A Design Framework for Learning – 1

20151104_145237There is no real magic to an extended time frame and context focused learning design. As we have noted they are quite common with things like coaching, mentoring and action learning.  They are not so common with larger groups however.

Currently in learning and development there is also quite a bit of interest in the 70 20 10 learning framework. 70 represents the percent of learning occurring through direct experience (usually on the job), 20 as the percent of learning occurring through exposure to networks, working with others and perhaps coaching/mentoring and 10 representing the percent of learning occurring through formal learning initiatives. In essence 70 20 10 is what is being referred to in these posts as extended time frame context focused designs.

Interestingly the 70 20 10 concept has been around since the 1980’s resulting from work done by the Center for Creative Leadership. Interesting as well is that this concept/model although generally accepted as accurate still typically only gets applied at senior levels! In addition, many applications of this concept have reinterpreted the 70 to simply mean the experience of accessing learning content while on the job… OUCH!

Like many concepts (no matter how different) when they are filtered through current theory and understanding of how organizations work (the left loop) the concept ends up as simply another tool or technique supporting that current theory or understanding.

In an effort to avoid this let’s review the key design elements of extended time frame context focused designs:

  1. Extended time frame for numerous interactions
  2. Performance pressure
  3. Concepts to experiment with to change interactions
  4. A process for learner reflection

In addition, it is understood that the primary variable affecting behavior change is the extended time frame and both the expert and learning content are secondary in importance.

The statement in bold above is very important and is an important design consideration as well. When we look at the interaction model, with complex learning we are trying to change patterns of interaction and behavior that have become stable over time.

Interaction Model

What this means is that in order to affect behavior change not only are you trying to establish a new left loop but within the process of learning itself you need to disrupt current patterns of interaction. Otherwise the current patterns of interaction are very likely to overwhelm new content or concepts, overwhelm attempts at new interactions and you do not get behavior change.

This is why simply introducing learning content into day to day work is so often ineffective. It just gets swallowed up into the existing patterns of interaction. Keep in mind that a new behavior is a gesture yet the responses to that gesture may not recognize a new gesture since the current pattern of gesture and response is so established. Thus it is important to alter patterns of interaction during the process of learning itself and as it happens this fits very well into extended time frame context focused designs for larger groups.

Below is a framework for an extended time frame context focused design that I find works very well. The framework described illustrates a fairly extensive initiative when an external consultant is used but you will see the connections if internal resources were used. Each design element has a short explanation referring to points made in previous posts that are important to this design. In the next post we will look at some variations of this design but for now have a read and think how this might work for some of your learning initiatives.

Prior to the points below, agreement has been reached with the organization and the external consultant to move forward. The primary roles played by the external consultant to this point are Designer and Educator.

  1. A small internal learning ‘steering committee’ is formed to oversee the initiative. This group is composed of volunteers that are directly involved with the learning initiative. The purpose of this is to drive internal capacity plus to continually promote the value of this design to offset the power of existing ways in which learning and development are understood.
  2. The steering committee meets with the external consultant to overview the process and determine the role of the steering committee. Educator and Consultant roles are being played by the external consultant to explain the rationale of the design and to continue developing internal capacity.
  3. The steering committee determines the composition of the learning groups that will sustain the learning (most often these are intact teams). Again, driving internal capacity and ownership.
  4. The steering committee communicates to all participants as needed to overview the process and details.
  5. The first ‘learning event’ is held which provides an initial learning concept to all participants and modeling of next steps (typically no longer than 1/2 day or less if virtual learning is utilized). This is the Facilitator role with a bit of Educator and Consultant mixed in. Note that ‘concepts’ are provided as much as possible rather than content (see this post).
  6. Learning groups meet once a week (minimum) to apply the learning concept to a real business issue for a period of 4 – 6 weeks. The learning is therefore focused on business context. Normally these meetings are regularly scheduled intact team meetings so no significant disruption to the business is required.  See below for a critical component to this design element.
  7. The steering committee monitors the process and interacts with the external consultant if changes to the process need to be made. Monitoring may take many forms including measurement of impact. We will look at this in a future post.
  8. Steps 5 – 7 are usually repeated two more times with different concepts being provided for each learning event. This increases the potential for behavior change plus establishes a new pattern of interaction for applying learning which is building internal capacity.

