Wednesday 31 August 2016

Being Bold and Imagining the Different

Zion Park

Last Thursday 25th August marked the centenary of the US National Parks Service. The natural beauty of these places across the North American continent is unquestionable. They are amongst some of the greatest treasures the USA and the world possess.

But they haven’t always been seen that way.

The father of today’s National Parks was John Muir. Born in Dunbar on the south east coast of Scotland, Muir was the son of a Calvinist who believed anything that distracted from Bible studies was frivolous and punishable. Muir’s father, it’s said, emigrated to the United States because he found the Church of Scotland ‘insufficiently strict in faith and practice’.

John Muir’s response to his father’s view of the world was to turn the Calvinist work ethic he’d grown up with towards his own ‘redwood cathedrals’ with an unsurpassed enthusiasm. His life’s work was to protect the beauty that has become the National Parks. His writings convinced the US Government to protect first Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and Mount Ranier and later all the other 55 national parks across the USA and its associated territories.

Muir left as his legacy an incredibly pristine natural beauty that everyone can share. Without John Muir much of the beauty that exists in the National Parks would have become utilitarian resources.

What’s the Link with Learning & Development?

Today the world of L&D is a little like the world the young John Muir confronted. This is a world where some good work was taking place to open eyes to new and exciting environments, but where the dominant mindset was constraining even better things from happening.

In Muir’s case the dominant mindset he challenged was the desire to conquer nature and make it useful for man. The view was that if some preservation efforts could be made along the way, then all well-and-good. But the principal mindset and focus of the day was management and control of nature in the service of humans.

The course and programme mindset

We’re in a similar predicament in the L&D world today. Most of L&D’s work in done within the ‘course and programme’ mindset. It’s the natural fit for management and control.

This is understandable because many of today’s learning and development practices emerged during the second half of the 20th century. Following the Second World War the drivers were industrialisation and mass production. The need was perceived for a solid skill base to ‘feed’ the factories and enterprises on the back of building strong economies. The solutions that were developed to help build workforce capability in this context were invariably built on the idea that learning and working were best carried out separately. It was believed that if we removed people from their day-to-day work they could ‘focus on learning’ better. So structured learning interventions became the standard approach. Training became a huge industry.

Structured learning is a relatively easy process to manage and control. It fits with the industrial mindset. Fred Taylor (‘Principles of Scientific Management’) had told us that developing good management practices was simply a process of applying science to management.  So developing good L&D practices for developing managers and others should be the same.

But they’re not.

We now understand that the closer to the point of use that learning occurs, then the more effective and lasting it’s likely to be. Context is critical for effective learning.  Knowledge and skills are not enough. We need to have the understanding to apply knowledge and skills in context to deliver high performance. 

McKinsey’s report on ‘why leadership development programs fail’ clarifies this point very well. The McKinsey study found that four common mistakes, made over and over again, are leading to the waste of a large percentage of the $14 billion spent annually by US organisations alone on improving the capabilities of managers and nurturing new leaders.

The four common mistakes the McKinsey researchers identified are:

  1. Overlooking context
  2. Decoupling reflection from real work
  3. Underestimating mindsets
  4. Failing to measure results

Each of these could be contributed in part to the ‘course and programme’ mindset. If we separate learning from the work, and thus remove most of the context, we are likely to produce sub-optimal solutions. If we don’t adopt new mindsets we will never be able to meet the changing needs for rapid and continuous learning. If we spend our time inventing ‘learning metrics’, rather than simply working with our clients and stakeholders to measure what matters to them, we will never understand whether our solutions are making a difference.

If we’re going to be bold and make Muir-like differences we clearly need to step beyond the course and programme mindset.

It won’t be easy.

Moving the dial

Most of the standard models still used by learning and development professionals, and still taught by many organisation across the world as they prepare people for careers in learning and development, were developed with structured learning away from work in mind. We have refined the planning and structure of the ‘perfect programme’ to the ‘nth degree’ but the question is whether we are aiming our efforts at the right target.

To an extent, I think we are still ‘perfecting the irrelevant’ in a world that has moved on unimaginably over the past 25 years.

Of course all structured development isn’t irrelevant. Sometimes it is vital and the best way to help people improve. But a good deal of structured development has little effect on the participants’ ability to do their jobs better and our continued focus on it to the exclusion of other approaches is leading to many L&D teams being unable to effectively support their organisations. In other words, the course and programme mindset is limiting other opportunities.

