Three simple yet powerful insights about what effective learning entails can help managers team with trainers to unlock each individual’s potential for higher performance.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
Q: What word strikes fear in the heart of employees everywhere?
You know it’s true. People usually dislike training. Some of us consider it only slightly preferable to a root canal. The word brings back memories of stackable chairs, feeble PowerPoints, and a painful struggle to stay awake.
Which is another way to say that most training is not particularly effective.1
Yet consider this fact: People do like to learn and improve.2 We’re built that way. When we learn something new, our brains release dopamine, a feel-good chemical that tells us we’re doing the right thing.3 (As Winston Churchill said, “I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.”)
The basic contradiction here suggests that much of the time, effort, and money devoted to training and education is being, well, wasted.
Fortunately, you can take steps to make sure your employees actually learn what they need to know to be effective, in ways that make it a positive and productive experience.
This story is a call for managers to rethink their approach to employee training and development.4
• • •
Mateo is a program manager at a fictitious government agency. Let’s call it the Office of Departmental Coordination (ODC). Mateo’s programs are struggling, and he can’t pinpoint the reasons. In desperation, he starts thinking hard about his employees’ ability and knowledge—and the professional development they’ve received. Along the way, he learns three things:
1. Most performance problems are caused by learning gaps
2. People learn best when their training is tailored to their individual needs
3. Great learning empowers leaders, giving them the tools and conditions they need to learn effectively.
A great deal of adult learning research supports these ideas.
More broadly, Mateo’s journey echoes an ongoing debate about how to lead and develop employees. Training departments, with their focus on classrooms and workshops, are giving way to learning and development professionals who seek to nourish human potential at work. (It’s not a small difference.)
But this story is for managers, not trainers. Why? Because managers have the most to gain from better performance—and the most responsibility for their employees’ growth. Managers, not trainers, best understand their programs’ goals, the skills required, and their teams’ expertise and needs.
Because managers are the main customers of training, they must be engaged partners with the training organization. If you’re a manager and you know Mateo’s three insights, then you can insist on learning and development that engages and transforms.
Please share this story to amplify the call for change. And please enjoy learning a few new things—it’s how we’re wired.
Kevin Chrapaty and Andrew K. Stein
It had not been a good Tuesday so far, and it was showing no sign of improvement. Which was why Mateo found himself walking to a small, shady park near his office instead of the subway. He needed some time to think and calm down.
As a supervisor at the Office of Departmental Coordination (ODC), Mateo embraced his mission: to bring agencies together to tackle shared challenges. But he had struggled since his promotion, and his program metrics were a drumbeat of bad news: a 90-day backlog and low stakeholder satisfaction. A reengineering push and a few team pep talks hadn’t helped.
The conversation he knew was coming had finally happened that afternoon. His boss, Janet, had told him that she was on the hook for a $5 million cut in her budget, and Mateo’s programs were likely targets. He had to improve his metrics in the next six months, or Unfortunate Things would happen.
His only hope was something Janet had said as he walked out of her office. “Look, Mateo, if I’m going to fight for you, then I need to see an action plan by the end of the week.”
Mateo sat on a park bench, faintly stunned. What kind of action plan could he develop by Friday? How was he going to turn his team around and save his job?
Then he met a teacher. The best teacher he had ever known.
Out of the corner of his eye, Mateo first noticed gray hair under a scarf. He hadn’t even seen her sit down beside him. From a small plastic bag she tossed some yellow pellets at the few gray pigeons nearby.
“I must have tried dozens of different kinds of birdseed,” she said. He looked up; her voice was firm and kind. “This one’s their favorite—mostly millet.” She turned to him. “I haven’t seen you here before. What’s your name?”
“My name’s Rose Weston, but please call me Rose. I taught English for thirty years, and ‘Mrs. Weston’ was how my seventh-graders knew me.”
“Middle-schoolers? That must be like combat!” Mateo, thinking back to his own early teens, felt a little horror at the notion.
Rose chuckled. Two more pigeons landed with another scattering of birdseed. “Wasn’t too bad. People think teaching is all about control.” She shook her head. “Most students just need a push in the right direction.”