Note to design element 6: It is here where it is very important to disrupt the normal pattern of interaction that a group may have established during the process of learning itself. This is especially true of intact teams applying new learning concepts in regular team meetings. Below is one way we do this and we insist the group follow this process through the entire first meeting cycle:

  • Two people are assigned to bring an actual business issue to the next team meeting.
  • At the meeting one of these people describes their business issue to the rest of the group. They have 3 minutes to do this and the rest of the group can only listen.
  • The group then has 3 minutes to ask any ‘clarifying’ questions of the ‘presenter’.
  • At this point the presenter turns their back to the group and the group discusses the business issue and applies the learning concept introduced in the learning event to better understand and make recommendations for action on the business issue presented. The presenter can only listen for these 5 minutes.
  • The presenter turns back to the group and for an additional 5 minutes the group discusses what has been learned and what steps can be taken moving forward. No more discussion on the issue happens at this point.
  • The process is repeated for the second person assigned to bring a business issue.

You may recognize the above as a process or exercise often called Fly on the Wall. It is very effective at disrupting stabilized patterns of interaction. This is vital for groups to really interact differently with a new learning concept.

The design framework above works and makes a tangible difference to the business. It has all the elements important to extended time frame context focused designs:

  1. Extended time frame for numerous interactions
  2. Performance pressure
  3. Concepts to experiment with to change interactions
  4. A process for learner reflection

Costs are reasonable because the two variables that drive cost up with traditional designs; experts and content are not designed as the primary variables affecting behavior change. It is this change, placing the expert and learning content as secondary variables in behavior change that is most significant; and often the hardest to deal with in the Educator role. As you can tell, there is no magic to the above design; but it does incorporate the change in bold above.

The next post will look at some variations of this design framework as well as a little deeper look at why it can work.



The Role of Learning ‘Events’

20151104_145237Perhaps after reading the last number of posts you may think I have a real hate on for learning ‘events’. Not true however! Well maybe a bit of a hate, but that’s reserved for content focused learning events; I think learning events themselves can have real value.

Learning ‘events’ give participants an opportunity to interact in a context that is different than day to day interactions and as well events often have participants that are not part of the daily interactions participants have.

Interaction Model

This means there are valuable opportunities for participants to experience different left and right loops and also to be part of different patterns of interaction. These are all important in the learning process.

As you will recognize the key aspect that contributes to behavior change in a learning event are the interactions people have.  I have been part of numerous learning events over the years and without fail, when participants are asked what was the best part of the experience they will say, ‘the chance to talk to my colleagues/fellow participants’. This is the primary reason I do have a bit of a hate on for content focused learning events. Too much content quite simply decreases the opportunities for interaction. Not only is interaction what participants find of most value, it is also the key variable in affecting behavior change.

My estimation is that for many, many learning events you could cut at least 50% of the actual learning content and get better results. However because the left loop is so entrenched it seems very difficult to actually do this. If it is believed that power can deliver certainty and the in case of learning the power is in the content then it makes all kinds of sense to jam as much content into a learning event as possible.

We’ve all sat in rooms from early in the morning until late at night trying to digest what seems like endless learning content. And just outside that room is the wonderful location the event is being held at and we so want to get out of that room and enjoy (and interact in) that wonderful location.


As noted in earlier posts the above is an example of ‘content proliferation’ and if you are in this pattern you can be pretty sure you are in the Facilitator role without the roles of Designer, Educator and Consultant having been played effectively. It will also likely mean that the learning event is seen as the primary (often only) means by which behavior change will be affected. And even though learning events can be very valuable, if that is all you have it is never enough to alter a stable left loop; never enough to change behavior.

