The Call For Lean Learning

This post originally appeared on the Learning Hacks blog

Last week Ben Horowitz, who with Marc Andreessen has launched a few billion dollar companies and now plays VC, posted about why training is one of the most important things comapnies can do [full post here] I think he is right. Unfortunately, I think that most people’s willingness to skip training is driven by the misguided attempts they experienced in the corporate world. With start-ups realizing that building their product based on customer learning is the right thing to do, what about building their people with learning?

This idea has fascinated me since it was sparked by a series of discussions with some really smart people a few weeks ago. As a colleague of mine points out, lean is not right for everything. This is true even in the start-up space where Horowitz makes a great case for “Fat Start-Ups” (OK, I may have a bit of a man crush on guy who can grow companies and cites rap lyrics to support his points). However lean may be right for a lot of things and especially in a start-up where speed is valued much more highly.

Adopting the Blank & Ries touted customer development cycle to employee development would be interesting for those tasked with driving performance. Minimum viable product (MVP) becomes MVL (minimum valuable learning?). A course is actually co-developed by the people that will use it thereby building evangelists that will spread the word (no more dictating attendance). The focus is on speed and learning-based iterations not a big build and the hope that the market (learner) likes it.

Learning must be the focus of all organizations. In a video posted by Venture Hacks, Marc Andreessen states that there are two things to fund. Products that become companies and companies that can build products. Many of today’s start-ups fall into the first category. As they grow they must turn themselves into the latter. Markets shift, customers are fickle but high performing people are forever.


New Analogies Apply Within

This post originally appeared on the Learning Hacks blog

Training has long used I.T. departments as their role model. Once the misunderstood backroom of corporations, CIO’s now sit at the leadership table offering strategic insight and business value. Training aspired to make the same leap from oft-questioned expense to essential strategic investment. There is a big difference though. Training doesn’t make anything!

Just Learn It!

The mind-set of training needs to change from manufacturer to marketer. Training departments offer courses on leadership yet rarely sit at the head table of the corporate party. They train on sales, yet one look at attendance data will show you that the most attended trainings are frequently mandated, not sold to their audience. Training pros are marketers and packagers of a performance-inducing product. Like Gatorade for corporate athletes. Training should even steal the Investopedia explanation of marketing, “The ultimate goal of marketing is to match a company’s products and services to the people who need and want them, thereby ensure profitability.”

I unlocked the “SalesPro” badge!

Today’s digital and social media world has exposed the desire of many to be “prosumers”. Learning needs to let go of its “keeper of the knowledge” belief and welcome this change. Yes, learning is made more efficient by the use of proven methodologies and structures not known by every employee. The trade off is the authenticity and “real-world” endorsement of skill building activities, not to mention the increased engagement of employees in their development. By focusing on supporting and enhancing the work of the producers and easing the barriers to the consumers, training can accelerate and scale a company’s learning. This doesn’t just mean installing Yammer or Chatter to provide a platform. Where learning pros will add value is by acting as marketers to build their brand’s (high performance) connection to its customers. Training can achieve this by catalyzing the conversations (think aggregator sites) and constantly looking outside for ideas and analogies on how to incent learners (think FourSquare badges) or encourage sharing (think Like buttons and followers). There will always be a role for more traditional learning events but today’s business speed requires a new approach. One where user generated content and real-time adjustments are the norm.

Crowdsourced Learning?

The biggest switch for Training in this new analogy is in process. I.T. has for a long time embraced a linear and carefully structured design methodology. This process starts with a detailed needs analysis, design frameworks, pilot process and roll out. Training’s instructional design methodology follows a similar pattern. Marketing, on the other hand, with all the emerging channels and tools available to it, has been forced to adopt an experimental mid-set for customer-development. One where things are tried, learned from and improved. One where speed-to-market is increasingly seen as equally important as perfect-to-market. Today’s customers (read learners), it turns out, see “authentic” as more engaging than perfect.

But that’s next. Think lean start-up. Think lean learning.


The Spark That Started It All

This post originally appeared on the Learning Hacks blog

Over a dozen years ago I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. I was a consultant with the Forum Corporation, a corporate learning and development firm. How I, with no formal corporate learning and development degree, came to be there is another story entirely but it was this very lack of industry indoctrination that made what came next so interesting. Forum released a book, “Running Training Like a Business”, that became all the talk in the corporate training circles. In the book, the RTLAB authors suggested…wait for it…that training focus on driving the core business of the company. This was revolutionary in an industry that ranked itself on classroom hours delivered and employee satisfaction. WTF? Since I had not drunk the Kool-Aid this seemed to me to be the most obvious of instructions on how a training department could increase its relevance.

RTLAB 2010

Fast forward to today. The book remains highly relevant to many in the industry and is in fact used in some university teaching. Is it because the book was so forward thinking or visionary? Is it because the results of applying its tenets have been so impressive? No. It is because the industry is still where it was when I left it a decade ago. Sure some companies have evolved their training function. The word “learning” has replaced “training” for most and the toys at the practitioners’ hands have changed. But real revolution? Not even close.

Change is hard. Anyone that has tried to get a large company to do anything new will tell you that. But change is no longer optional. And business-centric thinking is a requirement not something that makes you an industry leader. Over the next week or so I will be working to better define what I think running training like a business means in today’s business environment. As an industry, corporate training and development must re-examine everything from the way that it is organized, the way it produces its product and the measures it uses to determine its success.

Homo Learnicus?

I was lucky to be a small part in Forum’s efforts to make a change (I am mentioned in the acknowledgements which thrilled my Mom). But with a decade of business building under my belt it is time to take a fresh look. Economists talk about homo economicus, the perfectly rational actor in the market. Learning professionals have a similar prototypical learner, with identified general skill gaps and certain learning predispositions, whose performance they seek to improve. Neither exists. Today’s business environment requires ideas not ideals and the admission that the professionals are not the keepers of all the answers, the market (or the learner) is.

I do not wish to disparage the current learning professionals, many of whom I know and call friends. The best of them are smart, capable and making a difference in their organization, often with limited resources. This is also not about applying new technology in support of the current process. No this is about looking at the underlying principles and assumptions through the lens of today’s business environment. Self-preservation, both as an individual and as an industry is a strong force so I know I will likely upset some readers. If it in anyway advances the discussion then I am fine with it. And they should be too.