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.