If the learning event is designed as part of an extended time frame; if it is not all you have it can be very valuable and enjoyable as well! One the main reasons it can be valuable and enjoyable is that the event is not burdened with expectations that it simply cannot deliver on. The hallmarks of really well designed learning events are:

  1. Significant space and time for participants to interact with each other and on their own (a process of reflection).
  2. Learning content that is more conceptual than specific (see this post as well).
  3. A very limited need to declare ‘takeaway’s’ or ‘action plans’ or ‘what have you learned?’.
  4. No immediate post event evaluations.
  5. The above elements of the event are talked about up front with participants. This is a version of the Consultant role which is needed since the left loop is just as stable with participants regarding learning events so the rationale for such a design is usually important.

If the above sounds like it could be an awesome learning event, it is! When you lift the burden of expectations of needing excessive learning content, listing of takeaways after each content delivery, the pressure to declare what has been learned, and evaluating the effectiveness of the event itself, the event can truly focus on the most important variable in behavior change, interaction.

Many years ago in that same organization where I began my career by making ice cream, I moved into the role of director of organizational development. Just like the work I did their in the area of performance management I had a significant role in the learning and development area. And much like performance management me, and the organization kind of made up our learning and development strategy as we went along.

I was very fortunate to come across The Center for Accelerated Learning and although I didn’t know much about the theoretical ‘why’ of their approach to learning it just made so much sense to me. As I look back the hallmarks noted above were built into their approach to learning, even technical learning! I subsequently ran learning events focusing on Leadership, Creativity and Innovation, Change, Trust and Compassion and even did events in the wilderness. The hallmarks above were in all of those events (usually 3 – 5 days) and they were in demand (we had waiting lists!). And although it was not formalized into the design, I now realize they were in fact extended time frame designs as I and a group of ‘learning associates’ supported the learning back in the workplace.

Now you may be wondering if those learning events added any value to the business. Yes they did. We’re going to look at evaluation and measurement of learning and development initiatives in a future post but for now I can say this. Burdening those learning events with more content, more requirements for takeaways, more evaluations certainly would not have added any more value to the organization. It would have simply made the event much less valuable and enjoyable!

I can also say having been part of learning events that are burdened with those types of expectations, they add no value to actually changing behavior, in fact they detract from it.

As I’ve traveled this journey to understanding the value of learning events in extended time frame and context focused learning designs there was a time when I thought it would be best to move away from the idea of a learning event altogether. And yet I loved those events and had seen value in them; seen people dramatically affected by them. I now think learning events are very important, the interactions can be very powerful. And when those events are part of a longer process and not burdened by impossible expectations they fit wonderfully into the learning design; they can be fun, have impact and not have much OUCH! at all.



Learning and Development – Consultant and Facilitator Roles

20151104_145237We have outlined four roles that need to be played in the area of learning and development in organizations. All of these roles are defined and positioned to try and reduce some of the OUCH! in learning and development. This post will focus on the last two of these roles and the ‘mantras’ connected to them.

The Designer and Educator roles are more or less behind the scenes when it comes to learning and development. The Consultant and Facilitator roles play out directly with the people we are working with; the participants and learners that are the main focus of the learning and development initiative.




More Interaction


Be Early

Build Internal Capacity


Be A Model

Keep in mind that all of these roles have a focus on learning and development initiatives with the intent of changing behavior. Initiatives that take place over an extended time frame and with a focus on context. In addition the expert and learning content are seen as secondary in helping behavior change.

In some ways the role of Consultant is similar to the Educator role however the focus of the Consultant role is more specific to the group you are working with. We are however educating the group (and group leadership) regarding extended time frame designs with a focus on context. This is necessary due to the very stable left loop in the interaction model shaping how learning is typically thought about for larger numbers in organizations.

The ‘mantra’ for the Consultant role is ‘build internal capacity’. This means building internal capacity to own the PROCESS of learning and development, not just building internal capacity for the specific behavior change desired. The reason for this is that building internal capacity for the PROCESS helps to sustain the interactions needed to change behavior. Internal capacity enables the primary focus of the learning initiative to be on the extended time frame and context.  Without a focus on building internal capacity the primary focus too easily shifts to the expert or learning content and these two areas, while important, are not the primary variables affecting behavior change.

