Evolving Training Into the Perfect Hole

Internal – External Ecosystem-040722A colleague recently asked me to respond to a question that has been a source of constant challenge [for me at least] in my last three corporate training gigs that span about 15 years or so. I cannot imagine my experiences are that dissimilar to many of us who work in the business of Training. Here was his question, “What’s the biggest hurdle to getting stakeholders (employees, employers, clients etc.) involved and engaged with workplace training – and how do you overcome it?” Personally, I believe this question distracts us from two other questions we really need to answer first…and with conviction. I believe that answering these two questions will define an actionable road map to not only answer his original question, but do something about it…and with conviction.

1st Question:   How do we overcome the current training [paradigm]?

Yeah, I know, the word paradigm is just a wee bit overused, so feel free to insert something else. Truthfully, we [Corporate Training] have promoted a way of thinking and doing for years, and our stakeholders, be they internal business unit leaders or external clients, have fallen into line and walk the same parade route year after year with us. In other words, we are all as guilty as we are comfortable with the status quo…and it is failing us.

We have put ourselves squarely in front of this parade [this dilemma] by having effectively sold a concept to our business stakeholders that training improves performance. We have done so for years, and a lot of internal and external clients bought it. What we should be selling to our stakeholders is something much more robust that [insert new paradigm here] enables both workforce agility, performer capability @ the point of workand produces sustainable, tangible business outcomes. My point is not that traditional training and LMSs are the wrong things to do; rather, they are simply not enough. They are severely under-scoped.

And yet we have managed to leverage that promise of improved performance to gain funding for huge investments in technology, the most famous being the Learning Management System (LMS). I know this as fact, because I have done so myself…and more than once. There is no doubt that this approach we doggedly pursue effectively deploys learning opportunities in the form of training.  What this approach does NOT effectively do is implement learning. And that single fact is cornerstone upon which we have built our current paradigm. Training is a deployment function. Implementation is an integration function. The resistance to embrace this gap seems locked down – locked down because we are doing enough things right in our current [and comfortable] scope and charter so that there is little momentum to expand beyond those limits to include implementation.

Implementation happens through integration and application of knowledge and skills @ the point of work, and @ the point of work is where we find a catalyst that is a key driver behind the changing rules of engagement – Learning Moments of Need.

Moments of Potential Failure

Figure 1

These five moments were defined by Dr. Conrad Gottfredson a few years ago, and I must confess that they have been the most significant nuggets of learning I can recall acquiring in many years. The first two moments of need – the 5% or so of the 2080-hour work year where the workforce is engaged in some form of formal learning [training] – represent the domain where we have demonstrated our collective training excellence. What about the work context – the other 95% of the work-year where performers are @ the point of work?

What about those critical learning moments of need occurring downstream in the post-training work context? This downstream, post-training domain represents ground zero where the workforce is engaged in real workflows and their performance ties directly to the very real potential to create tangible business value…or lose it. Close real sales…or lose them. Resolve customer complaints and retain their business…or lose it. Eliminate the generation of material waste…or create it. Avoid business risks and corporate liability…or cause it.

If we consider the composite of this “pie chart”, we see a visual representation of our entire corporate learning environment, not just the slice we dominate. Keep that mental image in mind and consider the gravity of this question, “Which slice of the pie gets the greater attention from training?” Josh Bersin, of Bersin & Associates, shared in a panel discuss, “The Future of the Business of Learning”, on July 23, 2009, that on the average businesses are spending up to 80% of their training resources on the 5% slice of the pie. What then is left over for ground zero?

Can you see why Gottfredson’s moments rocked my world? Where is the greater potential to drive real, hard-core, bean-counter-acceptable financial results – in the 5% realm where we excel [and spend most of our precious resources], or in the 95% slice of the pie where we are MIA [missing in action]? Evolving the scope and charter to ensure we implement learning downstream @ the point of work is the path to overcoming the restrictions of our current training paradigm.

Why is there such resistance to evolve this paradigm to embrace where business value is won and lost? In a previous life as Senior Director Learning Architecture at a leading Children’s Hospital, I was stunned to learn that promoting technology and methods that emphasized moving informal learning assets closer to the point of work was perceived as a threat within the Learning & Development L&D organization. Platform trainers and instructional designers were concerned that this “new thinking” was going to replace their jobs. Nothing could be farther from the truth, but that was the thinking that promoted some of the resistance. Moving downstream into the post-training work context to support learning @ the point of work did not fit traditional instructional design, development, nor delivery methodologies. This new paradigm was a very real threat.

