For the past several years, organizations have been subtly shifting from the role of Training Director to Chief Learning Officer. Those simple words belie the dramatic transformation of a key function. This is a change that, I’m willing to bet, no one really notices or cares about except those in the field of learning. Ah, but they should.
Let’s start with training versus learning. Training implies a passive role; you train me to do something you already know how to do. On the other hand, learning requires both a decision to learn, and active participation in the learning. If the goal is to change behavior, training will rarely accomplish the goal.
The titles of Director and Chief are a shift, as well. The training director was responsible for assessing need, and for developing, implementing and evaluating training programs. A chief executive role infers a strategic responsibility for a major focus of the organization.
The bottom line: the Chief Learning Officer has a set of skills that goes well beyond the knowledge of how to do something, and how to most effectively convey that information to others. The Chief Learning Officer is a student of adult learning, professionally known as andragogy. This knowledge forms a foundation for not just conveying content, but for changing behavior – one of the biggest challenges for organizations today.
Malcolm Knowles is considered the father of andragogy, credited with recognizing that educating adults is different than educating children (although I think teachers of children could learn a thing or two from andragogy.) The basic premise is that pushing content on an adult will be difficult unless the adult wants to learn. That blows a hole in the concept of mandatory training, doesn’t it?
Having served as a Chief Learning Officer in two large organizations, I struggled to help my internal clients understand the value of learning, and minimize the concept of training. I found myself up against seasoned specialists who truly believed that all you had to do was to tell the novice what you know, and the novice will “get it” and be successful. Sorry folks, it just isn’t that easy.
Let’s examine Knowles’ theory of andragogy within the context of today’s organization and see if we can create a case for action in moving from training to learning.
Adults need to know the reason for learning something
Okay, so at the beginning of the mandatory online training, the instructional designer inserts a slide explaining why every employee of the hospital must take a course on hospital safety. That does it, right?
Not quite. I’m in finance, why do I need to know this since my office is not in the hospital? The answer could be because regulations require that everyone be trained annually on hospital safety. Perhaps that gets me to compliance; I’ll take the course because you’re making me.
What if the culture of the hospital was one of collaboration, recognizing that everyone, no matter what their job, impacted the patient? What if every leader believed in their heart that all employees should have and understanding of and appreciation for the scope of work that goes into taking care of the patient, and helped every employee draw a solid line between their work and the patient. What if the leader recognized that the best way to draw the solid line was to spend time in the hospital and encouraged them to volunteer?
Now it’s getting real for the employee. She sees the patients, the staff and the surroundings. She begins to understand the importance of safety, not just for the patients but for the employees. She has a leader who honors the reason for the online safety program, rather than ridicules it. We begin to see compliance morph into commitment.
Experience, including error, provides the basis for learning activities
I actually once saw a trainer attempt to teach a new software by showing slides of the computer screen in a room without any computers. But software isn’t the only learning that needs to be experienced. Take a new manager who attends a class to learn how to deliver a performance review. The instructor talks through a popular model used to help managers provide good feedback. It all makes great sense in the classroom. But on the night before the first review, the manager loses sleep, and the next morning stutters his way through the meeting.
The more complicated the behavior, the more practice is required. In the above instance, the new manager doesn’t realize the preparation required, the impact of poor word choice, or the pushback he will receive from the employee.
Providing a safe space to learn and practice, like physicians practice on mannequins, allows the learner to find all the ways to fail before he actually has to perform.
Adults need to be responsible for their decisions on education
Today, learners can learn anything, any time. The wealth of information available through the internet is overwhelming. Wise learning professionals are minimizing the class in favor of curating existing learning programs, and helping leaders and employees create a desire to learn and navigate the options.
Strong leaders who partner with learning professionals can build road maps for employees in the current or future job. Learning professionals can help leaders see the critical role they play in developing their employees and their teams. Leaders who can foster a thirst to learn, and then put the new skills to use will create engaged and committed teams.
Adults are most interested in learning subjects having immediate relevance to their work
The key word here is immediate. Think about new manager training: 50 slides of policy, law and regulation does little more than paralyze the manager. She needs the information when she needs it, and will most likely not remember it from class.
Technology has enabled “just in time” learning through communities of practice and knowledge management products that enable finding answers at the time they are needed. For the learning professionals and leaders, this means helping the learner know that something needs to be learned, and where to go to learn.
Again with the example of the new manager, the important message early on is that they must treat their employees fairly and appropriately, and that there are severe penalties for acting inappropriately. They need to get a sense of what “appropriate” means in the context of discrimination, harassment and accommodating disabilities. They need to know that there are laws protecting people and that their best course of action is to treat people fairly, honestly and with respect. At the point in time where an employee asks for a reasonable accommodation for their disability, they need a place to go for information on that particular situation.
Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented
This is probably my favorite because it gets to the crux of the adult learner. Providing content that cannot be immediately used is wasted time and energy. But providing a problem to solve and a reason to do so, engages the learner and provides a natural beginning and end. Problems are rarely one-dimensional, so not only do you learn a solution to the problem but you also learn about resources, working with others, and develop a sense of confidence.
You could create a leadership program that teaches foundations of communication, operations, team dynamics, and influencing, or you could give a small leadership group a complex problem to solve, and help them reflect on what they learned. Chances are, they’ll be far more engaged with a real problem to solve.
Adults respond better to internal versus external motivators
Providing a reward for learning may create interest in the learner, but the next time she’ll expect a reward, and she’ll probably learn exactly what you tell her to learn. Sparking passion and interest in a learner creates motivation to go beyond, to dig deep and to grasp the very nature of the content.
Back to the mandatory training, tell an employee that he’ll get a movie ticket for completing it, and he’ll probably do so. Creating an environment where he sees the rationale, sees relevance for his own role and wants to learn gains commitment instead of mere compliance.
Learning is a real profession, with real knowledge and skills
Think about your organization for a minute. How many people are in jobs requiring them to follow detailed procedures and perform the same work routinely? That just doesn’t exist anymore. Having employees that are nimble and flexible, that can think on their own and make good decisions is critical in our world today.
This is learning. This is the role of the chief learning officer and his team – to create an environment of continuous and agile learning across the organization, and to develop a team of leaders who can inspire rather than command.