Like the Educator role the Consultant role can be challenging; primarily because you are trying to change that very stable left loop regarding learning in organizations. Personally however I find the Consultant role less challenging and this has to do with two key things:

  1. It is easier to make sense of ‘different’ learning designs when you can be more specific.
  2. The people you are working with want to build internal capacity.

In my experience, when I have been able to interact with people about the rationale for extended time frame, context focused learning designs agreement, support and engagement has been very common.  This is why the Designer and Educator roles come first and why they are so important.  When it comes time to play the Consultant role, you need to have the rationale, the ‘business case’ for Building Internal Capacity. One thing I have found quite valuable in these discussions are the interaction model and positioning behavior change as changes in the left loop which need numerous different interactions over time.  As well I have found the following two graphics of value.

L and D 1

This graphic represents a simple distribution of how we often perceive participant orientation towards their learning in learning and development initiatives.

At the left are the highly self managed learners, those that take ownership for their own learning, go beyond the content and are both wonderful and challenging as participants. they are learning ‘high performers’. In the middle are the compliant and opportunistic learners that do what is asked of them in learning initiatives, are engaged and participate effectively. On the left are those that are typically reliant on someone else for their learning. They shift the accountability for their learning to the facilitator, the learning content, the process etc. Almost no learning design is effective enough for this group.

So the question becomes, who do want to design for and what happens when you work to build internal capacity?

L and D 2

What I have found is that when you design for the highly self managed learners with the intent of developing internal capacity, there is actually a lot more of this group than often thought to be! Interestingly we often design learning initiatives with so much concern for that group on the right that the design never really gives the group on the left a chance to engage and influence like they will if given the opportunity.

In the Consultant role when I use the interaction model and these two graphics the people I am working with seem to quite easily and enthusiastically engage. Pre and post ‘event’ processes are not a problem but part of a process that makes sense and is seen as a sensible alternative to the OUCH! of content focused events as the only way to do things.

This brings us to the last role of the four; Facilitator and the mantra Be A Model. If you have played the other roles as effectively as you can the Facilitator role tends to be quite comfortable to play.  There is quite a shift though in the way the Facilitator role is often thought of from the perspective of content focused events, where the facilitator is typically positioned as the expert.  This can be a tough shift sometimes; again the left loop regarding what a facilitator typically is defined as is quite stable.

To Be A Model in the Facilitator role means you truly realize you are facilitating a learning process, where the roles preceding the Facilitator role actually have more impact in changing behavior than the Facilitator role does.

What is fascinating is that all those skills we have developed that make us ‘amazing’ in the current role of facilitator still get to be applied, but those skills are more in the service of the 3 preceding roles. We will be looking at this a little more in the next post, with a focus on what role learning events play in extended time frame and context focused learning designs.

For now, have a good look back at the 4 roles we have been focusing on.  How can you develop and play, support, ask for, demand, influence those roles. I really think we all have a part to play. It may not be easy but it does take an awful lot of OUCH! out of learning and development.



Learning and Development – Educator

20151104_145237The last two posts have looked at the designer role in learning and development. As we have noted, this role is quite different from the typical designer role and would produce considerably different learning designs than what we see so much of now; content focused events.

This post will look at the Educator role played in learning and development and the ‘mantra’ associated with it. The following post will focus on the remaining roles of Consultant and Facilitator.

Role Mantra

Once you have ‘considerably different’ learning designs worked out the role is that of Educator. This is not the educator role of educating people IN a learning and development initiative. It is the role of educating people (most often people with power) that the ‘considerably different’ designs you have are viable, workable and more effective than content focused events.

This role is about building a new left loop in the way we understand learning and development for larger groups of people in organizations. Personally, of the four roles listed above I find this role the most challenging. The reason for this is the stability of the left loop regarding how we currently understand learning and development and the fact that more often than not I am playing this Educator role with people who have power. Power over the decisions about how learning and development will occur in their organizations.