The real threat stems from not seeing the bigger picture – the whole pie. In fact, Training has a call-to-action to broaden scope and charter to the extent that they can treat the entire learning environment – edge-to-edge. This edge-to-edge environment represents something that is unique to every organization a dynamic, learning ecosystem. [See Figure #2]

Figure 2

The concept of an edge-to-edge ecosystem is so much bigger than the 5% “edge” we currently have nailed down tightly. As with any ecosystem, we find interdependencies and synergies as well as discrete microsystems that influence our decisions that shape new training design, development and delivery requirements. We can quickly identify these internal microsystems by business units, project teams, work groups, or even specialized individual performers; each having their own unique @ the point of work needs…and learning moments. We deploy learning across that environment today, but we do little to implement learning in the downstream, post-training “edge” @ the point of work.

Unfortunately, it does not stop there. What other “edges” should we support? Where does business value surface in the microsystems that include vendors & contractors who can punch holes in firewalls and cause serious compliance breaches in safety codes? What about consumers who injure themselves to the point of suing us because the instructions on our product were not properly reinforced? How well prepared are our out-sourced resources to stay aligned with our internal processes? The list goes on – and so does the potential to impact real business value. We have to define the “edges” of our ecosystem and traditionally that is not within scope of any training organization.

Why is this shift so urgent? Look at the economy and the workforce in general. How many businesses are NOT hiring back to pre-recession levels because they have figured out how to do more with less? Okay, let us stipulate that there is evidence that that is happening, but we have to look behind the curtain to see what that mindset triggers inside those businesses – increased velocity of work demand on an already lean workforce.

Greater risk. Greater urgency for flawless performance. Where? @ the point of work.  Business velocity has increased, and with it comes new learning needs demanding that they keep pace with that velocity. This phenomenon is creating something I see as a convergence, and this convergence is creating a tipping point that suggests the perspective on effective workforce development is being stressed to keep up. [See Figure #3]  Business velocity is driving an exponential convergence of learning moments – with work, and it is showing no signs of going away. In effect, convergence of learning and work draw new battle lines that are changing the rules of engagement for corporate learning.

Convergence - Tipping Point

Figure 3

I have experienced this convergence first hand in a couple of my last corporate roles. One role involved Training’s support in the launch of a new multi-module SAP system, the other, the launch of an electronic medical records (EMR) system. Both I consider being business critical, and in both cases, Training delivered an extraordinary effort. They deployed formal learning [training] to a very large and diverse audience of learners – clinging to traditional linear training paradigms. The training materials in both cases were hands-down, top-drawer content. The content was blended. It was rich with multi-media. It was highly interactive. It was all things that sizzle. It was the kind of quality that makes a trainer proud to accept ownership as well as earning accolades from glowing Level-1 evaluations. The training outcomes were consistently successful and totally validated by learner’s passing their Level-2 assessments. They met threshold criteria sufficiently enough to get their certification tattoo and their coveted system sign-on credentials. Woohoo! Mission accomplished – IF…deployment marked the end of a successful mission. Too many think it ends there, and in reality, that is where the real work begins.

Deployment gets you to the end-of-training celebration party and the three-bite shrimp, the balloons, the creepy clowns, and the face painting. A frightfully high percentage of system knowledge packed into the heads and hearts of learners evaporates as unreinforced knowledge retention almost before all the confetti is swept up from the gala celebration. Then comes something called GoLive, and heads and hearts that were “certified as ready”, struggle with crippled recall knowledge with some users settling for feelings of success when they can remember enough to sign-on to SAP or the EMR the first time. Now our learners are in their downstream, post-training environment called the work context. Now they are outside of the scope and charter of most training organizations. Now they are most dangerous and present the greatest risk to the organization. As Satchel Paige once said, “It’s not what you don’t know that can hurt you; it’s what you think you know that just ain’t so!”

