Deliberately assign your new talent to new work assignments that will broaden and deepen their experiences.  Put an operations person in a customer service assignment.  Put an engineering person in a sales assignment.  Make designers take an operations job where they must execute what they designed. They will be transformed. (I had a fantastic boss once who insisted I leave the corporate office and take some assignments as a factory supervisor, materials manager, and CFO.  All these were a stretch for me based upon my formal education as an engineer with an MBA.  However, he knew I would throw myself into each assignment with boundless energy.  While I hated some of these assignments at the time, they all taught me a variety of vital lessons that better prepared me for ultimate general management roles I would one day take on.)
  • On-the-job training.  Be willing to throw people into the deep end of the pool – under the eyes of an experienced person to guide them.  Be willing to accept some mistakes.  Learning-by-doing is very effective.
  • Live Projects.    Teach strategy, when people need to create one.   Teach LEAN when you have identified some processes that urgently need re-thinking.   If you want people to learn collaboration, then make them work with an eclectic group of colleagues who bring different skills to the table from different departments.  Then go back and for the between teaching and doing as the participants do real work. It takes a little more planning on your part, but the impact will be greater.  Here again, the key is to have an experienced facilitator to guide them if they start to get off track.

Think Differently About Choosing Your Teachers

There is a difference between teaching (delivering planned content), and facilitating (guiding people in the application of it in an imperfect world).   I have seen many professional “trainers” who consistently receive high marks from participants.   They are engaging, have many great stories, demonstrate enthusiasm, and make learning a vibrant experience.   They have what we call “stage skills.”    While teachers who have these abilities are fantastic at delivering content in effective ways, they may not be experienced in applying the ideas in practice.   Conversely, I have seen some extraordinary facilitators who could coach a group through live project, who are not so impressive in front of a class.   The different skills (teaching and facilitating) are sometimes mutually exclusive.   So my advice is to:

  • Think about what you are trying to accomplish (produce learning or change behavior) and choose our trainer/facilitator wisely.
  • Pay attention to the credentials of the person.   Writing a book about something may demonstrate knowledge, but does not always make you an effective practitioner.   Ask them about their work and consulting experiences and select them in the context of what you are trying to accomplish.
  • Consider that most of us have experiences and knowledge that allow us to teach others.   Sometimes your best teachers/facilitators are not professional educators, but could other employees, managers, or colleagues who bring a wealth of experiences to the table.  Make them a part of your learning and development strategy.

Remember: We Are All Born with the Ability to Learn

It is automatic and instinctive.  So why isn’t learning and development as much about helping design experiences for individuals and fostering interactions among colleagues that produce deep learning, as it is about organizing an array of classes?  We all learn differently, and learning should acknowledge that fact.   The choice is not  about the difference between on-line and in-classroom, but about bridging the learning-doing gap.

Other Resources

Workers of the Future will Need Different Skills than In the Past, by Lisa Quast, Forbes online

Critical Skills for the New Workforce, by Leslie Allan,

AMA Critical Skills Survey, American Management Association


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Filed under Innovation, Managing Teams, Strategy

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