This article appeared in Inside Learning Technologies & Skills Magazine, January 2015
Harold Jarche issues a challenge to L&D professionals in an environment where getting the work done is more important than learning anything new.
In the mid 1990s I became involved with my most expensive learning project. I was then serving as a Training Development Officer with the Canadian Armed Forces, working in tactical aviation (helicopters that support the Army). We had just purchased 100 helicopters. A $25 m full-motion combat simulator had been thrown in with the $1 bn budget. I was able to watch as the new simulator was installed at our training unit, as my office was next to it. As it was tested, discussions began on how best it could be used. As the ‘training guy’ I started researching best practices in flight simulation, and was able to see what our NATO allies were doing.
My work also involved research into the use of other simulators, such as cockpit procedure trainers and maintenance trainers, which were much cheaper than the one we had purchased. These lower-fidelity simulators had not been part of the original budget as it had been assumed that one comprehensive simulator would be enough. Unfortunately, a single simulator creates a bottleneck as only two pilots can be trained at any time. It also creates a potential single point of failure.
I wrote a paper on the need to develop an integrated approach to specifying what type of simulation was most suitable for any training tasks. For example, teaching start-up and shutdown sequences does not require a full-motion simulator, as those actual tasks occur while the aircraft is on the ground. They require switches, gauges, and dials that act like the real things, though. I suggested we develop a decision- support tool that looked at both physical and functional fidelity, and integrate this into the training system documentation. My recommendations were based on current practices with several other armed forces. Without such a documented process, decisions to purchase expensive simulators would continue to be made on a best-guess basis. We needed a way to clearly specify our training resource needs at the onset of a project, as millions of dollars were at stake and it was difficult to purchase any extra equipment once the main capital project had been funded.
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
After retiring from the military, and almost ten years after writing my internal military discussion paper, I was hired by a defence contractor to look at how training could be analysed to determine the optimal maintenance training for helicopter technicians. The focus was on specifying a maintenance simulator which could develop trouble-shooting skills. Upon asking for the available military documentation on training analysis, I found that there was still nothing that addressed simulation. There was no guidance on what type of simulator to purchase to meet training needs.
I wrote another paper on behalf of my client, explaining the need for a decision- support tool that connected simulation fidelity with both human learning and the operational tasks. The main question I tried to answer was: How do we specify the optimal level of simulation fidelity for any task? I could only suggest a general path forward, as I lacked all the data and research to go further, but it was obviously feasible to do so.
Several years later, in 2013, I met with representatives of the same contractor at a military training and simulation conference. One of the themes was how the military needed to make better uses of simulation and emulation for training. Presentations by military staff confirmed that they had no clear way to specify to industry what level of simulation was required to train personnel on a new piece of equipment. Again, millions of dollars were at stake. Not only had none of my recommendations been implemented, but my ex-client also had no record of my report. Nothing had changed. It was not just that my paper had not been used. The documentation on how to analyse tasks for training still did not include any discussion of the use of simulation. Training simulation analysis and design was continuing to be done on an ad hoc basis, usually as an afterthought to a major equipment purchase.
I learned from this series of events that training will always be a secondary player in the enterprise landscape.
WHAT OTHERS SEE
Good training analysis and design, in the larger scheme of organisational management, does not matter. Capital projects consider it a mere add-on. The training world can come up with better instructional design or new standards, but the folks who make the real decisions will continue to ignore them.
It is important for the learning and development world to understand the mindset of those making the big enterprise decisions. Training and learning are of little importance to them. However, acceptance of this fact can put the L&D profession in the right position to advance learning and development. They must be prepared to sell the idea behind anything they need to accomplish. L&D professionals have to become internal marketing specialists.
ACADEMIA AND EDUCATION
Those who read this magazine may talk about the importance of learning, but for the most part, organisations do not actively support learning. Let’s start with schools. Schools tend to focus on weaknesses instead of strengths. They also focus too much on content dissemination. Our institutions have failed to foster the love of learning, and often do not motivate students to learn for themselves – in many cases it’s the opposite. One problem is the continuing focus on subject-based curriculum. It separates education from reality. We do not live our lives in subject areas, and no workplace is subject-based, but almost all of our curricula are stuffed into subject silos. For anyone who does not enjoy school, this sets up learning as something to avoid later in life. In addition, mastery of the curriculum (content) is what the school administration assesses. Once again, this separates the school from outside reality.
Our educational models disconnect school (learning) from business (work). I remember as a young infantry officer arriving at my new unit, and being told to forget everything I had learned in training. Now I would have to learn how things really worked. This kind of attitude exists in many workplaces, attesting to how the education world is perceived.
LEARNING IS THE WORK
Our workplaces are becoming highly networked. The transmission of ideas can be instantaneous. There is no time to pause, go into the back room, and then develop something to address our learning needs. The problem will have changed by then. We need to learn as we work. In an era of exploding knowledge in all fields of science and technology, taking care of business should mean taking care of learning.
Learning has to be part of work. We have to make it everyone’s job to share what he or she learns. But in many businesses, getting work done is more important than learning anything new. Short-term thinking starts with quarterly market results and drives down to individual performance management. Learning something new hardly has a chance in the busy workplace.
Look at how corporate e-learning is usually developed. Often it’s a case of putting content online and hoping some of it sticks and translates into changed workplace behaviour. It’s easy to build a course based on defined content, as there are no messy, individual, radical learners to get in the way, only a fictional, generalised target population. My experience is that neither the public educational system, higher education, nor the corporate training business have made any great achievements in facilitating learning during the past two decades. The greatest advances have been in people learning for themselves as they connect via the Web.
We know that people learn socially. We learn through observation and modelling. Promoting learning is not the same as promoting education and training. Individual and peer-to-peer learning is a key part of workplace learning. I developed a personal knowledge mastery (PKM) framework to support this kind of learning for professional development.
I have worked with universities to include PKM as part of their curriculum, as well as companies who incorporate PKM into their leadership programmes, or make it a core component of work competence. Getting individuals to take control of their workplace learning then frees the L&D field from filling orders for training courses. Instead, they can respond to workplace needs.
Practices like PKM are only the first step. Systemic barriers to learning also have to be removed. Imagine a research intensive organisation where scientists should be sharing what they learn, and the official company policy is to share information and expertise among public and private partners. However, the company is ‘downsizing’ and layoffs are based on performance reviews. If one scientists helps a peer develop a patented product, and as a result the peer gets a better annual review, then the former may end up losing his job during the next round of layoffs.
Sharing knowledge is not a good personal strategy in this work environment. So, we see that government policies, like intellectual property regulations, can drive business practices, like financial rewards for patents, which can impede learning, and in the end we all lose. In complex systems, the solutions are never simple, but our only hope is learning how to learn better and faster – individually and as a society. If we want to promote learning we should first look at what is blocking it. L&D professionals have to think bigger than training and courses in a world where everything is connected.
Removing barriers should be the focus of the learning and development professional, not delivering content. It is time to stop being takers of orders and become better diagnosticians. Solving problems will help L&D be seen as a valued part of the enterprise. L&D professionals therefore have to master their own field as well the business they support.
In addition, they have to understand that few outside L&D think what they do is important. It’s a big challenge, but learning is becoming critical to all businesses. It is up to L&D to be part of this.