Because learning @ the point of work was not supported in either of these scenarios on the front end, there were significant resources deployed to man a “war rooms” and answer calls from performers @ the point of work and fill the knowledge gaps left by retention loss between training classes and GoLive. Extra staff wearing highly visible vests walked the floor to respond to immediate needs @ the point of work were also deployed. Both expensive unsustainable “solutions” were required because the upstream 5% learning component did not embrace the 95% slice where real work shifted knowledge to flawless performance execution.

That does not imply the excellence of the 5% was wasted, but it does indict what was done during that 5%. The paradigm shift requires a thread of continuity between the 5% and the 95% and that implies design, development and delivery decisions that reflect a holistic view of the entire ecosystem, and that absolutely includes the performer @ the point of work.

The demand for flawless performance is continuous…@ the point of work. The potential for failure, mistakes, and tangible business loss and liability are also continuous…@ the point of work. Change is continuous…@ the point of work. Why would we settle for a learning environment where the opportunity to learn is any less continuous…@ the point of work?

I have written other posts about Learning @ the Point of Work and suggest utilizing a continuous learning framework called the Learner-to-Performer Continuum to structure learning to serve the work context. [See Figure #4]

PDR Learning Continuum

Figure 4

This post would soon become a book in order to share details of the Learning Continuum here, so these links offer a deeper dive and may take you further down the road to actionable ideas.


Second Question: How do we best position training’s value proposition?

Clearly, the rules of engagement around corporate learning are changing. Rising to the challenge will not only evolve the paradigm, it will take steps toward establishing a new value proposition for Corporate Learning. Do not expect that to happen overnight. To position value, you first need tangible evidence of value so that whatever you are positioning has value in the eyes of those whom you are courting. To capture this evidence, Training often needs to go to places where they are least comfortable. To survive and thrive in these places, one may need new skills – not in lieu of ones already in hand, but new skills that shine a new light on old methods. Here is a radical thought – try dropping the “T” word from your lexicon and step away from training speak and begin to use the language of your stakeholders. They live @ the point of work, and they care a great deal about sustainable performance outcomes, workforce capacity, and workforce agility. These terms and phrases are not just jargon to your stakeholders. Seriously, stick with me for a few more minutes, and I will show you how supporting continuous learning in an ecosystem plays right into these kinds of outcomes.

I had the good fortune to meet [and have stalked at numerous training conferences to hear him and his side-kick Bob Mosher speak] the gentleman I referenced earlier, Dr. Conrad Gottfredson. I refer you back to Figure #1 to the five moments of learning need. I do not intend to repeat that part of the post, but want to share a role the moments play in positioning value to your stakeholders.  Recall the five moments:

  1. Learning something new or for the first time
  2. Learning more of something
  3. Trying to remember or apply something
  4. What to do when things change
  5. What to do when things go wrong, break or fail

These moments of learning need serve as a benchmark when I address a business stakeholder to convince them that Training alone is not going to be enough to drive and sustain the performance they seek. Believe it or not, these moments have helped me win the minds and hearts of my own stakeholders, and I have successfully shifted stakeholder thinking just by walking them through all five of Dr. Gottfredson’s “Moments”. That simple conversation helped them connect the dots regarding how the phenomenon of convergence puts their success metrics at risk and clearly tells them they need our help to leverage flawless execution @ the point of work.

In order for these five moments to resonate for those of us in Learning, and even more so for our client stakeholders, it is essential for us to consider not only “what” they are, but “where” and “when” they manifest. It is the “where-when combo” that turns out to be a really big deal with our business stakeholders.

Here is the essence of that conversation. The first two moments of learning need align with that 5% I mentioned earlier. That 5% is formal learning – our sweet spot – training in safe, structured, controlled environments like classrooms, simulation labs, on-line, and/or some blend of all the above. We do those things very well, and our stakeholders see that, and, for the most part, equate that as where our training job starts and stops…end of paradigm, so to speak.

Here is what seems to light them up. We find these last three moments of learning need are squarely planted at ground zerothe point of convergence – in the volatile, high-risk domain of the other 95%, the downstream, post-training work context edge. Convergence happens at ground zero, and ground zero is located in the backyards of our downstream business stakeholders. Failure at ground zero implies direct impact to business metrics upon which those same stakeholder’s evaluations are based. This line of conversation enables them to connect the dots between the real cost of failure and that occasion when their workers [our learners] confront critical moments of need.

