A Plea for Nuanced Conversations to Improve L&D Practices

Mirjam Neelen

Let’s start with a quote: “Successful training is not a one-time event but an iterative process that considers the elements leading up to training as well as important factors after training” (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012, p 78).

This quote is from their meta-analysis of the science of training and development in organisations. I feel it’s important because it provides a nuanced picture of what training is. Their article in combination with a discussion initiated by Maaike Endedijk on LinkedIn on the 702010 model, sparked the idea for this blog. On Wednesday 4 October she has delivered a key note at HRD Werkvelddag on the benefits and drawbacks of the 702010 model and she asked for input.

Now, I think we all understand at this point that the numbers of the 702010 framework itself are not so important (they seemed important when it was first popularised by Charles Jennings but obviously being a continuous learner himself, he has brought more nuance to it) and that it’s more around driving change in the corporate learning ecosystem. I would also like to point out that the book ‘702010 towards 100% performance’ offers a wealth of strong approaches to learning and performance in organisations and that the authors (Jennings, Arets, & Heijnen) are very knowledgeable people.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is that the nuance as expressed in Salas et al’s article is in strong contrast with the general debate on how to improve learning and performance practices in organisations. The discussions are often quite black and white (for example, “We need to focus on performance, not learning!”, “We need resources, not courses!”, “We don’t need training, employees know what to do to improve their performance themselves”, “Work is learning and learning is work”, and so the list goes on.

stir the potIt’s just all … too strong and I don’t think that’s very helpful. How useful is it to move from one extreme to the other? Yes, I understand that the idea is to stir the L&D pot because, yes, change is desperately needed but I would SO like these conversations to be more nuanced and contextualised so that they reflect the reality and complexity of what we do ((Donald Taylor’s article ‘The Complexity of Learning’ is a good example of the nuance that I would like to see more of). Why don’t we acknowledge and leverage the existing research out there to help us to get better?

The problem is the gap between research and practice

I’ll use one example from the 702010 book to illustrate my point (sorry, guys). It discusses the so-called ‘training bubble’ and states that the L&D profession prospered during the 20th century despite the fact that there was growing evidence that formal learning solutions alone have insufficient business impact. I strongly believe that the problem has never been that formal learning solutions have insufficient business impact. The devil’s in the details. Reality is that ineffective formal learning solutions have insufficient business impact (also read my plea for professionalization of our area of expertise). Research in our field explains clearly that in the 20th century the training research was faddish, non-empirical, and non-theoretical (Salas et al., 2012). So, it wasn’t (as the 702010 book states) that this training bubble was an “effective response to the 20th century view of organisational development, with its strong need to provide formal, standardised learning” (p 16). It was ineffective then as much as it would be ineffective now. Because L&D professionals didn’t (couldn’t?) know any better; they were simply order-takers, delivering what business asked them to deliver because they had no idea what effective training looked like.

Then, when the research started catching up the following years, L&D professionals didn’t keep up and didn’t advance; they didn’t approach their work in a professional research-based manner. They got stuck in their bad practice, were unaware how unaware they were, and continued to deliver crumbs of training for whoever asked for it. In other words:

Training was seen as an event and not as a system

Salas et al’s analysis is as clear as a bell: Research shows that training works and that the way training is designed, delivered, and implemented matters. Training is not a once-off event. It involves:

planned and systematic activities designed to promote the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Effective training takes place when trainees are intentionally provided with pedagogically sound opportunities to ta learn targeted knowledge, skills, and attitudes through instruction, demonstration, practice, and timely diagnostic feedback on their performance (p 77).

They go on to say that the goal of training is learning (that is, sustainable change in behaviour and cognition) so that (and now listen carefully) individuals achieve the competencies they need to perform on the job. So, the whole idea that ‘training is about learning’ and not about ‘performance support’ is just plain wrong (and the authors of the 702010 book know this because they reference Salas et al’s article in their book!).

Another critical point of Salas et al’s article is that training involves the whole process from needs analysis (and that includes analysing the business problem, which automatically implies that it’s also about the question IF training is the best answer to the performance need) to considering the learning climate and learner mindset, following appropriate learning principles, using technology effectively, ensuring transfer of training, and evaluating training. So, in short, training includes the whole shebang.