Mateo felt himself unclenching a bit. “You know, Rose, I wonder what you’d do in my spot.” She nodded, eyes on him. “I’m a program manager. My job’s in trouble,” he said. “My team and I aren’t hitting our targets. There’s this big gap between what we’re being asked to do and what we can do. We’ve got problems all over the map. And I need a plan to improve our performance. In three days.”
"98 percent of organizations with strong learning cultures report strong employee productivity—37 percent more than their peers." —David Mallon, “High-impact learning culture: The 40 best practices for creating an empowered enterprise,” Bersin by Deloitte, http://is.gd/bersin2
“I see,” she said, tossing another handful of seed. “Well, all I can tell you is that I tried to teach my kids how to handle the challenges in life—seeing patterns, reading between lines, expressing themselves. Every day I prepared them for adulthood, bit by bit.” She turned back to Mateo. “So how do you prepare your students?”
“You mean my staff?” Mateo grinned. “Training, of course! My agency is very proud of how much we invest in training.”
“Too narrow,” Rose said. “Don’t focus on what the trainer does, think about what the student does.”
“Students . . . well, learn?” Mateo furrowed his brow. “Training, learning—they’re the same thing, right?”
Rose shrugged. “Tell me—of everything you know that makes you good at your job—how much did you learn in a classroom?”
“Probably not much. Maybe 20 percent.”
Rose feigned shock. “Just 20 percent!”
“Yeah—the rest I picked up on the job or from colleagues.”
“But didn’t you just say that you prepare your own staff through formal training?”
“Well, when you put it like that, it does seem odd to focus on classroom time,” Mateo said.
Rose nodded. “It sounds like formal learning is your professional focus. And yet you learned about 80 percent of what you know informally—on the job or from colleagues. Any idea why that is?”
“Because, well, informal learning is relevant to what I’m doing at the time, I guess. And because I get to see what works with my own eyes, and get feedback right away about what I’m doing wrong.”
“Practical experience and immediate feedback. Very interesting. And so what would be a good way to develop your team?”
“A . . . new focus on informal learning,” Mateo said, as much to himself as to Rose. “I like it. We want to help them learn outside of the classroom. And so I need to figure out exactly what they need to learn—and how to integrate it into their jobs.”
“80 percent or more of corporate learning is found to be informal.” —Peter Henchel, Institute for Research on Learning
“And how would you do that?”
Mateo sat back, eyes far away. “Well, it really helps when I give my team daily feedback and new stretch roles. When we changed our event planning process last month, we coordinated desk-side coaches and job shadowing. And every week or so, we have a group lunch to talk about each of our challenges and share advice.” Mateo paused. “There are a lot of kinds of informal learning, when you think about it.”
“That’s right,” she said. “But I have to warn you. Although I said it’s not about control, it does take planning. ‘Informal’ doesn’t mean ‘unorganized.’”
They sat in silence while Mateo thought about ways he could bring more informal learning to his team. After a few moments, Rose stood and emptied the last of her birdseed on the sidewalk.
She turned to him. “You said you’ve got problems ‘all over the map,’ yes? Then maybe you should discover what these problems have in common. Let’s call that your first challenge.” She smiled and ambled off.
“Rose, wait!” She turned to face him. “I, uh, really appreciate talking. Maybe I’ll see you again soon.”
“I feed my birds every day,” she said with a smile.
As she strolled away, Mateo stared after Rose. He had his “first challenge”—were there more? And what could his team’s problems possibly have in common?
As soon as Mateo got to work Wednesday morning, he called his deputy Daniel into his office and explained Janet’s ultimatum. Daniel took his usual seat, notebook open and pen in hand.
“You know the score, Daniel,” he said. “Janet isn’t happy. Our backlog of requests is getting worse, and the satisfaction surveys are still mediocre.”
Daniel winced. “Yeah, our metrics show some serious problems. A professor I had called them ‘performance gaps.’ Makes it sound fancier, anyway.”
“What do you mean by a performance gap?” Mateo asked.
“Just that we’re bad at something we should be good at, in order to accomplish our mission,” Daniel said. “So, as the first step to fixing the problem, you have to figure out what those somethings are.” Daniel sat up straight. “Look, can I try something? Just a few quick questions. Indulge me.”
Mateo leaned back. Daniel was full of ideas. “Go for it.”
