Confessions from the Learning Organization

For years, I droned on about ADDIE, learning data, and how performance required learning. Time, experience, and advancing technologies have revealed my sins. Here are ways to avoid committing or perpetuating those same sins.

I’m GUILTY! For more than 30 years, I preached the training and learning gospel just like many of you.

I droned on about ADDIE, learning data, and how performance required learning. Time, experience, and advancing technologies have revealed my sins. My reparations, in part, include sharing those sins with you, along with ways to avoid committing or perpetuating the same sins. Here they are:

  1. Learning is not performance.

There’s an old saying that goes, “Nobody buys a drill because they need a drill; they buy a drill because they need a HOLE!” Similarly, nobody buys learning because they need learning; they buy learning because they need PERFORMANCE! From that perspective, drills are evaluated by hole quality and learning is measured by performance. So why are you measuring learning instead of performance?

My sin? I conflated learning and performance, then tried to prove the value of learning with training and learning data, which almost solely consisted of learner survey responses and test scores. The only way to measure the impact of learning is by measuring performance change.

To Remedy This:

  • Replace the word, “learning,” in your goals with performance enablement, performance assurance, and continuous improvement. In other words, start designing solutions and capturing data that shifts focus from “Did they learn it?” to “Can they do it?” “Did they do it correctly?” “Are they doing it better now?” and “How can they do it better?”
  • Start capturing and reporting valid, unbiased, reliable performance data.
  1. Not everything is learnable.

Bryce and Lisa from Netflix show Portlandia famously said, “We can pickle that,” when given any object. I have a Master’s degree in instructional design and thought I could train anyone to do anything. Unfortunately, just because you can pickle it or train it doesn’t mean it’s edible or learnable.

The goal of all workplace training and learning is to enable workers to memorize assigned workflows well enough to perfectly recall them, then perfectly perform them while on-the-job without support or aid. Achieving that goal requires creating short-term memories, then moving those memories to long-term storage in our brains. Note that effective training doesn’t end when short-term memories are created; those memories must be moved to long-term memory, and that happens with spaced repetition—practice. From this perspective, you must ask yourself if the time you’re given to deliver training will allow sufficient practice. If it does not, then the time and money spent on training will be mostly, if not completely, wasted.

My sin was designing countless training programs to fit time allotments instead of designing training to develop long-term memories. To be fair, it wasn’t always my fault. When I designed practice into a program, my client usually cut it and said managers would ensure the new skills would be practiced. The other major reason for not designing for long-term memorization was because my accountability was not to enable, assure, and continuously improve performance but to build relationships and “fit” into the organization.

To Remedy This:

  • Design less training and more performance support (PS). PS will ensure workers get the practice they need to form long-term memories, as well as ensure workflow steps are always performed in the prescribed order. The data captured from PS can reveal continuous improvement opportunities.
  • For people who can use computers or hold devices as they work, PS can be delivered in video, still image, and text formats. However, people who work with their hands in sterile environments cannot safely, efficiently, or aseptically access computers, handheld devices, or even printed aids as they work. For those workers, PS must be delivered hands free, which means verbally. With verbally delivered workflows, workers can perform unlearnable tasks with little to no prior training and they can build long-term memories through spaced practice.
  • Stop believing managers will provide the practice learners need to move short-term memories to long-term; they won’t.
  • Stop believing periodic management observations occur and are sufficient for measuring performance; they don’t and they aren’t.
  1. Avoid trends.

Who hasn’t laughed at themselves over a past fashion choice? Maybe it was the ’60s psychedelic patterned pants, ’80s neon, or ’90s sagging pants. A quick review of most learning organization histories will reveal similar high spending on trendy technologies and theories. Is learning style theory your beehive hairdo? Is 70/20/10 your Hammer pants? The point is, trendy apparel and trendy training are expensive, no more effective than the classics, and generally hit the mothballs faster.

While there are many ways to motivate people to perform and improve their performance, there are only a handful of ways to improve or accelerate memorization, and they all require spaced repetition.

To Remedy This:

  • Use proven techniques to enable short-term memorization, then choose a technology that’s necessary for the learner’s environment and sufficient for providing practice opportunities.
  • Always begin your search for a necessary and sufficient solution with the lowest cost option. For example, if print costs the least to produce, rule it out as a delivery mode before considering more expensive solutions. By using the necessary and sufficient rule, you’ll never choose a shiny, expensive fad over a cost-effective solution.
  • If the workflow cannot be memorized, then use PS to enable workers to perform by following step-by-step instructions as they work. Again, use the necessary and sufficient rule to choose the most cost effective PS solution.
Bill Crose is the founder and CEO of Adyton, and inventor of the Pythia verbal workflow management system. He is the former global learning technologies manager of InterContinental Hotels Group and learning technology strategist at UnitedHealthcare. He holds a Master’s degree in instructional design, has two patents for performance technologies and another patent pending.