Toward A New Model for Corporate Learning and Development (Part 1)

Stephen P. Anderson
Jun 18 · 13 min read

I’ve been thinking a lot about how organizations train their employees. More specifically, what works and (as is more often the case) what isn’t working. It was these thoughts that led me to develop a learning model that I think could apply, well… universally! Part 1 of this article will unpack a bit of the thinking that led to this model. Part 2 will share the model, and how it might be used.

Note: This model is not about “how learning takes place” (I have several of those thoughts waiting in the wings!) but rather a macro-level tool for planning corporate learning and development experiences. Hence, the ‘paternalistic’ nature of this model . Look to future posts where I’ll share my views on learning as something more self-directed, communal, and egalitarian.


Let’s begin with some observations. Three things, specifically, have been bothering me about how large companies support learning.

  1. Why are trainings the “go to” mode of teaching used to support corporate learning?
  2. Why is no one talking about — and holding people to account for — an ultimate, desired outcome?
  3. Why do we treat everything as a topic to be taught?

Indulge me while I rant and share some semi-organized thoughts. It’s these thoughts that are the context that led to my model. Note: These experiences are my own, and may not be representative of your experiences. Regardless, I do believe — sincerely hope! — the resulting model has universal relevance.

Let’s dig in…

1. Why is Corporate Training Always the Solution?

Stated another way: Why are trainings the “go to” mode of teaching used to support corporate learning?

See if this sounds familiar…

Some new topic or concern bubbles up in the general, corporate consciousness — articles and conversations everywhere indicate this is a ‘thing’. Some common things are: Design Thinking, Machine Learning, Diversity & Inclusion, Effective Communication Skills, Agile, Leadership Development, Emotional Intelligence/EQ, Writing Good Metrics. Let’s go ahead and throw in some good old fashioned team building, to cover all the bases.

Leadership enters the picture, becomes very interested in this thing, and decides something needs to be done.

So far, so good.

It’s was happens next I find curious.

“We need a training program for that.”

Machine Learning is a hot topic? “Let’s offer some training.”

Design Thinking seems like a thing. “Let’s train everyone on it.”

We have problems with Diversity & Inclusion. “Let’s get some training going.”

“If there is a problem, yo, training will solve it
Check out the hook while my trainer resolves it”
– NOT Vanilla Ice

Me, leading a training session.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good training or workshop. I’ve created and led more than my share of training sessions. At one point in my career, a good chunk of my income came from private workshops. More critically: Of the available options, in-person trainings and workshops are one the better tools in the learning toolbox.

But…

Trainings and workshops are only one tool in the learning toolbox. There are many other ways to facilitate learning.

Of course, any exploration of learning alternatives quickly begs the question: Why? Why are we doing this? Why is this important?

2. What is the Ultimate, Desired Outcome?

There are two ways to talk about objectives.

The first way — defining clear learning outcomes — is rarely a concern. This is training 101. Every good workshop I’ve led starts with clearly stated goals (and behind these goals are the learning outcomes I’m after). The feedback form offered after the session? This has always been to make subsequent versions of that workshop better, to improve things for future attendees. These kinds of “why are we here, today?” objectives are not an issue. It’s the bigger, macro questions, of “why was I brought here in the first place?” or “what do we hope to change about the organization?” that I rarely see called out. Or if they’re called out, it’s in an aspirational ‘we hope this gets us closer’ sort of way.

Let’s examine the implicit equation:

Identify a thing. Offer training for that thing. (We’ll come back to options other than training in a moment.)

My bigger concern is what’s missing from this equation.

We have in this equation a “What” and a “How”. Where’s the “Why?”

  • Why are we doing this?
  • What do we hope to accomplish?
  • How will we know if this is successful?

Specific learning outcomes are good, but are — or should be — in service to a broader and bigger strategic ‘Why?’ That’s what I’m looking for. I simply want to know ‘what is the ultimate, desired outcome, for individuals, for teams, and for the organization?’

Take a specific skills training as an example: There’s a difference between training people on machine learning (and measuring the retention of that knowledge) and the expectations of what they’ll actually do with this knowledge after they acquire these skills. I’m certain these expectations would require more than a day of training. And reinforcement after the fact. And ongoing practice. And… (you get the idea)

Ultimate outcomes could be things like:

  • Generate more Bold New Ideas™ for the company
  • Create high-performing teams
  • Increase collaboration between business units
  • Change a negative and widespread behavior
  • Change a prevailing mindset or belief

We could go on.

This, by the way, is the place to push back and assess ‘Is this really something we need?’ and ‘What do we not know about the situation?’. Ever the systems thinker, I often see reactions to problems that aren’t actually the real problem(s). Or, these reactions avoid the root causes and real issues. Starting with ‘Why?’ entails doing some basic customer/employee research, to make certain we understand the problem space and have accurately diagnosed the current state. Basically, this is a chance for good problem framing.