What they do not see is learning @ the point of work as a ground zero resource. None of that is even part of their lexicon. That is precisely why we must lay out the where-when piece on the table for discussion. We can accomplish this with two questions…

When do their performers encounter a potential point of failure?


Where are their performers located [physically/geographically & within a workflow] when that moment arrives?

The answers to these two questions not only provide us with background on the work context, they help us define what potential technology/methodology can support their unique convergence challenges, and they equate directly to hard dollar risk within those potential moments of failure.

Obviously, a just-in-time learning asset is not a silver bullet solution to every point of failure, but what about the ones that are…the ones we miss? Sadly, we are never far enough downstream to identify them, so it rarely, if ever, is part of a stakeholder conversation. Our job in this evolved role is to accomplish discovery around the work context out on the “other edges” of the learning ecosystem.

Are their performers about to meet and attempt closing a deal with a six-figure prospect? Are they about to make a critical decision on the factory floor production line where cleaning a sensitive $80,000 component breaks if not re-installed properly? Are they on the phone with a disgruntled customer of six years who is threatening to take their business account to the competition? Is an employee about to make a judgment call that triggers a million dollar business liability? Trust me when I say that your stakeholders know how much it costs when failure happens. They know what is at risk, and they know where the ripples go when a disruption takes place in theirs or someone else’s micro-system upstream or downstream from the point of failure.

Our challenge is to become knowledgeable about those very same things and to connect our own dots that address what learning assets “fit” when convergence in the work context triggers a moment of need. As a side benefit, having working knowledge of these indicators proves to be the exact source of performance impacts we need for valid Level 3 & 4 evaluations.

Does your current training paradigm have a prayer of addressing these moments? I would wager they cannot – I would also wager that servicing moments like the last three are out of scope. No one ever expected Training to service this edge of the learning environment. We never designed, developed or delivered our end training courses and classes to service this edge either. And that million dollar LMS does squat to satisfy the push/pull nature of performer support learning objects.  And that is why our value proposition is limited to what we can point to as evidence of our success – near perfect Level 1 evaluations and documented Level 2 evaluations [where we have them] that validate knowledge transfer. We can boast of “butts in seats” and hours spent training and on-line courses consumed compared to last year. Period. Now those are some serious measures of success to brag about when it comes time to justify next year’s training budget. [koff…] Not even close…

The value proposition we need to position is one that is hard-wired to tangible business impact…AND…endorsed by business unit leaders who see the return because they have experienced the return at their own ground zero. We cannot get to that point without evolving our Training paradigm into a continuous learning approach that embraces the dynamic learning ecosystem edge-to-edge. And that means we are building learning assets and serving up opportunities to provide learning @ the point of work.

If we architect the learning resources correctly, we will have an ecosystem where…

The right performers will have seamless, frictionless, and ubiquitous access…
– to the right learning assets
– at their moment of learning need
– in a work context-friendly amount
– in a readily-consumable format
– to/from the right devices

To accomplish this, I feel there are several areas in our current approach where we are going to feel the stress of change. The following thoughts are embedded with earlier posts that drill down into more detail should you choose to go there.