The authors even point out that “training is not always the ideal solution to address performance deficiencies” (p 81) and also emphasise that it’s critical to differentiate between content that employees “need to know” versus resources that they “need to access” (read: learning solutions versus performance support). This distinction, by the way, is also clearly described in a slightly different way by Van Merriënboer and Kirschner in their book ‘Ten Steps to Complex Learning’; that is the difference between supportive information (info that helps learners perform non-routine aspects of complex tasks, such as problem-solving) and JIT support (or, procedural information, which is info to perform routine aspects of a task. This is what’s usually called performance support in the workplace).

Last but not least, Salas and colleagues outline a very detailed process of all the elements needed to consider when one designs training, as illustrated in the table below.

Before training Training Post training
Conduct needs analysis (includes organisational, job, and person analysis) Enable right learner mindset (such as building self-efficacy, promoting learning orientation, boosting motivation) Ensure transfer of training (remove obstacles, provide tools/advice for supervisors, encourage use of debriefs and other reinforcement)
Prepare learning climate (includes preparing leaders, notifying employees, and scheduling) Follow appropriate learning principles (valid strategy and design, opportunities to practice, self-regulation, incorporating errors) Evaluate training (specify purpose, evaluate at multiple levels, precisely link to training needs)
Use tech wisely

What this table clearly shows, and this is super important, is that

Training is so much more than how it’s perceived in L&D!

The table clearly shows that the research on training effectiveness gives us a high quality toolbox that includes all the so-called ‘modern’ approaches, such as learning on the job, just-in-time personalised performance support, social and collaborative learning, and so the list goes on. There is a wealth of training research that we can benefit from as L&D professionals, but what do we do? We confuse things by having discussions about how we shouldn’t call our offerings training, but rather learning. Or no, wait, we shouldn’t focus on learning, only on performance, followed by the gobbledygook that people go to work to work and not to learn and that’s then used as an argument that we shouldn’t offer training. While training is about improving performance to help people do their jobs better, so what’s the point???

Also, the terms used aren’t always well-defined. For example, informal and experiential learning are often used interchangeably, while informal learning is a broader term. Eraut (2004) defined it as learning that comes closer to the informal end than the formal end of a continuum and its characteristics include implicit, unintended, opportunistic and unstructured learning and the absence of a teacher. It can be experiential but it doesn’t have to be. The main point is that I feel we twaddle on, losing sight of what’s really important. Why don’t we focus on what research shows us and go from there?

Let’s take a research-based approach!

Let’s be a bit more humble and stand on the shoulders of strong researchers (for example Salas, Tannenbaum, and Eraut or people like Will Thalheimer and Patti Shank who help us understand and apply the research already out there) instead of throwing around terms like ‘disruption’ and ‘transformation’ while we really haven’t even reached the point yet where we’re aware of the state of the art based on research and, even more important, where we’re applying this research in practice! Let’s start with a focussed approach towards achieving best practice based on current empirical scientific research (and not, for example eminence based quackery) and keep our focus on what and who we’re doing it for: organisations and their employees!

References

Arets, J., Jennings, C., & Heijnen, V., (2015). 702010 towards 100% performance. Maastricht, The Netherlands: Sutler Media. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Kurt_Kraiger/publication/260178378_The_Science_of_Training_and_Development_in_Organizations_What_Matters_in_Practice/links/55614ba208ae6f4dcc93c47d.pdf

Eraut, M. (2004). Informal learning in the workplace. Studies in continuing education, 26, 247-273. Retrieved from http://old.mofet.macam.ac.il/iun-archive/mechkar/pdf/InformalLearning.pdf

Salas, E., Tannenbaum, S. I., Kraiger, K., & Smith-Jentsch, K. A. (2012). The science of training and development in organizations: What matters in practice. Psychological science in the public interest, 13(2), 74-101.

Van Merriënboer, J. G., & Kirschner, P. A. (2017). Ten steps to complex learning: A systematic approach to four-component instructional design (3rd edition). London, UK: Routledge.

 

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