"Mission needs should drive learning from the start, and performance is the best yardstick for success." —Preston Brown, “Making training strategic,” American Society for Training and Development, April 30, 2012, http://is.gd/astdev
Daniel flipped through his notebook. “Let’s start with the survey results. First question: Why are we getting bad feedback from our facilitated sessions?”
Mateo frowned. “The participants must not feel that their time is being spent well, that they’re not seeing tangible outcomes.”
“Why is that?” asked Daniel.
Mateo frowned a bit more. “Because our facilitators aren’t matching what they do with the groups’ actual needs.”
“Why is that?”
“Maybe because our facilitators aren’t really understanding their needs before planning the sessions.”
“And why is that?”
“Because . . . they haven’t learned how to determine group needs in a deep and insightful way,” Mateo said. “It’s just something they haven’t learned yet. The root cause of this problem is some kind of ‘learning gap.’”
Daniel grinned. “All I did was ask ‘why’ four times. I bet we’ll find learning gaps at the bottom of a lot of our problems. Sure, our 90-day backlog may involve some process issues, but isn’t even a process fix a type of learning? People learning how to perform their roles better?”
And with that, Mateo had his first insight: Most performance problems are caused by learning gaps.
As Daniel scribbled some notes, Mateo considered the point. If his problems were due to learning gaps, then there were a lot more of them than he could handle on his own. He thought of the deadline again and felt queasy.
Mateo’s first insight: Most performance problems are caused by learning gaps.
“Learning!” Mateo said to Rose, back on the park bench. “I’m convinced now—it’s all about learning. Our problems are due to things we don’t know or can’t do yet.”
“Of course,” Rose said. “And what’s your next challenge?”
“Well, obviously I have to get my team up to speed. I’ve got to close these learning gaps,” Mateo said. “I guess I’m going to be talking to the training department, but I’m not sure exactly how to approach the whole mess.”
“Well, one thing is for sure. You’re going to need to partner with those trainers,” Rose said. “You can’t do it alone and neither can they. Start by getting their help.”
She turned away and scattered more birdseed. Two stray pigeons wobbled back toward Rose. Mateo said his goodbyes and walked toward the subway, lost in thought. The training department had never exactly been his favorite part of the agency, and he wasn’t looking forward to the conversations he knew he’d be having.
Fortunately, Jeff from training seemed like a pretty nice guy.
“Jeff, you’ve got to help me,” said Mateo. “I need to improve my team’s performance—and I need a plan, fast.”
It was Thursday morning, and Mateo was sitting across from Jeff, a branch chief in the training division. “My programs are at risk. My job, too!” It didn’t seem like a time for understatement.
“No problem, Mateo,” Jeff said. “That’s what we’re here for, with classes and e-learning.” Jeff was easygoing, like a tour guide always answering the same questions. He pointed at a stack of booklets in the corner. “Grab a catalog and pick a workshop.”
“I’m not sure something off the shelf will work this time.” Mateo described his idea—that his performance problems were probably due to learning gaps. “I’m not sure what I need, Jeff, but I’d like your help. I know my mission, and you know how to help people learn.”
Jeff gestured to the open chair opposite his desk, grinning. “Most of my clientele just grab a catalog and move on. But tell me your troubles and I’ll help you out the best I can.”
Jeff listened as Mateo explained his programs, his team, and the ultimatum.
“Many leading organizations are shifting responsibility for learning from training and HR divisions to managers—and to the learners themselves.” —Kineo, The new learning and technology architecture: Ten trends from leading companies , 2012, http://is.gd/kineo
At the end, Jeff sat back, hands folded behind head. “You’re in a bind, all right. But look, all I can offer is what I have. And right now we don’t have the resources to customize a training plan for your program’s missions.”
“I actually think we could save money, if we do this right,” Mateo said. “Would it cost less if we design a learning plan to focus on more informal learning?”
Jeff looked thoughtful. “On-the-job learning? Shadowing, that sort of thing? Yeah, it could be cheaper. We could replace those workshops with more learning outside of the classroom.”
Mateo smiled. “It just seems better and cheaper to have my employees take on a stretch or shadow role in event management than to organize a big training session.” Jeff nodded. “So can we do this? Will you help me put together more on-the-job learning?”
