Training – the 8% Solution

Does your organisation live in complicated or a complex world?

When you are developing training, are you addressing complicated or complex issues?

Via Rob Paterson, and the book More Space, are two important differentiations between complicated & complex systems given by Johnnie Moore, in Simple Ideas, Lightly Held:

complicated = not simple, but ultimately knowable (e.g. the wiring on an aircraft)
complex = not simple and never fully knowable. Just too many variables interact.

If you are working with a complicated system, such as an aircraft, then the entire system is knowable, even though it would take much time and practice. Training would be the right tool to develop your skills to fly or fix the aircraft. I know, because I’ve designed aircraft training. There’s a lot of stuff to know and do, but training works and people can eventually master the system.

Complicated systems and the training for them can be controlled. Complex systems and learning how to work with them cannot.

If you are working with a complex system, you will never be able to know everything. For instance, the environment and communities are complex systems that cannot be controlled, only influenced. There are no right answers, there are many ways of trying to achieve your goals and there are too many variables to control.

The other day I was asked about the essence of implementing informal learning, and I believe that it is the act of giving up control. This is scary for many inside the organisation, but it’s the only way to manage in a complex environment. As the world becomes more networked, interdependent and environmentally challenged, all organisations are moving into complex environments.

Here is an indicator of how complex our work is becoming. It used to be that you could master the majority of what you needed for your work. This is no longer the case, as shown by Robert Kelley of Carnegie-Mellon University, when he asked this research question (via Jay):

What percentage of the knowledge you need to do your job is stored in your own mind?

  • 1986: 75%
  • 1997: 15-20%
  • 2006: estimated 8 -10%

This is one more reason why informal learning structures (not procedures) are necessary to support individual learning in a complex environment, where it is impossible to control the process as we could with training. Informal learning is the way in which your employees, bosses and colleagues will have to learn that significant other 92% of knowledge necessary for their jobs – today. It’s not that we don’t need training; we just need a lot more informal learning.

5 Responses to “Training – the 8% Solution”

  1. Jacques

    En lisant ceci, je pensais aux enseignants qui s’obstinent à ne pas se remettre en question et d’actualiser leurs pratiques pédagogiques de peur de perdre le contrôle qu’ils exercent sur la classe… Mais aussi, je pense aux autres qui osent faire une vraie différence, dans un contexte complexe et oh! combien stimulant. Une chance qu’il y en a… 😉

  2. Dave Lee

    Hey Harold:
    I have a couple of concerns about assumptions and/or definitions you’re using in your post.

    From what Jay reports and the document he provided the link for, the 8-10% represents factual knowledge, but doesn’t account for other forms of knowledge. While it can be argued that a process is knowledge, I think most would agree that knowledge of that process is knowledge. As is when to use the process or how to complete it.

    But no matter what you, Jay, Mr. Kelley or I think, the data is not supported, that we are aware of, by what the respondents to Mr. Kelley’s question think knowledge is. What are they including in that 8-10%.

    Another assumption that you seem to be making is that training is only about that 8-10%. In reality, we don’t know how to compare it to what training does, but you seem to be equating it with factual knowledge. Training can teach situational knowledge (think of call center training that teaches options based upon caller responses.) Training can teach strategies (roll playing in management training). Most leadership training does very little instruction of factual knowledge.

    Finally, we can’t leave the argument simply at the other 92% needs something other than training. Or, informal learning is the 80% that’s not training as Jay likes to say. As a lot, we learning professionals have been very good at setting up strawmen that we identify as other than what we are. But we’ve spent very little time figuring out where that leaves us.

  3. Harold

    Dave, you’re right; I’ve taken some liberties, as there is no direct correlation here. However, I stand firmly that training can only address a small portion of work performance and that training is often used as a blanket approach when various other interventions would be better and cheaper. As our work environments become more complex, the limitations of training become more pronounced.

    I’ve said this before in, “Training: A solution looking for a problem”

    I’ve also listed some of the performance interventions that “trainers” usually don’t consider, in “Informal Learning and performance technology”

    In my own consulting practice, I usually pass on a contract where training is the obvious solution, unless it’s a very complicated project. Lots of people know how to develop good training programs and there is much research and practice to back them up. I’ve developed training programs myself, and know that they work in clearly defined areas, such as flying helicopters.

    I am more interested in improving organisational performance without resorting to expensive training programs. My experience, and the experience of other HPT practitioners, is that most (60%, 80%, 92% – who knows) organisational performance issues require something other than training. Supporting informal learning is one method that can help address constantly changing knowledge requirements.

    You’re right; I do have to work on this argument and expand it. Thanks, Dave.

  4. Sig

    Good one Harold!

    Here’s a thought re complicated vs. complex:

    Understanding requires a conscious “model” of the reality, and as complex is “never fully knowable” one could claim that it’s due to lack of a suitable, or use of the wrong “model”.

    If we ever had accepted “never fully knowable” humanity would have stopped developing, thankfully new “models” (i.e. understanding) were developed.

    Time to do that for the complex(?) and model-based (hierarchies, double entry book keeping, budgets, etc) world of organisations I’d say… 😉


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