The Future of Getting Better at Work

Learning is messy — if you’re doing it right.
The nature of work is changing — is the way organizations think about learning and development keeping pace?

In a static and mechanistic world, Learning and Development (as a corporate function) is largely focused on transferring discrete knowledge and skills to employees. Management identifies skills they believe employees need to be successful in the future (as if such a thing is knowable…), and they ask their resident experts to throw together a workshop, hammer out some slides, print up some reading material, and create an assessment to “prove” how successful the training was — and voilà, everyone is “trained!”

This may have worked when the skills that propelled an organization forward were obvious and isolated. But we don’t live in that mechanistic world any longer. Instead, our organizations are massively complex adaptive systems and the skills/abilities required to thrive in that complexity are very different from our past. Unfortunately, most Learning and Development programs still operate as if the world is a factory.

For Learning and Development to continue to serve a valuable role in the organization of the future it needs to look a lot less like its former self.

Integrate Training With Work

We all know training is expensive in time, money, and attention. That’s because in most companies the main opportunity cost of “doing training” is the pausing of actual work. Every minute spent sitting in a workshop or watching a webinar or going on a ropes course is a minute not spent closing the next deal, writing the report, or just generally doing the work that makes the company successful. You make the trade off because you believe that better trained employees will make up the difference with their newly acquired skills. Sometimes you’re right… but sometimes you have a sneaking suspicion you’re not.

When we think of Learning and Development in the old paradigm, as a separate function where employees are sent off to be developed and eventually returned to their position slightly more knowledgeable or enlightened, we are constantly reminded of how expensive it is. Getting out of the office and going to a new location may spur a mindset shift that’s beneficial for growth, but the only truly sustainable way for employees to get better consistently (and relevantly) is to structure their development as part of their day-to-day work. Learning and development under the new paradigm — where every work task is an opportunity for growth and learning with the proper feedback mechanisms and incentives — isn’t as expensive as packing people up and sending them to specialized events.

More: Coaching, self-reflection, learning on the job, and peer-to-peer development.
Less: People going to offsites, workshops, and then trying to “apply” what they learned to their real world work.

Treat Employees As Autonomous Adults

Granted, it’s probably not realistic to expect your Learning and Development function to drop all workshops, offsites, and other more traditional approaches to training from the calendar. And in fact, there are non-learning benefits to those things.

However, research (and/or personal experience raising a teenager) shows that the quickest way to make someone dislike something is to make it mandatory. Regulatory requirements notwithstanding, Learning and Development in the 21st century is going to become much more of a buffet affair. Just as we believe that decision making can no longer live in the top of a hierarchical managerial pyramid, decisions about training cannot be made that way either.

“Why don’t you love this mandatory training that is barely connected to anything you care about?!”

Instead, attractive options for development have to be presented to the folks who require it. That’s not to say that Learning and Development needs to be purely an on-demand service provider acting on the whim of employees, but a limited menu of options prescriptively applied negates the possibility of any meaningful development occurring.

Learning needs to become a dialogue between the people filling roles (who have a high level view on where the organization (or industry) is headed) and the folks on the front lines interacting with customers. Training focused solely on the front lines may be shortsighted, and training created solely by those in leadership positions risks being out of touch. Only in the melding of the two can Learning and Development actually be useful.

More: Self-selected training options; wider array of training types and topics; co-created training opportunities between different levels of the organization.
Less: Mandatory training; thinking we can predict the specific skills people need to be trained on, providing one specific way to develop those skills.

Self-Organize Training Opportunities

Training that exists solely in a classroom or on a computer screen is unlikely to do much good. Connecting training to real world projects — real initiatives the organization is actually trying to complete — helps bridge the gap between theory and reality. At its core, training is simply putting people into situations where they are challenged to develop new skills in order to survive and thrive. Too often the default method for this is the easy-to-scale classroom (or gasp — webinar) environment.

Instead, what if training opportunities lived as task forces or teams tackling real problems? There could be a group of people trying to develop leadership skills figuring out (with the help of a mentor or more veteran colleague) what kind of project would develop those skills and bring value to the organization? Perhaps they’d decide to conduct a qualitative review of great leaders at other companies in other industries and report back to the group. Or maybe they’d create a curriculum for themselves.

The Training Bubble — a relic of the past.

The details aren’t as important as the overall act of making the world of training and the “real world” overlap more. On its surface this may seem more inefficient, but we would argue that it’s likely to be much more effective because the skills being developed are also being tested and challenged by a real world — not the artifice of a safe and secure training environment.

When the vast majority of Learning and Development initiatives are literally and figuratively “offsite” it’s easy to start thinking about growth and learning as happening only outside the normal hustle and bustle of daily work. While stepping outside of normal routines may indeed help put us in a mindset to challenge and develop, we risk habitualizing ourselves to the idea that work happens at work and development happens elsewhere. Training and day-to-day work need to become complements to each other as opposed to utterly separate processes.

More: Learning and Development that doesn’t look or feel like training and development; peers teaching peers; connecting training to real world projects; creating opportunities for “safe failure.”
Less: Treating Learning and Development like a separate process or activity; reliance on experts when experience will do.

Learning and Development is an activity based inherently on the acceptance of failure. Learning is never a steady progression of victories and successes. It proceeds in fits and starts. It sometimes needs to go in the wrong direction. And at all times it’s quite messy. True Learning and Development embraces this reality, instead of mitigating, hiding, or avoiding it. When an environment is created where making those mistakes on the path to development acceptable, when people are treated like adults and invited into the development process instead of having it foisted upon them, and when training and working become nearly (or entirely) the same thing — that’s when our organizations themselves will have learned how to learn.


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Thanks to Oday Kamal, Gia DeMichele, Aaron Dignan, and Lisa Lewin for their editing and feedback help on this article.