Beyond training

Update: This post is featured on The Working/Learning Carnival along with several other interesting articles.

Marketing and training have certain similarities – gaining attention; getting your message across; and changing behaviour. When Seth Godin says that mass marketing is dead, I ask if mass training is far behind:

Marketing had an arc, one that started with personal, local interactions between real people and rapidly morphed into very corporate anonymous actions aimed at the unwilling masses.

Mass marketing really came into its own after the Second World War, and most prominently in the US:

With the foundations in place [high rate of savings, few consumer goods, end of war, interstate highway system], the “mass” aspects of marketing came into existence in the form of mass demand, massive stores, and mass communications.

Compare the rise of mass marketing to mass training. The wars (1914-1945) brought about the systems approach to training, the basis of instuctional system design (ISD), still used by the military and emulated by much corporate training. Both of these mass, one to many, systems appeared at about the same time. They were used to achieve economies of scale and depended upon good one-way communications systems. Both marketing and training at the mass level depend on a limited number of “channels” available to the individual. That has changed.

Why does Godin think that this is the end of mass marketing? Social media:

Social media’s growth in the last three years, though, gives marketers an inkling that there may be something else going on. Sure, they can run spam ads on Facebook, but they don’t work. Social media, it turns out, isn’t about aggregating audiences so you can yell at them about the junk you want to sell. Social media, in fact, is a basic human need, revealed digitally online. We want to be connected, to make a difference, to matter, to be missed. We want to belong, and yes, we want to be led.

Since many (most) people can easily connect with people and information, and are starting to find ways to make a difference in their learning, why would they want to follow a pre-set training program designed in a one-size-fits-all fashion? It actually goes against human nature. Each one of us wants to be unique.

Good trainers know how to personalize and contextualize their sessions, but social media can reinforce this continuously, not constrained by time or space. Successful organisations will move from a training focus, and even beyond a performance improvement focus, to a connecting and facilitating one, with tools such as social media to do this. In an always-on, totally connected work environment, how else could you help people to work and learn? You could design a new course, but that may no longer be a viable option in the near future.

14 Responses to “Beyond training”

  1. Guy Boulet

    If mass marketing is dead, can someone explain to me why I keep receiving more and more junk email? I’m not a marketing expert, but if the insdustry wants to personalised marketing to meet the personal needs of each and every individual it will likely be expensive and may not be efficient. The main benefit of mass marketing is that it provides a quick and cheap way to reach a large public and it takes into account that only a small part of the targeted public will care about your message.

    As for training, I agree that personalized training is more efficient on an individual basis, but is it finacially feasible for a large organization to individually train each and every employees? Can you imagine the military providing individualized recruit training where each recruit would be doing its own learning at his own pace, only being linked to one another through facebook? A virtual community is nothing more than virtual, meaning that it only simulates the conditions of a real community.

    In the military context, mass training is not only a mean to save time and money, it serves as a catalyst to create a strong sense of community. The training is far from being individualized: one size fits all, but what makes the military community so strong is that everyone has gone through the same indoctrination. And what the training does not provide, the community does. Individuals who are stong in some subject matters will help others at night in the shack: this is called team work. At some points teams can become so strong that individuals will be ready to put their life on the line for their team mates. Who would risk his life for a facebook friend?

    The same applies to the enterprise: if you want the employees to feel as being part of a team, you must provide them real life opportunities to interact, not just virtually because individuals care more about people they actually met that people they just know by their username.

    So, mass training may not be the best way to teach each and every learner, but in some situations it is sure a good way to develop a sense of belonging and stimulate informal learning within the a group.

  2. Harold Jarche

    Guy, I’m sure that it is financially viable to individualize training in a large corporation, we just don’t have the right mind-set. We do have the tools

    The military-industrial training model is no longer viable for business training and I’m not sure it is viable in the military either. The new battlefield, which no longer has a front line or clear lines of command and control, requires soldiers who can think and act for themselves. Low intensity, long term warfare is very different from the fast moving mechanized warfare of the past.

    Look at how loose-knit organisations that have no real centre (Al Queda and the Taliban) have been able to bog down the most advanced industrial armies in the world. Neither of these enemy forces have centralized, mass training programs, yet they have a strong sense of community. They understand networks.

  3. Joe Horne


    Great post. As a refuge from the corporate training world, I have to say that most adult learners don’t want to come to another class, no matter how wonderfully developed we think it is. And when I think about the intense “mass marketing” we had to do to fill a few seats…I suspect we spent more time marketing than actually training.

    While we will continue to have mass training for certain things, much of it will be social in nature. What might social mass learning look like? While it’s true we get lots of junk mail, does anyone actually take it inside the house? Mine goes immediately into the recycle bin in the garage…Apparently without mass mailings, the US Postal Service would fold…

    Now that I work in the K-12 world, I see a lot of similarities. Kids, certainly by high school and often before, are ready to forge their own learning path. As more colleges abandon the SAT, GRE, etc., other admission criteria will emerge. It’s an exciting time to watch it unfold.