Here’s what our updated equation looks like:

Wait, let’s fix that.

Identify a thing. Figure our the change you want in the organization. Begin identifying a coordinated set of ways that you might realize the outcome.

Simply starting with the desired outcomes — the Why — gives us a better way to assess the How.

With a little translation, we now have a What, and How, and a Why.

  • What do we want people to learn?
  • Why is this important?
  • How will learning happen?

(You can see the start of my learning model, here!)

But, before we can talk about and assess the various kinds of ‘Hows’, we need to look more critically at the What.

3. Missing: A Language for “What” We Learn

Here’s where things get interesting: I asked earlier, “Why do we treat everything as a topic to be taught?”

Let me explain what I mean, and where much of my model originates. You can’t assess How learning should happen, if we don’t also have a structured way to talk about the What we hope people will learn. For example:

  • If we needed the design team to become proficient using a specific tool (such as Adobe Illustrator or Mural), then some kind of online coursework or small group training is probably appropriate. For some learners, we might support self-directed learning, with an on-call expert to help learners get unstuck. Supporting all this would be hands-on practice and critique.

However…

  • If we want of product teams to learn how to do good customer research, that’s a skill that needs to be practiced. While training or articles might be useful, the essential learning methods would be practice, feedback, and expert coaching.

Or…

  • If I want to help individuals become more self-aware and develop their Emotional Intelligence, that’s a mindset that needs to be cultivated. Alongside sweeping cultural changes, changing mindsets requires constant, on-the-job practice, coaching, and mentorship.

And…

  • If we want that same group people learning about an emerging topic, such as how should designers respond to machine learning, there is no “known” answer for people to be trained on. For emerging topics, it’s critical to fan the flames of natural curiosity and support communities of practice.

Tools. Skills. Mindsets. Emerging Topics. And so on. You can see the emergence of a taxonomy for kinds of learning topics.

Why is it important to classify what will be learned?

I knew, implicitly, that How we teach or learn something depends a great deal on What it is we’re learning. Example: An online course, video, or article can teach a person about a color theory (‘knowledge’ to acquire), but this doesn’t necessarily mean that person will be able to create a harmonious color scheme on an actual project — that’s a ‘skill’ to practice.

Along these lines, many learning circles already talk about Knowledge, Skills, and Attitude…

…but I felt there were more than just these three things to consider (especially if we want to move from the theoretical to something more actionable).

I’ll fast forward a bit here, as this is where I spent the most time, sorting and classifying different kinds of learning topics, testing my own conclusions. Testing against prior experiences. Imagine lots of me stuck in my head and twirling things around.

Ultimately, I ended up with ‘10 Kinds of Learning Topics’, chunked into four categories:

10 Kinds of Learning Topics. This is still formative, but I’m feeling pretty good about this classification system!

At some point, everything starts as an Emerging Topic. The Emerging Topics category is where I’ve placed “Topics to Pursue”.

As knowledge of that topic hardens a bit, as schools of thought emerge, and as people develop a language to describe that thing and best practices, ‘Topics to Pursue’ fall into one of two categories:

  1. Established and Quantifiable Domain Abilities, or
  2. General Qualitative Competencies.

I’m reluctant to say ‘hard skills’ and ‘soft skills’, but if that helps orient you to this model, go for it!

Established and Quantifiable Domain Abilities

Established and Quantifiable Domain Abilities includes:

  • Knowledge to Acquire— Computer science. Basic Algebra. Color Theory. Company policies. If there are facts to recall and remix, let’s consider this knowledge to acquire.
  • Tools to Learn and Use— Tools could be software such as Figma or Sketch. Tools could be code frameworks, such as learning to work with React or TensorFlow. Tools could even include ‘softer’ things like facilitation techniques (think Dot Voting or Brainstorming). If you can teach people explicitly how to use a thing (even if they may not be able to do it well), then let’s consider it a tool.
  • Skills to Practice—Of course knowing something, and knowing how to use a tool, don’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to do that thing well. Knowing Design Fundamentals (‘Knowledge’) and knowing how to merge shapes in Illustrator (‘Tool’) doesn’t make somebody skilled at graphic design. That, takes practice, feedback, and experience. Writing elegant code, inspiring teams, being a skilled communicator, leading a good research interview — these are all skills that require practice. This seems obvious, but I find many people conflate having knowledge or knowing how to use a tool with actually being skilled in a thing.

