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Lessons for L&D: How we've forgotten the essentials pt1

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25th Mar 2013
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Andrew Jackson has a few words to say about organisational and instructional design.

In the film 'Plenty', Meryl Streep plays Susan Traherne, the slightly unhinged wife of a hapless diplomat who finds himself caught in the political crossfire of the Suez Crisis. As a result, he is pushed into a dead-end, pen-pushing role. Streep’s character hot foots it to the Foreign Office to plead with her hubby’s boss. His demotion is a terrible humiliation, she argues, and something must be done. With all the aristocratic disdain that only a senior diplomat in the Foreign Office could muster, the boss replies, "Mrs Traherne, if we had really wished to humiliate your husband, we would have assigned him to town twinning".

I mention this exchange, because for those of us sincerely devoted to the cause of improving organisational learning, it can sometimes feel like we have been assigned to town twinning. Our 'town-twinning status' is often attributed to organisations just not 'getting' training. Or to their meanness -  too cheap to spend serious money on it – with profits always coming first.

In some organisations, both points might be true. But you still have to ask yourself, why do organisations get to a place where learning is perceived to have so little value? Especially at a time when it’s never been easier to provide a whole range of ways to learn. But having a range of learning options is actually part of the problem, because so much choice allows us to obsess endlessly about the pros and cons of different types of learning: classroom, elearning, mobile – whatever.

We expend untold energy choosing the best systems and tools. We go through agonies making the case for our choices. And we sweat buckets implementing them and learning how to use their features. But what’s the most important thing we lose sight of in all this? The actual learning event and whether it delivers measurable benefits or improvements to the overall performance of the organisation.

"Why do organisations get to a place where learning is perceived to have so little value? Especially at a time when it’s never been easier to provide a whole range of ways to learn."

When you strip away all the systems, software, hardware and associated razzmatazz, you are left with one very simple thing: A learning event. A critical interaction, of variable length, between two or more people or one person and some learning materials. And the purpose of this learning event? To enable someone to know or do something that’s new to them. Or to help someone refine and improve what they know or do already. That’s it. It’s that simple. If you’re a learning and development professional, that should be your ultimate focus. Because once you remove this simple purpose from the equation, everything else is just fluff. And measured by that simple yardstick, too much of what we currently do in learning and development is fluff.

Take elearning as a good example: So much time and effort is spent on choosing, implementing and learning all the associated systems and software, the actual learning event is almost an afterthought. And the proof is there for all to see. Endless elearning packages that are little more than glorified PowerPoint slides. They bore the learners. They don't enable learning. They are, in fact, a waste of everyone's time. Now here’s the frustrating bit. Evidence-based research provides us with plenty of practical techniques and guidelines to create really effective elearning.

But most people developing elearning are unaware of this, so they just don’t go looking. Instead, they stumble along. Standards remain low. Ineffective elearning becomes the accepted norm. This is sheer madness. Because over the last 100 years or so people have been chipping away at the question of what does and doesn’t make learning effective. Over this time, we’ve discovered more and more about how people (and their brains) function when they need to learn new stuff. And this has helped us to gradually figure out the best ways to make the whole learning process as effective and stress-free as possible.

Sure, it’s a work in progress. We definitely don’t have all the answers. But we have established a lot of certainty about what does and doesn’t make learning effective, and in recent times, we have come up with two words to describe this remarkable body of knowledge: instructional design. Now did I hear you just yawn? Or see your mouse start to twitch? Are you thinking about moving on to another page already? Quite possibly. Because for many people in learning and development, instructional design is of little or no interest. Instructional design = boring. Or, worse still, they don’t even know what it means. (I’m not kidding). It’s no accident that I’ve avoided using those two little words until well into this article, to avoid a mass switch-off.

"We need to shift our focus. Stop obsessing about delivery methods and spend more time getting serious about making those delivery methods measurably effective."

So the real lesson in all this for learning and development? We need to shift our focus. Stop obsessing about delivery methods and spend more time getting serious about making those delivery methods measurably effective. And I hate to say it, but instructional design is central to this shift. Does this mean we all need to go to university and study for a masters degree in instructional design? Aside from the fact you’d be hard-pressed to find many such courses this side of the Atlantic, I don’t think this is the answer. Once you get into degree-level qualifications, the theoretical usually overtakes the practical. And that’s definitely not what we need. Instead I’d recommend a success-driven approach to instructional design. What do I mean by this? In simple terms it’s about two things:

First, focus on practical techniques and guidelines, and avoid obsessing too much about the research behind them. Second, test and move on. In other words, choose techniques and guidelines that you think will give your learners most benefit. If they work, fantastic. Stick with them and apply them more widely. If they don’t work, dump them and try something else. Instructional design is not an exact science. Guidelines are just that. Not rules written on tablets of stone that must be obeyed at all times. This cycle of testing for success is very satisfying. You get incremental improvements in the effectiveness of your learning which gradually builds into a very visible, virtuous circle of success.

Before long, town-twinning status will be somebody else’s problem.


 

Andrew Jackson is co-founder of Pacific Blue Solutions. Pacific Blue works with individuals and organisations to create more effective, results-driven learning – with a special focus on the intelligent application of instructional design principles. Create more effective learning events with our free Essential Step-by-Step Guide to Instructional Design.

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