  4. Virginia Yonkers

    I am in the field of both education and marketing (I teach both education and marketing courses) and I have long said there is very little difference. In both, there is needs assessment and plans of action based on the context along with different ways to communicate the same message. Just like in education/training, however, there are differences in opinion as to the most “cost effective” way to meet goals (or sales targets).

    In fact, there is a debate going on in the marketing world as to whether the new targeted marketing using new technologies is the way to go. “Viral Marketing” using things such as facebook has really taken off. But more traditional organizations have criticized this form of marketing as it is difficult to measure its impact (sound familiar on the training side?). I think, like marketing, there will always be the traditionalists, but they will start to change as there is evidence of the impact that training 2.0 (for lack of a better term) has on organizational learning and acheivement.

  5. Marguerite Inscoe

    I love how this article simply states, the way we will learn in the future is not how we’ve learned in the past. It doesn’t mean that all past practices will fade; proven concepts and strategies will always have their place. As learning professionals we need to take a hard look around us. Very little is the same in life as was it was 20 years ago, and yet many are teaching the same way. The amount of information available now is almost inconceivable. Compare this to marketing and it makes a lot of sense. The number of products and services every business wants to sell you is innumerable. Technology has allowed for spam marketing but it has also, for the first time, made advertising customizable to the consumer. It looks like commerce is setting the pace for creating behavioral change and the learning industry is just catching on.

  6. Dave Ferguson

    Harold, that’s a hell of a cogent metaphor you make in your comments.

    I was musing earlier today (might have been in a comment somewhere) that one reason traditional corporate training looks as measureable and as effective as it does is that so much other stuff happens to make it look good — people survive information dumps, coworkers aid each other, little guerilla job aids emerge.

    A side effect of this rudderless approach, though, is inefficiency and superstition: people doing something in this way mostly because that’s how Ned did it, and Ned knew all about the system.

    (Just to be clear — by “rudderless” I mean traditional organizational training, low on front-end analysis and generally bereft of either transfer or on-the-job support.)

  7. Harold Jarche

    Thanks for the comments so far. I don’t think that moving beyond training or even beyond performance improvement is an either/or situation. Much as there are still major opportunities for PI, we will see opportunities for networked, informal learning for a long time. What is important is that those in the training or learning & development role understand that their jobs are at stake if they cannot deliver results. Courses and formal training are a shrinking compartment in the overall toolbox.

  8. Dave Ferguson

    I’m with you on that. I commented on a LinkedIn question about definitions for training, learning, education, and development (a conversation I’d often shun).

    To me, “learning” underlies all the others, because I see learning as the individual’s activity that results in new or strengthened neural connections. (Not that you sit in your chair and say, “let’s build some neurons.”)

    The other three, for discussion’s sake, I see as ovals on a spectrum. Training (gaining competence in explicit / near-transfer tasks) at the low end, education (explicit / far-transfer) overlapping it a bit. I’m not crazy about “development” in this taxonomy, but if forced, I’d have it overlap on the other side of education.

    You’re right, I think, about formal training as a shrinking component — I just think it’s hard for learning professionals and line managers to agree on a vision of what comes next.

  9. Guy Boulet

    We currently are developing and delivering training for a new software application we are implementing in our organisation ( a large university). Although we might like to offer future users a personalized approach, we don’t have the leaisure to do so. We have over 700 learners to train on more than 15 different processes in a few months. Therefore we use “mass training” to offer the basic theory behind the processes and f2f training for practical application of the concepts. Everyone must perform the same tasks the same way, why should we provide personalized training?

    We however offer them a practice environment where they can go on their own and practice what they have been train to do. This is where they can experiment and personalized their learning based on their level of knowledge.

    Lets just assume that we do not provide the the “mass training” and instead we just provide them exercises to practice on their own in the practice environment. Our help line would be overloaded, people will be frustrated to have to wait online and therefore will be more reluctant to learn the new system. We can afford having a trainer teach 15 persons per day, but can we afford having 4 or 5 persons answering each and every day the same questions asked by 25 or 50 different indiuviduals, especially if those questions could have been avoided by a simple group demonstration? And for peer support, who can support when nobody knows about the new system?

    In some instances, you just can’t let people learn on their own if you cannot support their learning. It may be more pedagogically sound to personnalized training, but it’s not always efficient from a managers point of view. In my mind, each situation is different and requires a specific solution.

  10. Harold Jarche

    I would like to see the analysis work before I agreed that mass training was the right solution, but in your case may be, Guy.

    We had a client almost 10 years ago who needed to “train” customer service reps on a new software application. After some on-site workflow analysis we determined that much of the training was needed to make up for poor user interface design. We built a performance support tool (decision-tree in a browser) and reduced what had been a five week course to five days of instruction on how to use the tool.

    Also, I am sure that there are different computer learning skills amongst these 700 learners. I know that my son can learn a new program in very short order, while my wife needs to be coached through the process. The same course may not be appropriate for everyone.

    My own rule of thumb is that training is the last resort, when all other performance improvement alternatives (which are usually cheaper) have been discounted.


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