“Be glad to.” Jeff stood and shook Mateo’s hand. “But the next step is to make the plan. So . . . what do you want your ‘learning plan’ to look like?”
Mateo paused. “I . . . Let me get back to you on that.” He grabbed his stuff and left Jeff’s office.
He knew where he was headed next.
“So, Rose, how do I make a learning plan?” They were back at Rose’s bench that afternoon, though Mateo suspected it was the pigeons’ bench; Rose just paid rent in birdseed.
Rose smiled. “Well, maybe you should ask, ‘What does great learning look like?’ Do you remember our conversation yesterday about formal and informal learning?”
“Yeah. You said formal training is a waste of time!”
“Not exactly—I was a teacher! But formal instruction is not easy. Tell me: If you’re going to learn a new skill from someone, what has to happen? Do you just sit back and listen to a lecture?”
Mateo scrunched his face. “Well, if I get experience that’s close to the context in which I’ll be using it—like a simulation or hands-on exercise—it’ll stick in my mind better.”
“So it has to impart relevant experience,” Rose said. “Keep going. Your smartphone—tell me, how did you learn to use it?”
“My brother-in-law was staying with us, and he showed me how to customize settings and download apps.”
“So it was timely, then. I mean, you were learning things you could use immediately.”
“Yeah. It was great to have him there to explain it right when I needed to use my phone.”
“And his instruction was accurate, I assume?”
“Yeah, he knew what he was talking about.” Rose nodded. Mateo pursed his lips. “Relevant, timely, and accurate. You’re saying these are the elements of great learning?”
Rose nodded again with a big grin. “What would you call it all?”
“Well, we want the right content, the right fit, and the right timing.” Mateo was thinking out loud. “Fit . . . match . . . precision. I guess you could call it precision learning.”
Rose repeated “precision learning” to herself and then nodded. “Right-o. But don’t forget the thing that pulls it all together. Your brother-in-law was there with you, answering your questions and telling you what you wanted to know, when you wanted to know it. Don’t forget that. Great learning is tailored for the individual.”
Mateo’s smile quickly froze. “Okay, but how do I know the right content for each person? The right timing?” Mateo clenched his jaw. “Seems like way more than I can handle.”
“Well, you’ve made a good start, Mateo. You understand the problem—learning gaps—and you understand the solution—precision learning, tailored for the individual. But you haven’t talked with your employees. You’re like a salesman with a great product who hasn’t talked to his customers yet.” Mateo nodded. “This is your third and final challenge. Go speak with your customers.”
Mateo stood, his mind swimming with new ideas. What would he say to them? And Janet’s deadline was tomorrow—could he develop a plan in time?
Mateo’s second insight: Great learning is “precision-made” for each person—accurate, relevant, and timely.
“. . . and they could cut our programs!”
Friday morning. Mateo had just finished reminding his team members about their urgent situation—the backlog, the satisfaction scores, the ultimatum. Solemn nods all around the old conference room.
“But I may know what we can do about this,” added Mateo. He explained everything he’d thought about in the past week—performance gaps as learning gaps, formal versus informal learning, and tailored “precision learning.”
Jeff spoke next. Mateo had asked him to come to represent the training division. “It sounds like your performance challenges are mostly needs for learning, right? So it’s just a matter of figuring out the right mix of formal and informal.”
Remembering Rose’s advice, Mateo addressed his team, “Let’s say you’re my customers when it comes to learning and development. You’re my customers, and I’m serving you. So tell me: What can we do for you?” Mateo fiddled nervously with a pen; he’d never had this kind of conversation with his staff.
Caroline, a senior program analyst, offered the first idea. “Our backlog is too big because we don’t have enough facilitators,” she said. “Maybe the rest of us could help pick up the slack . . . if we knew how.”
Jeff held up a finger. “That I can do, in facilitation workshops!”
“But we need the learning to be just like the real thing,” Mateo said. “Jeff, can we skip the lectures and make workshops that simulate real situations?”
“Sure.” Jeff grabbed a marker and wrote Simulation-based workshops on the whiteboard.
“Great!” Mateo turned back to the group, “What else would help?”
Mateo’s deputy Daniel raised his hand. “Personally, I’d like to watch some of our best facilitators at work, see what they’re doing and ask them for tips.” Jeff wrote Job shadowing on the board.