Typical offerings to prepare our future professionals reflect the dominance of the course as virtually the only the mechanism to get any attention. As such, they are constraining our ability to deliver real impact by supporting learning in the daily flow of work. These ‘learning separate from work’ models are the antithesis of what my Internet Time Alliance colleague Jane Hart calls ‘Modern Workplace Learning’ and what my 70:20:10 Institute colleagues and I call ‘70:20:10 practices’.

The inertia is strong - effective L&D professional development is critical

The formal training industry is huge and is well embedded in HR practices. The annual performance review and development objective setting process is witnessing some changes, but it is still widespread. Development objectives still predominantly materialise as the need to attend courses or programmes. Of course this is evolving, but the inertia is strong and change is slow.

When we look at the way professionals in this field are themselves developed we can get an idea of the vortex that’s helping to hold fast the course and programme mindset.

HR, L&D and OD development is still predominantly based around training to deliver ‘faster horses’. Even if Henry Ford didn’t utter the famous words when asked what he thought his customers wanted (and there’s no evidence he did), history suggests he thought along those lines. Ford’s genius was was to develop a new mindset about production and delivery. One of L&D’s challenges is that its profession must do the same.

Ara QuoteAlthough a few professional bodies are making some progress (the UK’s CIPD is an example) when we look at the majority of development opportunities for professionals in the learning and development sphere we see preparation for a world that is in the past.

Today’s world requires L&D professionals to be agile and support their ‘customers’ in their workflow. L&D needs to focus on the ‘70’ and ‘20’ – supporting learning as part of work and learning from (and with) others.

However, most professional development offered by commercial companies for L&D practitioners is still rooted in the training paradigm. Even though L&D leadership development is couched in different words (and possibly held in more up-market locations) it is still predominantly structured in the training paradigm. Command and control – even if some role-play and simulations are included.

This type of L&D professional development is typified by the description below of a train-the-trainer course (taken today from a publicly available brochure):

“This lively and interactive course will help delegates develop and hone their skills so they are able to plan and deliver effective training. 
Delegates will learn:
- How to define objectives that meet both business and trainee needs.
- How to plan and design training to gain the trainee’s commitment and enthusiasm - Even reluctant trainees!
- How to recognise the different psychological and sensory learning styles of trainees.
- How to adapt training to meet ALL of these styles
- How to deal with challenging trainees and resistance to training.
- How to deal with trainee concerns about training.
- The pro’s and con’s of different training methods.
- How to ensure training is interactive and participative and not simply a presentation.
- How, why and when to adopt a facilitative or directive training style.
- How to ensure and check that training:
  -  Is really effective
  - That objectives have been met
  - That real learning has occurred
  - What to do before and after training to ensure the best outcome for the business and trainee

This could have appeared in a 1990s brochure – and may have looked dated even then. It’s rooted in the idea of training being something that needs to be presented in a particular way to make it palatable.  And it is typical of thousands upon thousands of ‘course and programme mindset’ offerings still being promoted to develop L&D professionals (and others who want to develop up-to-date L&D skills) around the world.

‘Imagining the different’

If we are going to ‘imagine the different’ there is a requirement to be both bold and focused. We need a galvanising vision to do things differently and better.

We have to take a lesson from John Muir and find a way to break our reliance on the dominant mindset of the day. We must re-think the options we have to both support our stakeholders and clients with solutions that provide learning in the flow of work and, at the same time, think about ways we can help our own profession develop beyond refining training processes. If we don’t step beyond the course and programme mindset we will forever under-deliver on the promise to support high performance in the best ways possible.

“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”  John Muir in a letter to his wife in July 1888

644px-John_Muir_CaneJohn Muir, American conservationist. Photograph by Professor Francis M. Fritz in 1907
Public Domain

The wonderful Scottish singer Dick Gaughan tells John Muir’s story in ‘Muir and the Master Builder’, written by songwriter Brian McNeill, here.


  1. Charles, I'm writing an assignment on experiential learning (especially the practical side) and wanted to ask if you know of any good journals I could refer to? I've tried looking up your name but cannot find anything......!!

  2. There is a significant amount of published research in the field of experiential learning. You could start by reading some of the work of David Kolb, for example:

    Apart from Kolb you could review recent articles in the Journal of Experiential Education or any number of other scholarly or empirical articles on the subject.

    (It would be helpful if you could identify yourself as I usually don't publish comments from anonymous sources on this blog).

    Regards, Charles

  3. One of your best posts Charles. Thank you.