The problem is not that these people are resistant or simply want to do things their way. The problem more often than not is that no other way is even seen as an option in the first place! The left loop has become such a powerful habit it is often not even recognized as a habit, it is simply the way things are!

This is why the mantra for the Educator role is Be Early. It is critically important to be as early into the conversations about learning and development as possible. If you are early into these discussions you have a much greater possibility of affecting change from a design perspective.  If you are not early there is a really good chance the learning design is already well down the road and you will be in the facilitator role and all the risks associated with that role when design has not been part the roles you play.

Just think how often you have been part of a learning initiative where the scenario plays out something like this:

You get a call from someone saying they are getting their group together and want you to help them with something (communication, change, decision making, relationships etc.). The date has been set, people have been invited and often they have even allocated a period of time in the agenda for you to work with.

From a design perspective you are now being pushed very significantly into the facilitator role and that role is asking you to do your best to facilitate a content focused event. The person who has contacted you has very little interest in talking about ‘considerably different’ designs and little interest in being educated by you why they should consider such designs.

Anyone who has a role in learning and development has experienced this. It is a very, very common pattern of interaction in organizations.

So, how do you Be Early?

  1. First you need some idea of design alternatives so you have something to Be Early with! Remember the mantra More Interaction!
  2. Second, you need to recognize once you have ideas for design alternatives you are playing the role of Educator so you need to be able to justify (make the business case) for these alternatives.
  3. Third, even if you aren’t early; try something that illustrates, even incrementally, an extended time frame design.

To the first point above, we will be looking at a design idea in future posts but there really is no ‘go to’ design. If you focus on more interactions you can invent what might work best for your organization.

One of the things OUCH! is attempting to do is provide logical, rational arguments to seriously question typical ways things are done in organizations. It is hoped that you can use some of these logical points to act on point 2 above.

As an example of that last point let’s look again at the scenario above. Quite often in scenarios like this what you are being asked to help with is an agenda item in a longer meeting. Perhaps three hours of a two day meeting has been allocated to focus on ‘communication’. Rather than simply saying ‘Yes, I can do that for you’ you could for example propose that you spend one hour on content dealing with communication and then do 10 minute debriefs or reflective learning about how that content was actually applied after other meeting topics were dealt with on the agenda.

It’s an incremental step perhaps but is illustrative of the four key aspects of extended learning design:

  • Extended time frame for numerous interactions
  • Performance pressure
  • Concepts to experiment with to change interactions
  • A process for learner reflection

It also gets you into a design discussion, at least a little, and you can use that to play the Educator role, at least a little and you will be seen in a different light, one that can Be Earlier the next time.

Playing the Educator role, while it can be very challenging is actually one of the best opportunities we have to personally experience an extended time frame learning design. A design for us in learning and developing our own role of Educator!

It is highly unlikely you are going to change the stable left loop of content focused event learning design in your organization with one magical interaction. One perfectly crafted argument delivered to those in power that changes the way learning and development is done!

So how would you design your own extended time frame learning initiative? One that helps you learn and develop the 4 roles noted above? A design that helps you build a new left loop regarding learning and development in your organization? How might you use the interaction model to think this through and make sense of your experiences as you move forward?

Interaction Model

The next post will look at the remaining 2 roles; Consultant and Facilitator.

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. Have or do you play the Educator role as defined above? Tell us your story…
  2. What advice might you have for someone playing this role?

Learning and Development – Design

20151104_145237In the last post we talked about a learning design role that recognized the primary variable affecting the potential for behavior change was an extended time frame. Where the expert or the learning content is seen as secondary in importance. This post will be looking a little deeper at design for larger numbers of people that enables higher numbers of interaction and focuses on context.

If the expert or content is secondary it is important to understand what ‘they’ are actually doing in an extended time frame design. A good place to look to investigate this is with the designs currently being used such as coaching, mentoring or action learning.

Interaction Model

When you look at what happens in these designs through the interaction model you see continual movement around the model with shifting intentions based on interactions, incremental shifts in redefining experience and numerous ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ as new gestures are attempted and responses received as a new left loop is potentially built.

