Training vs Learning

There is absolutely a place for training in the world of work and in life outside of work. Sometimes you need to be trained on how to use the new suite of software that your company has just bought and is asking everyone to use. You can attend a training with a bunch of your co-workers, learn how to navigate through the software and use it when you get back to your desk. Sometimes you need to learn how to use your new phone, so the Apple store representative walks you through the process. That representative trains you to use your new phone.

But training has its limits. And training, as a term, is often used to encapsulate all professional development and all of what a learning and development leader does.

I think of training as surgery. A trainer opens up your mind and places something in it. You now have something in your mind that wasn’t there before. And maybe, if the training was effective, you can perform a task that you could not perform before.

Training is different than learning.

Learning is a process by which new knowledge and understanding passes through us while we are taking action. You can be trained on exactly how to make an omelette. You are told to take two eggs, beat them in a bowl, start sauteing onions and garlic in a pan, add peppers and tomatoes, pour in the beaten eggs, flip the omelette, fold it over some feta cheese and remove from the pan. That’s the knowledge you need. You have been trained. But, for anyone who has actually made omelettes again and again, you know that all kinds of subtle learning takes place on every level as you actually do the work.

How small do you chop the garlic? What level of heat do you place under the pan? When do you lower that heat? What’s the perfect point at which to add the eggs and thus stop the browning of the onions and garlic? What’s the right size pan for a two-egg omelette so that it is thin but not too thin? What about a three-egg omelette?

Learning is the process by which you wrestle with those questions, use trial and error, refine your technique and get better over time.

What are the implications of training when it comes to work?

We, at CultivateMe, believe that work is the best platform for learning that exists in the world. We define work as any challenge that you are engaged in that forces you to press up against the edge of your skillset and take risks. Training tends to be artificial. You go to a place away from where you normally work — a conference room in the office, a hotel suite in another city, a ballroom — spend a lot of time listening, maybe get involved in an activity (which is almost certainly not authentically connected to the real world) and leave with the mandate that you will leverage this training into your work… tomorrow!

Training pulls you away from your work

Training usually requires that you stop working for the duration of the training. After all, you are going to a training! And in an effort to make the training relevant for everyone involved — usually a relatively diverse group of people who come from a number of different roles or are at a number of different levels of mastery within their jobs or both — the content is universal at best and generic at worst. So it is not exactly about your work. It is about work like your work.

Learning pulls you into your work

Because learning, by contrast, requires that you are doing something authentic that you would be doing anyway — your work — it forces you to become more deliberate and metacognitive about the work that you do. All of a sudden, because you have decided that you are going to focus on becoming better at social awareness — listening, understanding and anticipating — when you are in the weekly meeting that you always attend, you are more conscious of yourself and of the way others conduct themselves. You are looking at your work through the lens of social awareness. This is what I refer to as lookout learning. Lookout learning requires that you are choosing to learn something and you are on the look out for that something in the context of your everyday work.

Open learning is different. Open learning does not require that you are looking to learn anything in particular. But it does require that you are conscious of your actions and words and thoughts and the actions and words of those around you. You’re not looking for something specific, but you are open to learning. In the Open Learning mindset, you are able to recognize learning when you see it, even when it appears in the most unlikely of places.

Here’s the problem

Training is easily packaged and sold. If I said to you that I could offer your team a one-day training in something that is relevant to you for $2,500 and that the one-day training would prepare your people to jump-start their work in a new way, that would be something that you could likely wrap your head around. It’s got a price. It’s got a finite time box around it. It’s got a clear deliverable (even if that clear deliverable may not work out according to plan). You can pick it up off the shelf and buy it.

By contrast, if I told you that I could offer you an ongoing framework for learning that would not require any formal training but that would tap into the metacognitive thinking, processing and learning of your people for the benefit of each of their own growth and the growth of the organization as a whole, what would you say? How much does it cost? How long will it take? What will it require of my team members? How will I know if it worked? All of these questions are reasonable and are answerable, but they present a perception problem.

It is not as easy to sell the idea of learning as it is to sell the idea of training.

It’s not “off the shelf”. It’s not packaged neatly. It will likely evolve based on the needs of the participants. It will last for an indeterminate amount of time. And that translates into an unpredictable cost. And all of that gets in the way of the more important consideration: the fact that learning is far more effective than training!

How are we able to ignore the truth because of the distraction of a complicated delivery structure? I don’t know. But we are.

So it is our job as learning leaders to change the paradigm on the debate. We need to work harder to gather measurable and respected metrics that prove that learning is more effective than training. And we need to work on articulating the value of ongoing learning as an integrated, sticky, sustainable, self-propelled, motivating, engaging tool for employee satisfaction, happiness, retention and growth. If we can do that, the learning movement will take flight.

Here’s your challenge: The next time you are asked to attend a training, observe the way this training ends up integrating itself into your work the next day. See if it does, in fact, become relevant to what you do. It might. It really depends on the training and the trainer and the subject matter and how just-right the subject matter is to your moment in time. By contrast, select a skill that you want to get better at and observe the way it enters into your every day work. (If you like, use our Iris to search for a skill that excites you.) Then, see if being conscious of an area in which you would like to grow changes the way you approach your work and, in fact, leads to learning that is intertwined with the work you do.

I’d love to hear about what you learn. We at CultivateMe are fascinated with the way people work now, the way people wish they could work in the future and how we can build the bridge to the new world where learning and work are two parts of the same whole. Send me an email at

If you’d like to Take a Selfie of your Skills, click here and see what you bring to the table, what makes you unique, what makes you fantastic.