Dear C-Suite: We Don’t Do Training

By Dan Pontefract

In 2012, Peter Aceto, president and CEO of ING Direct, a Canadian bank with nearly 1.8 million customers and more than $38 billion in assets, delivered a speech where he talked about being a social CEO. Two points emerged.

Early in the talk, Aceto said, “I believe we are at the confluence of two revolutions — a social revolution and a technology revolution.” Later he said, “How people work and make decisions is not new. However, technology and social networks [have] allowed this type of sharing to happen faster, with a broader group of people and outside of traditional boundaries.”

It’s time to help the C-suite — aside from Aceto and other learning-savvy and employee engagement-focused C-suite leaders — appreciate and understand that organizations don’t do training anymore.

Learning purists and traditionalists who are hell-bent on ensuring the “sage on the stage” practice continues may scoff at the idea of trying to erase the term “training” from Oxford’s dictionary. But learning professionals must help the C-suite understand that training is merely an event, and that learning must now be defined as a connected, collaborative and continuous process.

Learning can happen in formal, informal, social and experiential ways; it does not solely happen — as is traditionally defined in C-suite circles — as training. Learning leaders must help re-educate and coach C-suite executives: Learning is not merely a classroom event or an e-learning course, and training isn’t learning.

Learning consultant Dennis Callahan once wrote, “learning happens everywhere, not somewhere.” John Hagel, co-chairman at the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation and author of several books, including “The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion,” agrees. “I am struck by the fact that when I broach the subject of talent development with C-level executives, they almost invariably have two reactions: this is about training programs, and that’s the responsibility of our HR department. As a result, they tend to view it as an expense item, and it tends to be one of the first things cut in times of pressure,” Hagel said.

According to Jane Hart, founder and principal of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, a learning technology consulting firm, formal training has been the standard way to develop people for so long it has become accepted practice that this is the way things are done. “We do know from studies, however, that senior managers don’t really believe formal training brings significant rewards, so many retain their training departments because they are expected to do so.”

Let’s say the C-suite thinks talent development is solely about training — a term which many learning leaders abhor — and they leave it to human resources or the learning department within HR to execute. Yet the learning department is delivering formal courses because that’s how it has always been done; it’s no wonder the C-suite’s view is that learning is in fact training.

Further, learning departments aren’t doing anything to change the fixed mindset of the C-suite on the definition of learning. So, how could they change their own views? It’s not as though the C-suite spends a lot of time thinking about this issue. But if the C-suite believes training equates to a fixed expense line item — such as external vendors, training and education, muffins in the classroom — and the organization happens to run into a quarterly budget or financial issue, they immediately think, “cut training.”

Jenny Dearborn, the chief learning officer for SuccessFactors and SAP Cloud, said there is a disconnect between the definition of learning in organizations and how senior executives actually learned things before they got to the C-suite.

“If you ask anyone in the C-suite what was their most impactful and career-advancing learning or development experience, it would not be a formal training course or even their formal education or degree program,” she said. “Their career-changing learning experience was a job rotation, stretch assignment or special project, and the coaching and mentoring that went along with it on the job to ensure professional growth and success.”

Dearborn is right. The irony with the C-suite is they think training is an event and thus an expense, yet their own best learning experiences have most likely come from the aforementioned informal or social learning opportunities she detailed.

In the summer 2013 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, an article appeared titled, “The Executive’s Role in Social Business.” It said, “Adopting social technologies can often mean changing the way people work, and that means leaders need to invest time and effort in explaining the purpose and value of the new tools as well as providing the necessary financial and organizational support to sustain these workflow changes over time.” Learning leaders need to invest the time and effort to explain how important the new definition of learning is to the C-suite.

The Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies runs an annual survey titled Learning in the Workplace. The 2013 results from more than 600 participants reinforce the idea that learning in the organization is shifting to a combination of formal, informal and social, yet learning professionals aren’t doing much to help the C-suite understand the importance of the shift.

In many cases they are abetting the current situation. The survey reported that 68 percent of those working in HR or learning and development consider formal training and e-learning “to be of little or no value for them in the workplace.”

In 2012, when cloud-based learning organization Skillsoft surveyed 503 CEOs of organizations with more than 250 employees across 13 business sectors, the results revealed that 42 percent of the CEOs interviewed said “the length of a course was a more important deciding factor than its content.”

Also from the report, the “measurable return on investment from training mattered most to only 7 percent of respondents.” The good news is it seems as though the C-suite doesn’t care if the training has ROI. The bad news is they still think the content comes in the form of a course, regardless of whether it’s short (42 percent) or not short (58 percent).

If, as the American Society for Training & Development reported in 2011, “U.S. firms spend $1,067 per employee (about 2.7 percent of the entire staffing budget) to provide employees with an average of 32 hours of training programs annually,” how can learning leaders switch from a total number of courses and hours of training programs mindset to one that incorporates more of the informal and social learning mechanisms that actually make up a pervasive learning model?

To start, learning leaders should ignore former president Woodrow Wilson, who once said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” Instead, help the C-suite understand learning need not be trapped in a box, a classroom or an LMS. It need not solely be considered a line item budget cost. It needs to incorporate the entire cadre of learning offerings, options and opportunities.

Deloitte’s Hagel said a “holistic approach embracing [the] physical environment, virtual environment and management systems — everything that shapes the environment that we work in” — is necessary because there are few C-suite executives who understand that “the most powerful form of learning and talent development occurs in the day-to-day, on-the-job work environment; and that it is directly tied to tangible performance improvement in the metrics that matter.”

It’s time for learning departments to take the proverbial bull by the horns and help the C-suite understand that the organization doesn’t simply conduct training anymore. Dearborn said she often asks her C-suite peers to think back to their own careers and determine the most impactful development exercise they might have experienced. “One-hundred percent of the time they say a special project, committee, stretch assignment or a mentor.”

She said she then asks them to think about how best to put structure around the informal experiences so they can scale to support the entire business. “Then I lead them down the logic path that points to social and collaborative learning — then they get it.”

Hart said learning leaders should think about how Silicon Valley startups operate, as they “treat learning in a very different way — and usually adopt very social collaborative approaches to learning and working.”

About the Author:

Dan Pontefract is the author of “Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization” and the head of learning at Telus, a Canadian telecommunications company. Reprinted from Chief Learning Officer

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