Training Must Swim to the Current to Survive

Can a training organization be like a river? Believe it or not, there are some amazing similarities, and some shared characteristics require positioning, or re-positioning the organization’s value proposition to remain in the flow. This short post looks at critical need for training organizations to be in the mainstream current or prepare for treatment reserved for flotsam stuck and swirling in the eddies.

I live near the Ohio River, and from a distance, it appears just like any other river, arcing bends and a docile, lazy current. The closer one gets, the more revealing the true diversity of the river’s flow. In the end game, the Ohio joins the Mississippi to contribute to the Gulf of Mexico. How the water of the Ohio winds up in the Gulf is where I see so many similarities to the flow, or the lack thereof, of our training organizations.

In the center of the river, we find a strong downstream current. I do not see much difference between that powerful area of current and the flow of critical business operations. Anything floating on the water moves most effectively when it remains aligned in the heart of the current. Moving toward the edges, we find the distraction of crosscurrents, swirling whirlpools or eddies, and debris snagged on protruding tree roots.

ed⋅dy – [ed-ee] noun, plural -dies, verb, -died, -dy⋅ing.
1. a current at variance with the main current in a stream of liquid or gas, esp. one having a rotary or whirling motion
2. a small whirlpool
3. any similar current, as of air, dust, or fog
4. a current or trend running counter to the main current

Things that remain in the strongest current tend to be there not by accident, but by intent. A motor, a sail, fins, or flippers propel intention into the power of the current. It requires effort and constant course correction to remain aligned with the primary current. For simplicity, I consider virtually everything else floating along or lingering uselessly by the edges as flotsam.

flot⋅sam – [flot-suh m] noun
1. the part of the wreckage of a ship and its cargo found floating on the water
2. material or refuse floating on water
3. useless or unimportant items; odds and ends
4. a vagrant, penniless population: the flotsam of the city slums in medieval Europe.

I have chosen both of these definitions to make a point more so than spelling out what we already know about these two common words. The eddy, in particular, is a phenomenon that is all too prevalent in training organizations today. Using the definition above, I point to misalignment of training outcomes with mainstream business performance requirements as representing the variance with the main current. An eddy typically does not move downstream with the main current; thus, it is counter to the overall “mission” of draining into the Gulf. The whirling motion is the perfect illustration of remaining busy with training but not contributing significant value to the primary business mission. In a sense, we are stuck in the eddy of traditional training and falling short of sustaining the business, and it is not working well, nor is it working consistently.

On July 23rd, Josh Bersin spoke as a panelist in “The Future of the Business of Learning” and shared that an employee spends 4% of their time in formal training. My math tells me that 96% of the time they are not. They are at work – out in the middle of the river – staying in the flow of business productivity. That is where our training efforts need to focus. We have to break out of the eddy of traditional training and get out into the current of work to facilitate learning in the flow of work context.

Josh also shared that his company’s research showed a dramatic increase in the use of informal learning. That research tracks with the shift we see in the movement of learning closer to the point of work – out in the middle of the business current. The flow of work – or the work context as I prefer to call it, is where learning opportunities align with our workers in the 96% part of their world. I actually read of a new definition in the July issue of CLO Magazine – “non-formal” learning – coined by independent consultant Lance Dublin[1] . Here we go! You know a concept is going to stick around when new variations of name and definition start popping up. That tells me informal or non-formal learning are not flotsam.

Some training organizations get it, but they are the minority looking out into the current to see what workers need in order to perform their job of staying within the workflow. What they are finding is not training per se. It is a “formalization” of informal learning, or to use Lance’s term – non-formal learning. The CLO article also references a recent survey sponsored by the enterprise content management (ECM) industry association AIIM (Association of Image and Information Management) [2] that found the business use of wikis, blogs, and social networks for collaboration and knowledge sharing has doubled in the past year – 25%, versus 12% in 2008 . Do you find that shocking? I am not talking about the results of the survey; I am pointing at the organization that sponsored it (AIIM).

This is why I used the word “shocking”. I joined AIIM in 2005 and went to the annual conference held in Philadelphia that year. The ECM discipline intrigued me because I had already drank the informal learning Kool-Aid. I was convinced a natural connection and a wealth of discovery awaited within the domain of AIIM. Hundreds of vendors lined the convention hall, and not even one had anything remotely connected to traditional training approaches. No one even used the “T” word. These people were from a different place. Turns out, they were from “the current” out in the middle. They not only moved with the flow of business; their solutions sustain the flow of business. I was shocked that the vendors had no interest in discussing LMS installations or even interfacing with training technologies we consider standard issue. Granted it was 2005, but man!

I one of my earliest papers, I wrote about the concept of continuous learning and described it as a hybrid of three components:
Training – formal learning solutions
Information – direct access to assets that may include informal learning
Knowledge – collaborative engagements where best practice sharing happens

I share this because the ECM culture focuses on the last two components – not the first – not training. They did not verbally, nor through any of their sales collateral, make inferences to supporting learning applications. It blew me away. Then it dawned on me, eventually, that they were entrenched in their work context and we are not. We [training] were viewed – by what should be a sister discipline – as a separate business function with a separate portfolio of technology. When I asked the Documentum representative why this was the case, he said, and with no hesitation, “We have enough to deal with without adding in the complexities of training. We don’t get into those kinds of HR functions.”

My first reaction was to think how clueless this person was. I never considered that he looked back at me thinking the same thing. From where I sit, and with the increasing movement toward non-formal learning, ECM and training are like two bubbles of oil floating in a bowl of water and getting closer and closer, yet the transparent film that separates them remains intact. I still do not understand it. Maybe non-formal learning will break the film and two closely related disciplines will merge their synergies.

Should that “merge” happen tomorrow, I fear we, as training organizations, are not at a state of readiness to survive. I do not mean to imply ECM fanatics overrun training; rather, training finally comes around to the thinking perspectives of ECM. This new thinking is all about work context – the same work context where our learners confront their five moments of learning need. Our discovery disciplines need to become more ECM-like in that they focus on the work of business not just the knowledge and skills necessary to supplement performance. The discovery we need to acquire is desperately required to address informal or non-formal solutions we must deliver. We will not get there stuck in the eddy of traditional training needs assessment. The work context is out in the middle, and we are not. My suggestion is to keep swimming! If we stop – we will blend in nicely with the rest of the flotsam when budget time next rolls around. So let’s go – swim to the current!

[1 & 2] Executive Briefings, “Is It Time for Informal Learning to Go Formal?” By Mike Prokopeak, Editorial Director, Chief Learning Officer Magazine, July 2009 at

Gary Wise
Learning & Performance Solutions Strategist
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Twitter: Gdogwise