The expert or the content is actually quite a small part of the overall process. The number of interactions they have an effect on with the learner is quite small compared to the number of interactions the learner is having over time. However there are three very important aspects they bring to an extended time frame process.

  1. Performance pressure
  2. Concepts to experiment with to change interactions
  3. A process for learner reflection

Performance pressure

The expert (coach/mentor for example) brings a level of performance pressure simply because there are regularly scheduled interactions between the expert and learner over this extended time frame. The learner feels a need to have ‘performed’ in the interval between interactions.

Concepts to experiment with to change interactions

Typical learning content tends to be quite specific (i.e. active listening, questioning skills etc.). As this content is applied through interactions over time there is less specificity since the application of the content/skill ALWAYS changes the skill. This is due to the different responses we receive as we gesture toward others using these specific skills. Learning content broadens out to become a concept over extended applications.  Active listening and questioning skills (learning content) become effective communication (concept). This is an important distinction and one not often seen as affected by an extended time frame learning design.

When power is attributed to learning content and the assumption is that power creates certainty, the assumption extends to the gesture response part of the interaction model. This means if you effectively apply the content/skill as a gesture, the response should be predictable (certain). The left facing arrowhead of the gesture response is eliminated.

Over numerous applications (actual experience in a real context!) in an extended time frame design the learner recognizes that the left facing arrowhead certainly does exist! Over time they adjust their application of the skill as the context requires and the skill is no longer specific but a focused pattern of changing applications; a concept.

In an extended time frame design content transitions to concepts and the expert works with, introduces, adapts and provides perspectives on these concepts.

A process for learner reflection

Over the years I have done quite a bit of coaching and invariably the people I work with tell me the best part of the process is having someone to talk to about their experiences as they try to change behavior. Sharing their challenges, successes, ideas, frustrations and joys. The sharing itself, the storytelling, the reflection on the left loop, the ideas for the right loop is an important part of learning design.

With an extended time frame design there are numerous opportunities for these interactions.

Over the years I have also learned that it is this process of learner reflection that is much more important than me being a specific part of it! 

I have been told I’m a good coach and I think that is true. However I also think that 80% of that ‘being good’ is simply about showing up! From the perspective of the design role we are describing here, it is important to really think this is true!

We have identified the three key roles that the expert or learning content play in existing extended time frame learning designs. Let’s add in the extended time frame for numerous interactions as another design variable and we have the four key things that make these designs effective:

  1. Extended time frame for numerous interactions
  2. Performance pressure
  3. Concepts to experiment with to change interactions
  4. A process for learner reflection

What is really interesting is that when you look very closely at those four points above from a design perspective you discover that the importance (and cost!) of the two variables typically seen as critical are not nearly as important as we currently think:

  1. The expert
  2. Learning content

So the design question, the question to be answered by the role of designer is:

What do these designs look like and how do they work?

In many ways these designs look an awful lot like normal day to day work with some important differences and we will get to the details and challenges of the question above soon.

Before we do that however it we want to remind ourselves of the four roles in learning design and their mantras:

Role Mantra

The last couple of posts have been focusing on the role of designer. As described this role tends to be quite different from what we typically think of when we think of learning designer in organizations now. The typical learning designer tends to focus on learning content and experts as key design variables. This typical role and its outputs are heavily influenced by the typical way in which we understand organizations and the assumption that power can create certainty. This is the left loop of current learning design and it is very stable.

If we take on this different design role we now will have learning designs that are quite different from what we now have. This then brings us to the next roles we need to play to reduce the OUCH! in learning and development; Educator, Consultant and Facilitator.

These will be the focus of the next two posts.


Learning and Development – Roles

20151104_145237In the last post we talked about the need to challenge the assumption of power creating certainty in the area of learning and development. By doing this we could interact differently about the default design of content focused events that create so much OUCH!

We also discussed using what is currently happening regarding learning at senior levels in organizations as a good source of information to challenge this assumption.

