eLearning is not an event, it’s a stage on a journey

“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where,” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go” said the Cat.
“…so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
Carroll, L, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865.

We often speak of voyages of discovery, and indeed it is not hard to draw parallels between the traveller and the learner. Some people travel for business or necessity; others for escape, discovery or pleasure. Some delight in mystery tours, even though they run the risk of covering old ground; for others it is the very familiarity of old ground that holds the attraction. Some depend upon a travel agent to help guide their choice of destination and plan for the richest experience of sights and sounds upon the way; others make do with a map or guide and a phrase book to overcome cultural and language barriers at more exotic destinations.

Some check itineraries and tickets, making certain their passports are valid; others go ill-prepared, lose their way or check in too soon and suffer a long and frustrating delay; yet others arrive so late that they run the risk of missing their plane. Some carry too much baggage and so find it hard to maintain a brisk pace; others pack too little and soon feel the lack of some essential. Indeed, not all journeys are problem-free. Even the best-prepared traveller can suffer delays or discomfort caused by external and unpredictable factors – a late train, a fellow passenger suffering travel sickness, fears of flying or drowning, and so on.

Some people prefer to travel alone, others with companions. Some drive, others must be driven. Some travel quickly, others more leisurely. Some journeys are short and uneventful; others may be grand affairs incorporating a variety of transport modes. All these statements can be applied to learners as well as travellers, regardless of the method or medium. Let’s now let’s turn our thoughts to training itself and, in particular, e-learning. There are many good justifications for training and development, but there are poor justifications too. The argument put forward for e-learning often centres on its apparent flexibility, its Martini-like claim to be suitable “any time, any place, anywhere,” or its capacity to offer learners a choice of learning routes with different entry or exit points, a distinctive style and preference options. However, in the past, providers have not always been very good at matching e-learning courses to learners’ attributes, which may in turn explain why, in line with successive approximation (which advocates trial and error, achieving incremental improvements each time), the best training is often considered to be the most minimal in terms of time and content, or, in other words, little and often.

Likewise, many managers are tempted to throw training at all problems instead of dealing with the root causes and there are too many unrealistic hopes and expectations of training. BF Skinner noted a common trait among managers which he called ‘superstitious behaviour’ – a belief that because something worked once, it might just work again. (Skinner, BF, ‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 1948, pp.168-172) Such superstitious behaviour may be the motivation behind managers sending people on training courses so easily, and behind the determination of e-learning advocates to squeeze all learning out of a screen. Although there are times when it would be improper to refuse training, sometimes refusing it is the right thing to do; only when you are realistic about what training can and cannot accomplish do you make the right decisions at the right time and ensure that your limited training budget is spent wisely.

So how can we ensure that e-learning delivers its potential and follows through on its promises? Let’s consider the leader who looks out of the window, surveys the entire situation, and says “We’re on the wrong train!” and his colleagues, the efficient producers and busy managers who respond with “Shut up! We’re making the principle that all things are created twice – first mentally and then physically. (Covey, Stephen R, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, 1989) The mental rehearsal is a key part of the process of planning for the success of the physical end creation, yet is frequently missing where training is concerned. This lack of planning and forethought results in the continued production of costly solutions, without sufficient attempt to make sure they’re the right solutions.

In a perfect world, organisations would be stable and predictable, and we would have no need to worry too much about training; we might choose to foster employee development but it would not be vital to the success of the organisation. But we don’t live in a perfect world! You probably need only look around your workplace to see evidence of that. Perhaps your company has experienced growth, ‘right-sizing’, re-structuring, new systems or working practices, increased workloads, flattening of management structure or other changes. The only thing we can be certain about for the future is the inevitability of change. Indeed, the rapid advance of technology, the rise of social networking and the adoption of new management techniques to support different organisational theories all mean that change is happening so fast that, to paraphrase the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass, we are having to run ever faster just to stay in the same place. (Carroll, L, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, 1871) As the world of work changes, we find ourselves confronted with a constant performance gap; we need to develop fresh skills, renewed determination and new knowledge and concepts to achieve our business and personal goals.

This requirement to be both multi-skilled and prepared to develop laterally applies to everybody in the workplace. Managers must drive flatter organisations, deliver total quality and support empowerment: today’s tasks necessitate skills which are radically different from those required of managers in the past. Similarly, an administrative assistant may have been employed for their ability to type, answer the type, answer the phone and file, but may now need to deal with customer problems, coach colleagues and analyse and improve their own working practices. Technology constantly drives change in the workplace, management styles are continuously evolving, and employees are increasingly called upon to pass on knowledge and share their expertise. Not many people possess ready-made skills and attitudes to meet these challenges.

So how can training tackle this and help people deal with the challenges of their ever-changing jobs? Of course, training cannot magically transform ineffective employees, supervisors or managers into effective ones, it is unlikely to resolve all the causes of poor performance, and it will not fix problems that stem from poor structuring of work, unclear responsibilities or other organisational dysfunction. But it can adjust people’s perceptions of the boundaries of their role and help them develop the new skills they require to meet expectations. It can also help to build a shared vision and understanding of the organisation’s mission; to show how management values employees; to demonstrate commitment and loyalty; and to develop people so they can assume greater responsibility and increase their contribution to the organisation’s success.

As we have already considered, training is a management tool and, just as you can’t drive home a screw with a hammer, it’s not always the only or right tool for the job. Similarly, a solid foundation is important: if you try to use a saw without a vice or a workbench, the chances are you might cause a serious injury; if managers expect measured improvement after training, they must provide the necessary support and take care of associated problems that can’t be tackled with training. This characteristic failure among many UK managers to play their part in the planning, preparation and follow-up means that training often does not deliver on its potential to add value to the business. Resources are frittered away, training fails to meet expectations and is seen as costly, meaning that training budgets are first to be cut in times of economic hardship.

Training is not a miracle cure, but a lever to move someone towards those real outcomes. It works best where there is a strong link between individual and organisational needs and where bars to learning and factors hindering performance have been eliminated. It is the involvement, endorsement, sponsorship and encouragement of managers, and the perspicacity of training providers in applying the right method and media, that make the difference between training that is just a brief excursion and training that really brings about significant results and gets the learner from A to B.

Phil Green

Phil Green has spent many years working within some of Europe’s major organisations such as AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Nestlé, Lloyds TSB, Avis, Unum and Marks & Spencer. As a consultant he has devised countless winning solutions to help highly successful organisations such as these to remain at the top of their performance. He is a tutor and course designer for The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and manages online tutoring for many of the CIPD’s Advanced Certificate courses.

Managing Director of Chesterfield-based Optimum Learning Ltd, he is an expert analyst and instructional designer and is a recent Past Chairman of the E-Learning Network. Much published, Phil is a frequent presenter and track chair at major conferences and was named in 2007 as one of the world’s 100 best trainers by the American publisher Pfeiffer.