Learning Faster, Learning Better
From The Journal of Quality and Participation
Volume 22, No. 3 - May/June 1999

Learning Faster, Learning Better
By Dick Daniels

The process of developing training and education for business managers has been studied, researched, refined and institutionalized in hundreds of organizations around the world. In a nutshell, this process includes:
  1. Needs Assessment : a process of information gathering, research, and analysis that can take anywhere from three to six months.
  2. Design Document Preparation : a high-level design of the training that articulates the needs of the target audience, the learning objectives, the processes, the models and the methodologies. (Two to three months.)
  3. Program Design: the actual design and testing of the program - what will happen, as well as when and how, specific activities, and specific inputs. (Three to four months.)
  4. Program Development and Pilot : development and preparation of the materials, overheads, instructor guides, participant guides, and all information needed to implement the program. (Six to nine months.)
  5. Implementation : managing the logistics of running the program and reaching the target audience with the necessary information to gain their participation.
  6. Evaluation: taking stock of participant feedback and making the necessary adjustments.

There it is. Eighteen months to two years, lots of head count, a hundred meetings, several color-slide presentations, dozens of sign-offs, a handful of consultants and contractors, and a huge printing bill. And the program information is only one year late and two years old by the time the customer receives it.

There must be a better way.

The Better Way

To do such large-scale training more efficiently requires the ability to ignore the fundamental tenants of the old way of doing business. We must replace the old assumptions with ones that are more alive and real. This turnaround also requires the ability to work around the systems and structures that are in place to conduct business the old way.

Old Assumption #1

If we work at it hard enough and long enough, we can create the 100% solution, the perfect program.

New Assumption #1

The perfect program is about 80% perfect and on time - the other 20% is purposely developed and delivered in real time - based on participants need and interest.

The best training is the kind that is unpredictable, that allows for divergence and recognizes the unique contribution of each participant. Any effort at a 100% solution is counter-productive to the very thing that produces learning - the freedom to create and discover new approaches and insights. Like many processes in organizations, the need for control overrides the goal of obtaining the most significant outcome.

Key to Success in the New World

Combine, connect, and integrate the design/development function with the delivery/implementation function.

Just as engineering and manufacturing are historically separate in many manufacturing organizations, design and delivery of training are historically separate in these same organizations and in countless other industries as well. Why? Because everything seems easier to control; training and education decision-makers believe they can develop experts and specialists along the value chain of producing and delivering training to workers.

Currently, the best learning designers want to create dynamic learning events filled with opportunities for learner choice, while the implementers want to create a predictable, standard, and controlled system that can be easily replicated and will remain stable throughout the life of the product. These conflicting goals lead to serious problems for the customer and result in a costly, time-consuming, and brittle system that is highly resistant to change.

Old Assumption #2

Experts have the knowledge and information to create the ideal.

New Assumption #2

Participants have the knowledge and information to create the ideal.

Many training programs are designed to the point where every minute is accounted for, with little or no time for spontaneous discussion, exploring another perspective or point of view, or switching to a more timely or relevant module or topic. And this is intended to be driven by a trainier with a strict sense of content, process, time management and structure. Some of these programs are even referred to in the training community as "scratch and sneeze" programs because they are so tightly scripted.

Nothing could take you further from your goal of creating a learning environment than to view yourself and your design/development group as the experts and the participants as novices, anxious to learn what only the experts know.

It is only the politeness of most participants that keeps them in the classroom during these types of events. Acknowledging the expertise of participants and using their expertise as a key part of the learning design reverses this dynamic and helps engage and honor each individual.

Key to Success in the New World

The expert model is overrated. What really matters in creating learning interventions in the participants' ideas, their questions and experience, and their expertise. In traditional training, we strive to have participants adopt an experts' technique or model. What we should be striving for is to have participants adapt new insights into their own frame of reference and their own experience. This opens the door to questions we don't have ready answers for, ad hoc discussion groups, participants challenging the basic assumptions related to the content and their roles in the organization, and a general divergence of thought and opinion. In short, this results in learning.

But it also results in unpredictable outcomes, something we have learned as experts in training and education is a sign of poor instructional design. On the contrary, it is a sign of an excellent learning design. From the teacher/trainer perspective, taking the stance of an expert means you have little or nothing to learn about the topic. Yet, a good rule of thumb for the new trainer/teacher - if you have nothing to learn, you have nothing to teach.

Again, the old model assumes that the key knowledge is to be given to the participants, and must therefore be clearly segmented and then doled out in the proper proportions at the appropriate time.

It is by opening the door for participation and by creating an expectation that the participant will bring something meaningful through that door that an engaging learning environment is created. This cannot be predicted and planned for by instructional design teams one year in advance, removed from the day-today reality the participants are experiencing.

