The elephants that stop learning happening

There are three large ‘elephants’ that can trample on your learning dreams, says Paul Matthews. He explains the obstacles to avoid for effective learning.

Elephants don’t like the buzz of disturbed bees, apparently. I’m sure a bee sting in the soft tissue inside your trunk is not pleasant if you’re an elephant. So, one way you can stop elephants from trampling your crop is to set up some speakers to broadcast the sound of disturbed bees.

The elephants are not malicious, but they can do considerable damage and destroy the fruits of your labour if you’re a farmer. Similarly, as an L&D professional, you plant seeds of learning and if you do it right and nurture them, the seeds will grow into performance that your organisation can harvest for many years to come. On the other hand, there are some ‘elephants’ that might threaten your crop. So what are they? What stops learning from growing and being harvested?

  • Performance diagnostics
    Let’s call the first elephant the performance diagnostics elephant. I’m sure you know the old biblical story about sowing seeds on stony ground. They won’t even germinate, let alone grow. Similarly, if you put people through a learning initiative that isn’t relevant to their needs, your learning is falling on stony ground. If the delegate in your training room doesn’t want or need the learning on offer, they won’t absorb it or do anything with it. It will never even start growing. Sadly, this happens all too frequently when people are put onto a training course because they’re not performing on the job, or even just because ‘everyone has to do it’. Why are they not performing? Is it a lack of skills or knowledge, or is it the – more likely culprit – the stage which they are performing on that is limiting their performance? Or some combination of the two that will never be solved by training alone?

Effectively managing performance diagnostics means ensuring you have the right people in the right room at the right time with the right content. It also ensures that you focus on non-learning interventions when those are appropriate, to solve performance issues.

  • Informal learning
    Let’s call the second elephant the informal learning elephant. We know from our own experience, and from research, that most of what people know in order to do their job, they learn on the job through experience and other informal channels. Think of the 70:20:10 concept. If we continue our analogy of seeds, this is more like self-seeded wildflowers than seeds you have intentionally sown. We know an ecosystem is more than just the crops sown by the farmers. It includes all the other plants and insects around the field and in the hedgerows. Whenever farming has moved towards monoculture it has run into trouble, or requires more and more ‘forced’ support from fertilizer and insecticides. A vibrant and effective ecosystem includes variety, and this is no different to a learning ecosystem.

Effectively managing informal learning will ensure you have the requisite variety of learning available and you are harnessing its power. Afterall, we’ve been learning informally for thousands of years. As a species, we’ve got pretty good at it, so let’s proactively use the learning skill that is our birthright as homo sapiens.

  • Learning transfer
    Let’s call the third elephant the learning transfer elephant. Given you have done enough performance consultancy to ensure your training course is at least part of a viable solution and that the delegates are surrounded by resources and a culture that provides for their informal learning – how do you nurture your planted learning seeds, so they survive long enough to harvest? A growing seedling needs to be protected from the elements, watered when it needs it, cleared of competing weeds, and even offered scaffolding in some cases to grow tall and strong. These are all excellent analogies for the kind of things that need to be done to encourage a delegate to practice their newfound skills and experiment to find out what works and how it works for them. They need ongoing care and attention, and yes, even a scaffolded growth and development pathway.

Effectively managing learning transfer will make sure that when you spend money on formal learning initiatives like training, it won’t be wasted. We can do much better than the average training courses which achieve so little in terms of sustained behavioural change. Let’s pull the right levers to make sure learning transfer happens and the harvest is guaranteed and bountiful.

By the way, if you don’t get control of those first three elephants, a sneaky fourth elephant will join in and destroy your ability to even sow your learning seeds. Let’s call the fourth one the brand of L&D elephant, but that’s a story for another day! 

About Paul Matthews

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and an expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, learning transfer, performance consultancy, and how learning and development can help achieve business targets. He is the author of Learning Transfer at Work: How to Ensure Training >> Performance as well as the bestsellers Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times and Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle

Paul will be talking about how to manage the three elephants when he presents to the Charity Learning Consortium Members’ Meeting in London on 21 March.

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