The next two posts will focus on the first of four roles that can be played by those of us who are accountable in some fashion for learning and development within an organization. These roles however need to be redefined from what we might expect them to be given the current way we tend to understand them. Regardless if you are the senior L&D person, an instructional designer, a learning co-coordinator, a facilitator or have some other accountability these roles are important.

The roles below are listed in what I think are the order of importance for having the greatest influence on interactions that can reduce the OUCH! in learning and development. In addition each role is accompanied by a mantra, or more accurately, a day to day intention, given the posts on strategy.

Interestingly, what tends to happen given the hidden nature of the assumption that power creates certainty in learning and development is that these roles get reversed. We are pushed toward, or find ourselves primarily in the role of, or supporting the role of facilitator. When this happens all the other roles are significantly constrained and their impact dramatically diminished. The facilitator role is important in learning and development. If that role is expected to deliver what the other roles need to do however, it will fail in this regard.

One key sign that you are in, or supporting the role of facilitator in your organization is that there is a proliferation of content in learning initiatives. By this I mean you are constantly looking for new content to deliver or make available, you are consistently talking about how to find time for more content delivery in your learning designs or that you are regularly looking for new and better experts and facilitators to create and/or deliver content.

If there is an abundance of learning content in your organization it is highly likely the facilitator role is primary. This will also mean there is likely a lot of OUCH! in your learning and development work. This can be altered by interacting differently; by considering the roles listed below.

Role Mantra


The designer role is exactly what it says; designing learning and development initiatives. The mantra, or day to day intention is ‘more interaction’. Because the left loop in the interaction model is so stable regarding learning design, it is hard to over emphasize the importance of this mantra. Often what happens when the roles above are reversed is that the design role becomes very narrow, focusing only on how to design a learning initiative where facilitation of content is the primary variable. The design concern becomes one of ‘how can we fit in another role play’ rather than ‘how can we best change patterns of behavior and interaction’.

Interaction Model

The design role we are focusing on is one that acknowledges (that knows!) behavior and interaction change occur over time, through multiple interactions and with a focus on context. That a new left loop is being created and the learning design needs to have as many opportunities for interaction as possible.

This is exactly what is designed at senior levels with executive coaching, mentoring and assessments followed by developmental feedback. The design difference is that for larger numbers this design has to be accomplished without the traditional one to one relationship. In addition, as we saw in the last post, the focus of senior level learning was on context not content. What this then means is that the two design cornerstones of content focused events are not nearly as important; experts and learning content. And to top it off, the event itself is no longer as important either.

This is the design role that takes the OUCH! out of learning and development.

Let’s take a little closer look at what is happening in executive coaching, mentoring and assessments followed by developmental feedback. This will help us build a better understanding of how the idea of these types of designs can work with larger numbers.

In the three learning processes above there are three key variables that affect the potential for behavior change:

  1. The participants active engagement in the process
  2. An extended time frame where multiple interactions occur
  3. The presence of a resource that plays the role of content and process ‘expert’

We will look at variable 1 in another post since although this variable may be the most important it is really not affected much by learning design!

Something interesting happens with the remaining 2 variables; a subtle and hidden impact of the assumption that power creates certainty. What happens is that the 3rd variable, the presence of an ‘expert’ (expertise is power), is seen as the key (really the only) design variable that is affecting behavior change. We know this to be the case by the sheer number of content or expert focused learning events that occur and the volume of content produced by experts and used by organizations. It also produces the cost problem associated with using these designs with larger groups. If the 2nd variable was seen as key we would be experiencing very, very different learning designs for larger numbers of people.

The design role noted above sees this 2nd variable as primary in affecting behavior change and thus the mantra, more interaction. The expert, or content is still important but seen as secondary.

This is a very significant shift in how we think about learning design and not an easy shift. Yet much like what so many of these posts have been shining a light on; this shift is really just a shift to what is already happening, not something new! The OUCH! in learning and development comes from the formal processes that have been designed by typical theory and way we understand organizations!

We know we learn through our interactions, we know it takes time to change, to build a new left loop. We know that exposure to learning content means nothing until it is applied in a context that is specific to us. We know that expertise is only important when we choose to make it important.