  • Training must be able to isolate aspects of performance gaps that a formal training solution can impact and those that training cannot. What good does it do to be 100% effective with training on 18% of the problem? In the eyes of our clients, training improves performance; remember? We cannot survive by effectively treating the symptoms when the disease is showing up at ground zero. Be able to identify true root causes and articulate what parts of the Learning Continuum will be most effective.
  • Your clients are not eagerly waiting for you to introduce a new paradigm. They already know your limits. Why would they call you to help when they know your solutions do not address their concerns? In reality, they are not saying, “No!” They are saying, “Why bother?” So you are left with the prospects of helping a business unit stakeholder that does not understand [nor cares about] what you are trying to do on their behalf…at least not yet!  You may have to go under the radar and do your analysis to make your point. I pulled this off with amazing results in a previous life, so consider Covert Consulting as a survival skill you should consider developing.
  • Help your business unit stakeholders see a different paradigm. Recognize that your stakeholders are in their own “micro-system”, and their issues may well be unique to the overall learning ecosystem. One-size solutions do not fit all. Own the learning solution that addresses their workforce’s moments of need. That means getting into their workflows and adopting a Discovery Methodology that includes identifying the where-when components of the learning moment(s) you need to address. You may quickly see that where-when also defines the technology most appropriate to facilitate consumption of the learning asset @ the point of work with Mobile Technology to facilitate push/pull learning.
  • Your workflow investigations will reveal visible evidence [key performance indicatorsKPIs] found ONLY in the work context and clearly define those moments that make or break real tangible business outcomes.  Whoa…did somebody just say Level 3 and Level 4 evaluation potential? What better way to validate Training’s value proposition than to point to tangible Evidence of Sustained Capability like real value creation, loss avoidance, revenue generation, and improved sales & margins?
  • Build learning solutions that can address all five moments of learning need. Do not start with the first two moments. Start with the last three so you can leverage good design practices that support “Create Once – Use Many Times” meaning the first two moments should be filled with the use of learning assets designed and formatted for work context consumption. Remember, we are not in a linear environment in the downstream domain of these last three moments, but there is nothing wrong with performers learning about the downstream tools they are expected to use @ the point of work during the linear nature of training during the first two moments. If a hard line is drawn between formal and informal learning, we should seriously reflect on Do We Train or Do We Guide as a worthwhile investment on perspective. You might be surprised where we could get more bang for our training buck by doing less Training and more Guiding.
  • Realize that having a kick-rump, turbo-charged, intergalactic, heat-seeking LMS is only helping with the 5%. Consider that you may need to Take This LMS and Shove It. You may need different or additional technology like EPSS Impacting Sales Training, different design mentality, and different development tactics to succeed downstream and even new modes of delivery.
  • Recognize that Building a Learning Ecosystem is an evolutionary approach, not a transaction. Recognize that there are skills that extend beyond those needed to survive using ADDIE. Surely, you will still need good ol’ ADDIE, but she is no longer good enough by herself, but be sure to hang on to her when you toss the bath water. Taking the plunge into the ecosystem journey should be taken after seriously considering that being ready to go down this path is not the same as being at a state of readiness to go down this path.
  • Our traditional training role is eroding by more and more opportunities manifesting at the “edges” in the work context. The problem is our stakeholders do not know that there are options like learning@ the point of work. Who is going to position that that is an option if it is not us? In self-defense and for self-preservation we must. We are becoming less and less essential in the role of being viewed and respected as viable business partners and sources of innovative learning resources. I see a new role emerging where Learning Brokers Force Training to the Edge. Are we going to be @ the edge, and if we are, what role will we play?

Summary Thoughts:

When you walk away from this piece, I hope that you can agree with me on at least one point – The rules of learning engagement have changed. All the bunny trails I have linked above take you into the nuts and bolts of lessons I have learned that influence my thinking and my passions for addressing learning environments as dynamic learning ecosystems. Twenty years ago, heck, even ten years ago, this was not such a significant issue…and for one key reason…the velocity of business was not nearly as amped up as it is now. On top of that, employers have seen firsthand evidence that they CAN survive with fewer employees. Doing more with less is not a myth. More are asking, “Why own the training function that does not deliver consistent tangible value?”

Evidence that supports this trend is right under our noses. Our stakeholders are not calling us. They are going to specialists outside for help. Training budgets continue to shrink toward zero. If you cannot show evidence of hard dollar impact, you are a cost center…an expense…these are not good times to be an expense. If you agree the rules of engagement have changed, then we have a call to action to change our engagement.

Seems rather simple in concept, but remember we are sneaking up on the “C” word, and Change can be a scary thing when the 5% world Training works in […and am just fine in that comfort zone, thank you very much…] just blossomed by an additional 95%.

Stakeholders I have worked with and shared learning solutions based on using a Learning Continuum and the five moments of learning need seem to consistently get it. As soon as they see our interest in examining their workflows and identifying things that impede their workforce’s ability to perform flawlessly in their work context, we get their ear. And not even one of them felt slighted when we never mentioned anything about training.

Those stakeholders have their success measured by things we rarely measure at Levels 3 and above. When we equip ourselves to inquire about those performance indicators and demonstrate our desire to identify what prevents them from generating and sustaining outcomes, we will get their ear. And that is where we find the evidence we seek to solidify our value proposition. When you get right down to it, our business stakeholder clients do not want graduates of our training to know they need a shovel to dig a hole; they need graduates who can get down in the dirt and dig the perfect hole.

Gary Wise

LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/garywiseprofilemyca
Twitter: Gdogwise