General Qualitative Competencies

General Qualitative Competencies includes:

  • Mindsets to DevelopGrowth mindset. Self-Awareness. Optimism. Rational (unbiased) thinking. Tolerance for ambiguity. Mindsets are some of the hardest things to teach, at least directly. This is about changing how someone has come to see the world. While we can talk all we want about changing minds, it’s really an individual’s personal experiences, their engagement with powerful narratives, and the encountering of provocative questions that might change a (or introduce a new) mindset. That said, we can try to ‘nurture’ a specific mindset through other means: Reflection tools (which can include provocative questions), Soft skills, and personal habits. We’ll return to the role of powerful narratives in a moment.
  • Reflection Tools to Learn & Use— Similar to their functional counterparts, reflection tools are those thingscheck-yourself questions, mad-lib statements, canvases, frameworks, card decks, and so on—used to develop specific mindsets, or simply help people reflect on squishier topics such as self-reflection or unconscious biases. Example: It’s one thing to talk about cognitive biases; it’s quite another to give me a small set of ‘check yourself’ questions to ask, before rushing to judgement. The same goes for more complicated canvases that help us reflect on difficult situations. I tend to view many reflection tools as a kind of mental ‘scaffolding’ for self-reflection.
  • Soft Skills to PracticeCritique. Questioning Strategies. Practicing your active listening skills. Using a coaching framework such as ‘GROW’ with direct reports. Managing your attention. Becoming aware of and naming cognitive biases. These kinds of things can be taught, but require practice— lots of practice. I often talk about research skills like a muscle. I can easily teach you some interview techniques and strategies, some do’s and don’ts, basic recommendations, and so on. But, doing well as a researcher requires practice, serious practice.
  • Personal Habits to Form — Somewhat different from soft skills and mindsets are personal habits. Showing up on time. Dropping certain words or pronoun references from your language. Keeping screens out of sight in a meeting. These are very narrowly defined things you can be instructed to do. Like skills, these are also easily taught. Unlike skills, this isn’t something you improve at, so much as something you simply ‘do’, again and again, until it becomes a norm. These tactical habits are both the manifestation of a mindset being developed and simple acts to help shape that mindset.

Since the boundaries between the General Qualitative Competencies might seem a bit fuzzy, here’s a simple reference model, sorting things from the tactical to conceptual:

To Facilitate Culture Change

While this seems comprehensive, there were a couple things that did not fit neatly into this classification system: Processes to Coordinate and Stories to Promote.

I’ll be clear: These final two ‘outlier’ topics are more ‘paternalistic’ in nature. This is about getting people to think in a certain way — ‘our’ way. As our learning lens is about corporate learning, there’s a place for such governance and direction. Every tribe or group has a set of shared beliefs that bind them together. Vision statements. Missions. Stories passed down. Ways of working. Roles. POVs on specific topics. Healthy or unhealthy, these are the things that define a culture. Corporations and organizations are no different. From a learning perspective then, we should also ask what levers do we (1) pull, or (2) support in service to the desired outcome? I’ve identified two levers:

To facilitate culture change, we also need to address:

  • Processes to Coordinate— This could be processes such as Six Sigma, Agile or Scrum (though I believe Agile, like Design Thinking, is really a mindset, NOT a process!). This could be governance policies (especially in heavily regulated industries). This could be the design team that evangelizes the ‘Double Diamond’ (or perhaps the opposite — no process save for constant learning and experimentation). This could be the operating model for a call center. This could be employee recognition and promotion processes. Beyond just making expectations clear, processes implicitly dictate a set of values and a point of view about the nature of a problem and how it should be approached. Supporting, clarifying, adding to, or tweaking these processes can go a long way to influencing change.
  • Stories to Promote— More than anything else, stories shape how we see the world. As individuals, we all have scripts and narratives that direct our beliefs and behaviors. These are written through years of personal and social experiences. Stories can also be written through corporate experiences. The stories that workers tell and retell. And let’s be honest: The corporate story isn’t necessarily the one plastered on walls or repeated by leadership— the real corporate story is the one passed on from employee to employee. If we can all share the same story, in our own words, without losing any essential bits — that’s a shared narrative. From a learning perspective then, we need to understand and assess how this new topic fits with (or cuts against) these pre-existing narratives.

A couple notes about this classification system:

  1. While some of these things will certainly occur together, I do feel like the boundaries between these 10 kinds of learning topics are distinct; if they do seem fuzzy, it’s because I haven’t yet clarified these distinctions very well!
  2. Small detail, but… I found that adding the ‘to [verb]’ phrasing after the stated noun further clarifies what exactly is being suggested.
  3. ‘Suited to…’ You can see how I started listing some ways you might facilitate learning in the “Suited to…” row. But, these are just a few, top of mind, examples. What would follow next is a “chinese menu” style mapping between 10 identified learning topics and potential methods for facilitating learning. Basically, a catalog of ‘How’ options, mapped to each classification of ‘What’ is to be learned.

To be continued…

Whew! So this is the thinking that led to my ‘New Model for Corporate Learning and Development’ (Sidenote: I need to come up with a catchy name for this!). In part two of this post (give me a few weeks!), I’ll walk through the structure of the model, showing how these pieces — plus a few additional bits—all come together into something we can all use.

Stephen P. Anderson

Written by

Speaker, educator, and design leader. On a mission to make learning the hard stuff fun, by creating ‘things to think with’ and ‘spaces’ for generative play.

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