Can't learn, won't learn - are you prepared?

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy September 30, 2013
Traversing the panoply of human ability to learn is never easy. But are our LMSs up to the task? Does the adding of social tools do enough?

If we are to believe that the vast majority of future jobs will be directly connected to the so-called knowledge economy engaged in the digital economy then how will that manifest itself? For Luis Suarez (who I hope to be filming later this month) The Future of Work is Learning in a world where work/life balance is challenging, where multiple careers become a reality and where 'always-on' becomes normal. Euan Semple puts it simply:

The Internet is all about learning, even if just which film to watch on TV tonight or where to shop for the best prices, but it is all learning. Likewise social tools at work are great places for learning. Learning from the experience of others, learning what is happening around you, learning how to improve yourself and become better at what you do.

Others, like Jane Hart wonder how learning works out in practice. It is Ms Hart's analysis I'd like to put under the spotlight since it is my understanding that Learning Management Systems (LMS) are enjoying something of a renaissance.

willing unwilling
Ms Hart starts with the thesis that there are four basic types of learner (see image above.) It is a useful categorization although I can easily imagine there are many shades of gray inside those categories. Why? Because people are complicated.

She then goes on to critique LMS and general approaches to learning as aimed mostly at 'directed learners' in the bottom right. As the diagram suggests, these are people who can't/won't learn unless they are spoon fed. Even then she suggests most approaches fail. She argues that having identified these categories leads to the inevitable conclusion that a one size fits all approach to learning and development does not work, Instead she says:

The willing, self-directed learners who like a lot of autonomy certainly shouldn’t be forced to endure (e-)learning solutions intended for unwilling, directed learners, they should be largely left alone, and offered more appropriate approaches, if and when required (eg compliance/regulatory training). As for the unwilling, directed learners, then maybe LESS effort needs to be spent at simply throwing, costly highly engineered e-learning at them, and MORE effort needs to be spent on (a) helping them become self-directed learners, (b) helping them find solutions that suit them as individuals, and (c) building responsibility and accountability for learning – with the obvious consequences if this doesn’t happen. All with the aim of moving them from the right-hand side of the chart to the left-hand side.

I admire Ms Hart's effort to come up with a generalised model for learning and development but I wonder just how effective such approaches really are and whether the current crop of software is baking in the capabilities needed to cater for each of those cohorts. For instance, while there is plenty of talk about learning anywhere (mobile), the use of social tools (Twitter, Facebook etc integration) and the inclusion of internal collaboration tools (Chatter, Jam, Jive etc), there seems precious little emphasis on performance outcomes. There also seems to be a tacit assumption that most people will collaborate. History teaches us that is not the case. All organizations need learning that ensures technical compliance (e.g. conformance to latest accounting edicts) is being followed, but that's just a cost with clear consequences for non-compliance. I am thinking more about the acquisition of skills in changed circumstances or approaches that emphasize behavioural change designed to improve customer service outcomes. That to me is where we should be directing attention. Enforced change arising out of clear threats seems to work well. It operates at the survival instinct level. Similarly, radical change in the form of new produce/service launch can readily be managed in the more traditional forms of push learning. But it is learning in the normal course that concerns me. Two outcome examples spring to mind:

Attitude matters

I wanted to book a reward flight with BA. The online system tells me there is nothing available but then online systems are not always the last word in accuracy. Having done some Kayak research I knew that booking with an agent would get me a better deal but then the question arose, would the airline link tickets that have already been purchased. I call up the exec club center and sure enough there was availability to use air miles. But...only one way and the cost for the other journey was way more than simply buying a return ticket. When I explained I could get a better deal via an agent, the operator was completely OK with that but explained some of the downsides which included struggling to auto link back to my other booking. This agent has clearly been trained to handle complex requests, explain options but most important, take away the pain of handling this type of transaction and the consequences that drop out of it. As a customer, that matters and I gladly forked over the extra money. Everyone's a winner. Contrast that with the officious Jobsworth at a freight business who told me that my own hard disc was caught up in customs with an import duty bill hanging over it. Are you kidding me? After I carefully explained what had happened, the person on the other end said: "So you don't want to pay the duty then?" Too damned right I thought. So I repeat myself at which point Jobsworth said: "I'll call you back." He never did but the disc turned up a few days later with no duty to pay. In this case, the outcome was fine but I'll never use that freight business. Listening skills are incredibly important in service but as seems often the case, companies stop at teaching the process steps that cover everything but exceptions. And it is exception management that requires the most work because that's the place where business is won/lost and money is made/lost.

Last word

The most common complaints I hear (and experience) in B2C and B2B center around poor service. Across the board, people don't seem to know how to handle exceptions but more than that become defensive when faced with the unknown. A large part of that must come down to skills deficiency and especially in being taught that it's OK not to know. Even so, it seems that many companies do little more than stuff call centers with people who are extremely good at following 1-2-3, but do almost nothing to develop their abilities beyond that point. HR Tech is a week away and I cannot attend.  While I see plenty of tracks covering social topic, the learning elements are less well represented. It will be interesting to hear what others think about this thorny topic and whether there is acknowledgment that applying social to learning is only step one in helping develop those 'bottom right' people. As a side note, Sameer Patel elevates the discussion around performance outcomes to where the technology fits. Image credit: © drubig-photo -

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