Old Assumption #3

Information must be controlled - carefully identified, verified, and systematically delivered to participants to maximize their learning

New Assumption #3

Information is energy and must be released. The more information that can be generated by the participants, the more learning will occur.

Key to Success in the New World

Design learning interventions so that 50% of the time is loosely structured around key content themes, and flexible activities are created to engage the participant in determining how this content will be assessed and analyzed. Create a variety of facilitator options that will supplement and support the energy of the group.

The facilitator's role is to act as a coach and guide, encouraging participants to decide how they want to proceed. Provide information regarding options, areas of interest, support you can offer, even your own opinion of what would be most beneficial for the group. But move forward with the group, not ahead of the group.

The old assumptions pretty much drive the traditional processes, structures and systems that exist in many organizations. Shifting those assumptions helps one understand that the quality of the learning experience is directly linked to the ability of the participant to create his or her own learning experience. This fundamentally changes how one would structure a training organization, the processes one would use to create training, and the systems one would use to implement it.

Old Assumption #4

Participants will be motivated and committed to the training if the process is implemented correctly, such as accurate needs assessment, solid design linking to stated needs, high-quality materials, effective training techniques and a comfortable learning environment.

New Assumption #4

Participants will be motivated and committed to the training if the process enables them to self-organize their experience and choose what and how they want to learn.

Motivation and commitment come through choice, and most corporate training is designed so the participant's choices are limted - to coffee or Coke, to a smoking or non-smoking room, to a donut or bagel. The goal of all training should be to maximize the choices participants have in relation to what they want to learn, how they want to learn it and when they want to learn it.

Key to Success in the New World

What happens after the training event is infinitely more important than what happens during the training event. The event itself should have one goal: to stimulate interest in experimenting with new behavior, and to have a starting point for this experimentation process.

It is when participants return to the workplace that the true value of training and education can be realized. Are participants staying connected with each other? With the training and education group? Are vehicles in place to stimulate and coordinate communication? Did the training event create energy for groups to form learning teams and communities of practice? Are projects and white papers being developed and shared? Is follow-up training gaining momentum? Are participants interacting via the Internet and Intranet? Are participants self-organizing around their own ideas for change and improvement?

If the answer is not "yes" to most or all of these questions then the return on the training and education dollar is questionable.

The Morale of the Story

When businesses take on this approach, they can provide greater value in the areas of cost, cycle time, quality, continuous improvement and customer satisfaction. The following two starting points should emerge when moving in this direction:

  • Start supporting those projects, people, and efforts that seem to be striving for these same goals but always seem to operate outside the current system and structure.
  • Meet with your training and education team and identify what the real assumptions are that fundamentally drive your processes, structure and system.

We live in an age where time to market with a quality product/service is the sole metric for success in most industries. Much of the training and education delivered in organizations today is to help managers function effectively in their fast-paced, chaotic and unpredictable world. Striving for predictability and control in the design and delivery of training for these managers is counter-productive and defeats the larger purpose. Reexamining assumptions and challenging long-held views and practices will shed light on the real needs of customers and on the real power of systems for learning faster and learning better.

Breaking New Ground

  1. Uncover new Assumptions about customers, products, processes, and structures that are not grounded in past beliefs and the status quo.
  2. Develop a Business Case that supports your actions and decisions - cost, quality, cycle time, customer satisfaction. You will need it to convince others to break from the old way of doing things.
  3. Combine, connect and integrate functions to create "soup-to-nuts" teams that can rally around a shared sense of purpose and vision.
  4. Create a design model that relies on creativity, cross-functional communications, and experimentation, as opposed to technique, method, and structure. Assemble a group of multi-skilled designers/facilitators that fully understand both worlds and the bridges that must be built between the two.
  5. Create a facilitation model that relies on coaching, guiding, and engaging, as opposed to telling, controlling and instructing. Assemble a cadre of flexible, adaptive, learner-centered professionals who can get out of the way when the learning starts to happen.
  6. Review and redesign training and education so it maximizes adaptability and flexibility, while remaining centered on key content themes. Increase participant choice in every module.
  7. Devote brainpower, energy and focus to what happens after the training event. Implement methods to stimulate application of new ideas, experimentation, challenging the systems and status quo, and sharing ideas and learnings.
  8. Have fun - despite the stress and pressure, people should be engaged and excited about their work, customers and teammates. If people aren't having fun, then they are losing or have lost the meaning behind their jobs. Adopting a true learner-centered approach creates the meaning and will increase the fun of work.

Dick Daniels is president of Daniels Associates, which provides innovative strategies for learning and leadership to public, private and not-for-profit organizations. Daniels can be reached at 630-736-7818, or email at knowacoach@aol.com.