OUCH! Learning and Development

20151104_145237We began with the low hanging fruit of performance management then jumped to the lofty hanging fruit of strategy. I’m not sure where the fruit of learning and development hangs but here we are so let’s see where this might take us. There is enough OUCH! in learning and development to keep us busy for a few posts anyway!

Our focus is learning and development that deals with conceptual topics and complex behaviors; things like leadership, communication, relationships and the like. We are not focusing on learning and development dealing with more technical skills such as learning to operate equipment etc.

Learning and development is a multi billion dollar investment by organizations and anyone reading this has been part of some kind of initiative that focused on learning and development. There is no doubt that continual learning is important and needed. I think there is a fair bit of doubt however regarding how this learning is thought about and how it happens.

The purpose of any learning and development initiative is to change behavior.

Actually from a social construction perspective the purpose is to change interaction but we’ll get to that distinction in a post down the road. So a good start point in thinking about learning and development is how behavior is changed.

Interaction Model

The left loop of the interaction model is very important here. In an earlier post the left loop was explained as follows:

This is the part of the model that is comprised of experience and interaction and the connections between the two. Experience exists in the past and interaction exists in the present. The upper arrow, from experience to interaction represents the dynamic of bringing all of our past experiences to bear on a present interaction. The lower arrow, from interaction to experience represents the dynamic of the influence of present interaction on our understanding and meaning of past experience.

Taken as a whole, the left loop represents patterns, typically patterns of interaction and behavior that provide us with a personal history constructed over the span of our lives. Over time these patterns can become quite stable.

The last sentence is very important. Behavior becomes stable and repetitive over time because of countless interactions that have become habit. We don’t have to think much about most of our behavior which is very efficient and effective. Most complex learning and development initiatives in organizations are focused on changing these stable and well learned patterns.

Let’s have a look at some data regarding trends in learning and development and see what is actually happening out there. This data is from a report called Trends in Executive Development 2016 – A Benchmark Report. This is an extensive report gathering and analyzing data from 466 medium to large organizations. The majority of the data is from the United States although it does have worldwide input.  I am extracting data from this report to focus on certain aspects of learning and development but not using all the data.

In terms of priorities for executive development the top five in the report are listed as:

  1. Address key business issues/challenges
  2. Build awareness of new technology
  3. Develop capabilities needed to achieve vision and execute strategy
  4. Increase productivity
  5. Create a compelling vision and engage others around it

One of the things that jumps out is that these priorities have a heavy focus on context. Context meaning key business issues specific to the business, technology that would be specific to the business and increasing productivity specific to a business.

The same can be said regarding the Hot Topics in executive development:

  1. Business ethics/integrity
  2. Customer focus
  3. Cognitive readiness
  4. Competitive positioning

Hot topics 1, 2 and 4 have a heavy focus on context while 3 may be seen as having a heavier focus on content.

The reason this focus on context is important is that so much of learning and development in organizations focuses on content. The difference between context and content is that context requires specificity and adaptability of learning design whereas content requires generalization and consistency. The focus is quite different, almost opposite in fact.

What the above is saying is that at a senior level in organizations what is happening and being asked for is learning and development that is specific to organizational (and even individual) needs and that the design is adaptable to these specific needs.

In terms of how a lot of that development is happening, at senior levels the top 4 processes were:

  1. Executive coaching
  2. Assessments followed by developmental feedback
  3. Mentoring
  4. Blended learning

And for high potential development:

  1. Mentoring
  2. Developmental job assignments
  3. Assessments followed by developmental feedback
  4. Executive coaching

What jumps out here is that for the most part the process of development takes place over an extended time frame.

So for the senior people (or soon to be) in organizations what is happening with learning and development is primarily:

A focus on business context in an extended time frame design.

When we look at the interaction model this makes all kinds of sense in terms of how behavior and interaction are most effectively changed. Lots of opportunity for interaction across variable contexts and situations. Basically, developing different and stable patterns. A new history.

However, when you look at the typical design of learning and development initiatives with a focus on business context in an extended time frame design one very important and consistent fact presents itself:

They are expensive!

Perhaps because of this expense it is only a small percentage of people in organizations that have access to this type of learning and development. When you consider moving this type of learning and development to a greater percentage of people in an organization the cost quickly becomes a very big problem.

This is where something interesting happens, very interesting. In order to deal with the cost issue of context focused extended time frame learning design, the design, almost mysteriously changes to the following:

Content focused events.

When you look at the most common form of learning and development for the majority of us in organizations, it follows the design of a content focused event. This is pretty much the opposite of what is seen as valuable and effective at more senior levels.

When we look at the interaction model, content focused events tend to be very ineffective at changing behavior. The content focus is not adaptable enough to the real context it needs to be applied to and in. Even more problematic is that the opportunities for interaction are severely limited.

Because of this, if you are involved in any way in these things sooner or later, you will fail to deliver what is expected, that being behavior change. Designer, content producer, facilitator or participant sooner or later you will fail.


Yet when we look at the proliferation of content focused events that are supposed to create effective learning and development we don’t seem to be very effective about learning how to reduce this OUCH!

We’ll look at why this might be the case in the next post. From there we will look at roles we can all play to reduce some of this OUCH! in learning and development.

Comment and discussion points for this post:

  1. How does formal learning and development happen in your organization?
  2. How effective is the learning and development in your organization?
  3. Is there OUCH! in the learning and development you are involved in?










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