Daniel added, “And I’d, uh, really like to have your feedback when I actually start facilitating on my own.” Jeff added On-the-job coaching to the board.
“Frequent feedback can lead to improved learning. In one study, rapid feedback boosted performance 27 percent.” —Terence M. Hancock, “Use of audience response systems for summative assessment in large classes,” Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 26, no. 2 (2010), http://is.gd/tmhancock
Caroline spoke up. “I know our intranet files pretty well. I could run a lunchtime session to show the team how to locate and update our planning templates and records.”
“That would be great, Caroline,” said Daniel. “I can never find anything on there, and it really slows me down!” Jeff wrote Peer learning on the board.
For the next half-hour, the team reviewed its performance metrics and spotted learning gaps that could cause performance problems. The group brainstormed formal and informal learning activities that could help close each gap.
Mateo looked at the whiteboard and turned to Jeff. “Don’t look now, but we have the outline of a learning plan.”
Jeff frowned. “Not to be Debbie Downer, Mateo, but who’s going to run all this? I don’t have time, and given the programs you’re running, neither do you.”6
Mateo turned to his team. “Here’s an idea. Why don’t we put you in charge of your learning?” Everyone nodded.
Jeff’s jaw dropped. “You’re just going to let them self-direct? Are they going to develop their own sessions?”
Mateo paused, then slapped the table. “Absolutely. On my team, everyone helps everyone learn everything.” With that, Mateo had his third insight: Put the learners at the center and empower them, with the tools and conditions each needs to learn most effectively.
Jeff looked a little stricken. “But there’s the instructional design and the ADDIE model process and the level 3 evaluations . . .”
“It’s going to be okay, Jeff,” Mateo said, with a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “You’re still our man for designing classroom training. But I want to move fast. Our mission demands it.” Mateo was wound up. “And this may be our answer. I need a little autonomy on this one, Jeff.”
“A successful learning culture allows employees and managers to drive learning themselves.” —David Mallon, “High-impact learning culture: The 40 best practices for creating an empowered enterprise,” Bersin by Deloitte, http://is.gd/bersin2
Daniel piped up. “And, uh, how do we ensure no one screws up?” A few other team members shot looks at him.
Mateo suddenly realized he didn’t have any concrete ideas on accountability for an autonomous project. Maybe this idea wouldn’t work after all.
Jeff interrupted the silence. “Mateo, when you called your team ‘customers,’ it gave me an idea. I once worked in corporate sales, and we used customer profiles to track our clients. We could do something similar for all learners, a kind of ‘learner profile’ that tracks each person’s goals and progress.”
“And what if those profiles tracked our skills and experiences?” Daniel said. “A 360-degree view of each of us as a learner. Since we’re all different. Would that make you feel better?”
Mateo was not convinced just yet. “I want each of you at the center, but I’m worried I won’t be involved,” he said. “Maybe we could sit down every month or two to review your learner profiles and plans. It’ll be a joint effort. Autonomy is great, but only if we can guarantee high standards. We’re in this together, guys.”
As Mateo’s team headed out, they chatted about creating their learner profiles—and finally making a dent in their performance record. Daniel whispered to Caroline, “I’m actually kind of excited about this.”
Mateo’s third insight: Learner-centricity—put the learners at the center and empower them.
“Managers who are not engaged in the training process may have little or no knowledge of its content, which weakens post-program support and thus the likelihood that new skills are attained and applied on the job.” —Dave Basarab, “How to get line leaders involved with learning,” Chief Learning Officer, June 19, 2013, http://is.gd/Basarab
“. . . and Rose, I even came up with a phrase for it: ‘learner-centricity,’” Mateo said. Rose chuckled.
Back on the bench, Mateo was telling Rose about his talk with Janet. It had gone fairly well—Janet thought that his strategy had promise and offered support to try it out.
“I talked to my staff as customers, and it became clear how to put them at the center,” he said. “Learner-centricity. Now Jeff and I will set high learning standards and give them the autonomy to get there.”
“You know, I could have told you that three days ago, Mateo,” Rose said. He raised his eyebrows and pulled a face. “But this is how you needed to learn.” Mateo began to laugh and Rose joined him.
