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?





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