Companies are spending more than $150 billion on training and development, or over $1,000 per person.

Are we getting any value for that amount of money? If you ask the people responsible for putting that money into action and the business leaders responsible for their results they are actually aligned. They think the money is likely wasted:

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I’ve seen many training & development programs start in the same way:

“We need to train people on how to manage up”

This type of starting point is focused on providing a solution to something that may not clearly be a problem — is the manager the person that really needs to be trained? Why are people expected to “manage up”?

Regardless — someone goes off and created a training program for people to sit through. Since the organization is not aligned and obsessed with creating great training programs, someone goes off and teaches people on how to do something. Often the training is just a series of conventional practices that people accept as the best way to do things and pitfalls to avoid — often that person’s pet peeves rather than anything rooted in the science of human motivation and learning.

I am guilty too. I joined the faculty of the learning team while I was working at Boston Consulting Group. I helped to redesign some of the content for a couple of the sections to highlight areas I felt were important. I was disappointed when I facilitated the session and the participants were less than energetic. I never wanted to be the person that took energy out of the room — but alas, there I was.

“People Working at Their Best” & Anxiety

I’ve spent a lot more time since sinking into the research behind learning and have realized that whether or not to create a new training program is often the wrong question. The right question is to understand whether or not you organization aspires to be a learning organization. Peter Senge who helped to popularize the term “learning organization” prefers to avoid this jargon-laced term and instead urges peopleto think about “people working together at their best.

Most organizations and leaders would agree that they want to achieve this goal. But their behavior and beliefs undermine this over and over. There is a tendency towards centralization and control that is in direct contrast to the conditions that enable a learning organization. Senge talks about the idea of the leader as teacher: ““Leader as teacher” is not about “teaching” people how to achieve their vision. It is about fostering learning, for everyone. Such leaders help people throughout the organization develop systemic understandings”

Another professor from MIT, Edgar Schein, has studied organizations for decades. He found that the key to becoming a learning organization has to do with anxiety. This may scare you, but he felt there was a good and bad kind of anxiety. The bad kind is what he called “learning anxiety” — this is when you are scared to try something new for fear of not succeeding or looking silly. Too many organizations and leaders reinforce this type of anxiety by not making it safe for people to fail or continually reinforcing the current way of doing things.

The second and more productive anxiety was what he called “survival anxiety” this is when you are afraid to not to learn a new skill for fear of not keeping up with competition or you might lose your job for not growing. Many organizations struggle with creating a culture around this because it means having to make some hard decisions — including getting rid of low performers.

Myths of Learning

We have a lot of bad ideas when it comes to learning. Here are a few bad ideas:

  • Students have different learning styles
  • Humans use only 10% of their brains
  • People are “right-brained” or “left-brained”
  • Novices and experts think differently

What are some better ideas? The factors that matter are the beliefs of the individual (or a growth mindset as Carol Dweck calls it), praising effort rather than “abilities”, focusing on learning goals rather than outcomes and giving feedback that is paired with a belief in the individual and their ability to meet high standards.

Getting Past “Modishness” & Owning Our Own Path

In my research into the science of learning, I stumbled on the word “modishness.” The definition is simply:

“conforming with what is fashionable or stylish”

Today’s organizations are plagued with modishness and it makes sense. You are not going to get fired for doing what every other organization is doing. You may, however, get fired for carving your own path. That could include following the science how how people learn.

We need more courage from our leaders to stop being so modish, but we also need a mindset shift in the workforce. We cannot expect our learning to come from organizations. Expecting our education from the first 22 years of our life to enable us to succeed at age 40 is absurd. Similarly, expecting the organization you work for to perfectly prepare you for the future is almost just as crazy. Heather McGowan created a killer PowerPoint graphic (jealous of her skills!) to bring this to life in her incredible article “Preparing Students to Lose Their Jobs”:

Learning is vital in today’s economy and building a career where you can thrive. Similarly, organizations will have to foster a learning culture, but it will require thinking past current paradigms of leadership and how an organization should look and run. The good news is there is billions of dollars being spent on learning already. If we can shift that money to training and development aligned with the science of what enables people to thrive, we can unlock huge potential in today’s world.”



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