‘We must train people to learn, rather than to be trained’

In response to the expert panel discussion on face-to-face learning in a hybrid world in the latest issue of People Management, Andrea Moffat offers further food for thought

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The question posed to the expert panel in the latest issue of People Management magazine – does in-person learning work in a hybrid world? – is an interesting one, and got me thinking about my experience over the course of my career in HR and L&D as I prepare to retire. I’m left wondering if it’s time to ask a different question, and in fact revive an old and still relevant question: What’s the organisational pain or opportunity that needs to be addressed through L&D intervention?

I launched my career post-university (I am a language graduate) in the public sector, which involved recruiting and training volunteers within a service; I then moved consciously and with intent into L&D, got some qualifications, and then migrated into the voluntary sector to get management experience. After that, it was further education and the private sector with a training provider before establishing my own consultancy, which I built on face-to-face training courses of between one and five days, and modularised training programmes (you remember – old school).

As my business then developed and matured into an L&D and OD consultancy, my experience grew and evolved with the marketplace. Cue lots of miles, lots of lugging handouts, flipcharts and table-top activities around, lots of development of interactive activities and exercises, three recessions with their associated squeeze on clients’ training budgets and shrinkage of time spent in training as opposed to ‘producing for the business’.

During this time, I responded – as many others did – to the influence of digital on L&D, and as the pandemic arrived, I had already been doing as much on virtual platforms like Zoom and Teams as in person. As I read the panel members’ thoughts in the magazine, a series of observations came to mind…

  • Sam Taylor: “...but fundamentally, I‘d be challenging whether that course is needed in the first place.”

Isn’t that part of the problem? The perception among some of our organisational clients that learning has to be a course, with a trainer, a flip chart and a PowerPoint?

  • Sam Taylor: “… a lot of the traditional face-to-face courses that were run were mainly a ‘sage on a stage’.”

This can happen in the virtual environment too, so isn’t it more about who’s the centre of focus? The learner and the organisational needs or the presenter?

  • Tom Ryder: “...peer to peer learning in the flow of the work”

Yes, please, peer to peer learning and connecting doesn’t only take place in an in-person learning environment; it’s before, after and during on chat platforms, social media etc. So the role of L&D is also about facilitating and supporting a culture at the individual and organisational level to understand and expect this change in emphasis from training to learning.

  • Thomas Stroppel: “Learning at its best is like a laboratory – we introduce concepts in a crystal-clear way, then encourage learners to go in and explore them.” and “I want to get away from the thinking that learning only happens when it’s scheduled.”

That is indeed learning at its best, but what do the learners, managers and leaders in your organisation think? Are they bought into this or have they somehow been programmed to expect a spoon-fed approach?

  • Tom Ryder: “...evaluating from a learner engagement perspective post intervention and then follow up in terms of learning transfer back to the business. That gives us a view on whether we have the right method of delivery.”

Let’s keep on evaluating the learner experience, and then also the transfer of the learning to workplace behaviours and the impact on organisational needs. That way we demonstrate value to the organisation. And in doing this level of evaluation of learning events and learning culture, we also assess the appetite for learning. This will tell you if the content, platform, and accessibility are relevant for them and the organisation.

So maybe we need to challenge learners, managers and leaders’ thinking around L&D, rather than be in danger of reinforcing any belief that L&D is there to train them (and walk away)? Maybe the only training to be done is to train people to learn rather than to be trained. That way we can get learners and line-managers to take responsibility through the learning opportunities offered (different platforms, formats etc) and which in turn enable inclusive practices. We should be cultivating the process of learners connecting with SMEs (who might come from any part of the hierarchy or function incidentally) and peer learners through Action Learning, chat rooms etc. Couple this with L&D management systems and we’ll still be able to track learning to satisfy compliance needs, and grow engaged individuals. That way we can leverage learning styles and the expectations of the generation now entering the workplace with a post-2007 education experience.

I advocate for the analysis of L&D needs in an organisational context, and from an individual perspective:

  • What’s the organisational pain or opportunity that needs to be addressed?

  • Does the subject matter indicate the use of any particular, or one or more learning media?

  • What part do learning preferences play?

  • What’s the level of existing knowledge and skill of the learners?

  • Is it a subject matter where there is a right or wrong way of doing something?

  • What’s the learning culture of the organisation?

  • And where should it be in relation to the organisation’s vision, mission values, and strategy?

All of these things should impact the L&D response and leadership. Even if there is a bottomless pit of a budget, these are the fundamental questions rather than being seen to aim to spend the budget for the sake of it (remember those days? ‘Spend it or lose it next year’). By demonstrating we are focusing on impact for the organisation and the individuals, we build credibility in the workplace for L&D, we transform L&D services into facilitation and curation, and also contribute to the sustainability agenda by leveraging the hybrid model of working and technology opportunities.

Maybe that way we’d be more effective in our L&D provision (note ‘provision’, not ‘delivery’).

Or maybe I should just get on and retire…?

Andrea Moffat is owner of The Learning Interventions Company

Do you have comments to add to the topic of in-person learning and hybrid working? Join the discussion on LinkedIn