Keith Meyerson, director of learning for retail department store Neiman Marcus Group Services, recounts a story of an executive who asked him to create a training program on friendliness because she thought the company’s customer service scores could be improved in that area.
“I rephrased the question to ensure I understood her expectations,” he said. “I asked her if she wanted me to create a training program to teach adults how to be nice to each other. Without hesitation she said ‘That sounds silly doesn’t it?’ But her initial response underlies the conventional wisdom of how organizations view their training departments. Too often they want to throw training at a symptom instead of taking the time to diagnose the root cause. In this case perhaps hiring those with a passion for service, having clearly defined behavioral standards or even providing managers the time to observe and correct performance would be more appropriate interventions. Training may not be the right solution and it is our responsibility to help educate our organizations on the appropriate applications for learning and development.
Meyerson’s story and plea aren’t unique. Greg Miller, vice president and chief learning officer for Aflac, a supplemental insurance provider, received a request earlier this year for a team-building course. “Let’s not assume we’re going to do a class first. ‘What do you want these people to learn?’ I always ask. ‘I want these people to get along better,’ is what this particular executive said. ‘What aren’t they doing right now that you want them to learn that will improve their ability to get along better?’ I asked. ‘They interrupt each other in meetings,’ he said. OK, how do we talk about proper communication during a meeting? It’s not always about taking a ropes course.”
Miller said a large percentage of training requests are not training requests at all, they’re a call for learning. Executives often ask for training courses because they’re able to drop off their teams in classrooms and wash away their concerns, which doesn’t always produce learning. For courses to be considered significant learning exercises, employees may undergo a training class, but the leader needs to develop his or her own strategy to support the training that took place and reinforce its takeaways with relatable projects.
“We know growth and development is important, and we’ve realized people learn in more ways than standard training programs,” Miller said. “As such, L&D folks have had to expand their levels of understanding and their scope to account for the way people learn.”
What’s in a Name?
According to Stefaan van Hooydonk, dean of Philips Lighting University, the global electronics company’s corporate university, learning is the umbrella definition encompassing training on one hand and performance support on the other. Van Hooydonk said training is a function of getting up to speed and is typically an activity someone new would do — a new hire or a newly appointed manager. As such, training is an off-the-job activity that employees have to leave the normal flow of their daily work to participate in. Training in this form is typically of the formal, instructor-led variety, but it also can refer to digital learning activities such as self-study e-learning packages, single-player education games, webinars and e-books.
“Training is a push activity whereby somebody other than the trainee is deciding on the content to be learned,” van Hooydonk said. “Corporations believe this is the focus of the training organization, yet it’s a common notion in the industry that training is only responsible for 10 percent of total learning for people.”
On the other hand, performance support enables employees to keep current and innovative, and is the area where seasoned employees often learn at point of need. This is not a formal activity like training; it’s an informal on-the-job activity where learning and work combine. As such, performance support refers to people learning by searching for information on an intranet or the Internet, joining internal and external professional networks online or participating in peer coaching. According to van Hooydonk, this is the other 90 percent of how people learn, yet few training functions concentrate on it.
“Performance support is very closely linked to knowledge management and knowledge sharing,” he said. “Performance support is a pull activity where the learner pulls information and knowledge from different sources to assist him or her with a specific learning or knowledge need.”
When it comes to measuring impact, training is typically measured by counting seats, hours and number of people attending live or viewing online materials. Performance support is measured by measuring pull and ease of accessibility to learning tools. Van Hooydonk said in performance support, the learning function’s role is to facilitate an easy flow of knowledge through the organization and to customers through knowledge portals and sharing tools that bring together specialists and support organizational processes.
At Philips, performance support is measured by evaluating how engaged internal online communities are. For instance, the company counts the number of downloads from its learning portals.
“When we started launching the Lighting University website to the Philips Lighting employee population — 54,000 employees — in January 2011, we had 971 hits to our website that month. In June 2011, this number grew to 15,000, in September 2011 to 30,000 and in March 2012, this number was at more than 60,000. Further, the average length of a visit grew from five minutes in January 2011 to 19.2 minutes in December 2011,” he said.
Knowledge certification is another measuring dimension at Philips Lighting. Through online tests, van Hooydonk’s team measures employees’ knowledge of products and technology. “Supported by good management support and by an engaging campaign, colleagues all around the globe are attempting to pass these courses for certification. Since the passing rate is 30 percent the first time people attempt these tests, people tend to look at the suggested materials — e-books, educational games, articles and e-learning packages — before they try to go for a next try on the test. This action forces people to get to know our learning portals in depth, which leads to repeat visitors because people know what they want to find and where it is after some practice.”
Training’s Here to Stay
Connie Mardis, director of global marketing education for Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics, said training refers to being able to do things quickly, efficiently and better with practice. Learning is the development that happens in a person, by choice, as an employee gets new skills and gains new insights. Learning leaders can force training, but learning requires motivation.
“Adults learn for only one reason: to solve a problem,” she said. “If you don’t think that’s true, look at your 200-page cellphone manual. When’s the last time you optionally picked that up? When’s the last time you picked it up even when you had a problem? You go to YouTube. The way we learn is changing, and we’re moving away from training, but there will always be a space for it.”
Mardis said there will always be a need for new training tools and techniques aimed at increasing speed and efficiency, improving workflow and practicing tasks to ensure precision. But there’s nothing like developing and delivering courses that introduce new paradigms, explore inquiry models and create opportunities for cross-functional and cross-cultural teams to collaborate and innovate. She said at Siemens, executives believe providing education or growth and development ignites passion, leads to innovation and helps retain talent.
“We need to stop throwing people into training because it’s the easiest thing to do,” Neiman Marcus Group Services’ Meyerson said. “Too often we don’t know what to do, so we throw a training course at it. We have to start building the right culture, an environment where we’re hiring the right people with the right attitudes that mirror our values, are self-motivated and want to take on learning experiences by themselves. It’s the only way L&D will stick and be sustainable.”
Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.