The next post will look at learning design that more closely fits what we know. Where there is less OUCH!

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. Do you have a ‘proliferation of content’ in your organization?
  2. How does learning occur in your organization for larger numbers of people?
  3. Do you have OUCH! in learning and development?






Learning and Development – The Mystery of Content Focused Events


In the last post we looked at what so often happens in organizations when learning and development initiatives designed with a context focus over an extended time frame get applied to larger numbers of people in the organization.

The design changes to content focused events.

Before we look at roles and what can be done to reduce the OUCH! in content focused events it makes some sense to consider why the design changes in this way. This will inform our consideration of different roles and help us change interactions about learning and development.

Interaction ModelIn essence we are doing some learning and development about learning and development and thus trying to change behavior and interaction!


The left loop; patterns of interaction regarding learning and development, seem to be very stable in defaulting to content focused events as the go to design for larger numbers of people. The hope is that these posts enable lots of interaction that may alter this stable pattern.

The one immediate benefit of a content focused event design is that it helps to contain the cost of context focused extended time frame designs if those designs were to be accessed by more people. This is very important. So what is it in these context focused extended time frame designs that makes them cost prohibitive for larger numbers? The variable with the most impact on cost is:

The presence of a one to one relationship between the ‘teacher’ and the ‘learner’.

Executive coaching, assessments followed by developmental feedback and mentoring; three of the top four processes for senior level development noted in the last post exhibit this very well. If you use this design for larger numbers of people the cost skyrockets.

So it seems the pattern of behavior at play to address this cost problem is to design using a one to many relationship.

The mysterious thing is that seldom is the question asked; why design this way?

If this question does get asked, there tends to be a lot of blank stares; ‘it’s just the way things are done’, or ‘it’s easiest’, or ‘it’s cost effective’. Rarely will someone say it is the most effective way to change behavior.

In order to understand why this design is so insidious we are drawn back to one of the key assumptions that underlies the typical way we understand organizations; power creates certainty.  In the case of learning and development the power part of this assumption gets assigned to two primary areas:

  1. Experts
  2. Learning content

The certainty part of this assumption gets placed on the requirement for an almost magical ‘event’.

What this means in terms of the interaction model above is that the intention of learning and development initiatives are ‘owned’ or assigned to the expert or to learning content. We are now into a very familiar pattern that we have described in both performance management and strategy. If the intentions of the initiative are delivered effectively by the expert or the content is ‘good’ enough then it is assumed the learner should learn and behavior change is certain.

If behavior change does not happen the dynamic of blame, shame and guilt emerge. Either the expert wasn’t good enough, the content (or perhaps the facilitator delivering it) wasn’t good enough, or the learner was incapable of learning!


The assumption that power creates certainty in the realm of learning and development is very problematic and almost invisible. It creates not only blame, shame and guilt, but endless cycles of accessing the next expert’s ideas, the next best content, the next best facilitator, the next best ROI measurement and the next best event.

Perhaps most damaging is that this assumption hides the fact that interaction creates the potential for behavior change! The primary ‘problem’ is not in the expert, the content or the learner. The primary problem, the OUCH! is an assumption that places the potential for behavior change in the wrong place!

Question this assumption and it becomes much easier to question the design of content focused events.

Questioning this assumption however is not easy. Changing a stable pattern of behavior and interaction never is. But we do have a pretty good start point. That start point is what was pointed out in the last post; what is actually happening with learning and development at senior levels in organizations.

If we want to counter the assumption that power creates certainty in learning and development we don’t have to tackle it head on. We can use what is being done right now at senior levels and shift the discussion from one focused on cost, to one focused on learning design that also deals with cost. The start point however is design.

Roles for those of us having accountability in learning and development initiatives will be the topic of our next few posts and following that an example of a specific learning design that reduces OUCH!

Comment and discussion points for this post:

  1. Have you ever questioned the viability of content focused events for learning and development? What happened?
  2. Have ever felt the pressure to design or facilitate the ‘perfect’ event for learning? What was that like?