She studied him for a moment. “I’m proud of you—so far. But you’re not done.” Mateo wrinkled his nose. “Now you have to see your plan through to completion. It may be tough. But if you rely on your three ideas, then you will find your way.”
Mateo grinned. “Implementation, sure. I’ll push my team to follow through on the plan. That’s not too hard.”
“Think so?” Rose said, with a skeptical look. “Mateo, you’re still not getting it. It isn’t enough to just change your class—you have to change the whole school.”
Mateo knew what she meant—the other managers and supervisors at ODC. He could teach them what he’d learned. Well, it could be done. They’d need to understand their learning gaps and find the right content and timing, always keeping the employees at the center.
Wanting to find a way to thank Rose, Mateo asked, “Would it be okay if I gave you a hug?”
Rose gave him an affectionate squeeze.
“Customized learning recognizes that learners 'come from different backgrounds, interests and ability levels.”—Darrell M. West, “Using technology to personalize learning and assess students in real-time,” Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, October 6, 2011, http://is.gd/dmwest
To the left . . . now a little to the right . . . perfect.
Now that the framed list of the “three insights” hung above Mateo’s new desk, it felt like Janet’s office was fully his. Although he missed her since she’d retired, he felt confident in his new position.
A lot had changed in six months. The backlog was down to 15 days—still room to improve—and his satisfaction scores were generally stronger. His team had changed, too. Three new employees had joined, and they had taken to learning on the job like naturals; two members had transferred out, evidently not comfortable with running their own development plans. As the new team was coming together, Mateo found he especially enjoyed the weekly brownbags for sharing challenges and rich feedback.
His programs’ dramatic turnaround had gotten attention, too. Other managers began to partner with Jeff and the trainers, now called “Learning and Development.” For his part, Jeff was preparing to deploy learner profiles for all ODC employees. He had mentioned to Mateo that running fewer workshops had freed up the resources he needed.
But, for Mateo, the progress wasn’t as important as his new attitude. Whenever a new challenge presented itself, he always found himself looking up at his framed list.
Mateo headed toward Rose’s bench that day to thank her again. He found Rose chatting with a woman he thought he recognized—a program manager from the agency across the street.
He didn’t dare interrupt the lesson.
Objection 1: This is not my job. My job is to deliver specific training modules.
Manager’s response: Every division supports the organization’s mission, and failure in one area is everyone’s concern. Our yardsticks for performance may need to change.
All too often, trainers measure success by whether a given training session seems well received—and not whether it helps to close important performance gaps. They should reset their metrics to actual improvements in performance. And this assessment can often be done more effectively outside of formal learning, in partnership with managers.
Objection 2: This won’t help. Our performance problems aren’t due to these “learning gaps.”
Manager’s response: If we dive deep enough into the root causes of most performance problems, we generally find a learning gap—something crucial we should have known but didn’t. Even “external” constraints such as stakeholders, finite resources, or limited authority often have learning components.
Objection 3: We want to invest more in informal learning approaches, but we don’t have the resources.
Manager’s response: You may not need more resources. Informal learning can eliminate some expensive training. It may take a budget cycle to reallocate training dollars, but better learning outcomes will be worth it.
Objection 4: New approaches can be risky. What if we fail?
Manager’s response: Our old approach to training is already coming up short, so there’s little reason to maintain the status quo.
Even if it doesn’t work out, failures can be useful. The trick is to fail small so you don’t fail big.
Imagine you’re an entrepreneur, and your first product attempt isn’t selling. If you act quickly enough, then you haven’t lost much and you’ve learned you need to pivot your approach. You may have to fail several times to find the right approach.
If you take small steps, communicate regularly, and pivot whenever you hit a snag, then the small failures can result in a superior product. From this perspective, failures may not only be acceptable, they can be desirable.
Objection 5: Other people (leaders, peers, employees, etc.) will get in the way.
Manager’s response: But everyone can benefit. Leadership wants to see mission success; our peers in the agency want their training budgets used effectively; and employees actually want to improve themselves. One trick is to go for “quick wins”—early successes from small experiments to build momentum and to show that your new approach really does work.
Interested in learning more about the ideas behind Mateo’s three insights? Here are some of our favorite materials about learning strategy and techniques.