Why corporate learning fails

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It makes for stark headline. More than half of managers believe that employee performance would not change if their company’s learning function were eliminated. This might be funny, if it were not for the fact that organisations spend over $200 billion on learning each year. And the real shock here is the fact that it is not new news. That something is wrong with corporate learning is well known, because over the past ten years surveys have repeatedly shown that only around 20% of business leaders are satisfied with the performance of their learning function. Time and again, it keeps coming up short and there are two reasons for this.

First, a part of the problem is that it is called learning and development. And when people talk and think about it, they usually do so in the same terms as they talk about traditional, academic learning. This may sound reasonable. But much of what corporate learning and development tries to achieve is not about acquiring new knowledge or skills. That is just the process. The ultimate objective is usually changing behaviour to improve performance - helping people to be better at something.

Yet so absent is behaviour from the equation that if you ask the average designer of learning and development solutions to outline their theory of behaviour change, you are likely to get a response that goes no further than mentioning differences in learning styles or types of training. And fields that have a great deal to say about how to change people’s behaviour, such as behaviour economics, cognitive psychology and psychotherapy, are rarely referred to and drawn upon.

This may sound like semantics, but the words we use matter. The language of ‘learning and development’ engenders a line of thinking and the consideration of issues that are quite different from the ones that are raised if we talk of behaviour change. The challenge of changing behaviour is not the same as the challenge of imparting information or teaching skills - and not talking about it prevents us from recognising these different challenges and acting to meet them. As a result, the tools that leaders, managers, and HR professionals have at their disposal are limited, deprived of techniques that other fields have long used.

In fact, a global survey we’ve conducted into behaviour change from our new book shows that 74% of leaders are unsure what techniques to use to change people’s behaviour. The rising application of behaviour change techniques such as gamification give cause for hope, as does the increasing influence of the science of habit formation. So there is some change afoot, but it is little and slow.

There is a second reason why learning and development activities too often fail to deliver tangible business impact. One of the most consistent findings from research into the effectiveness of development activities is that contextual factors (what happens in the workplace outside the training or coaching room) are actually more important in ensuring development happens than the quality of the training, workshop or coaching. Yet in the absence of a clear understanding of what these contextual factors are or how to optimise them, most development activities in most businesses tend to focus just on the content of training or what an individual needs to do to. Context often feels relegated to just an afterthought.

Little wonder that less than 35% of learning from training and development workshops is estimated to be transferred into real behaviours back in the workplace. Or that only 19% of HR professionals believe that the coaching going on in their business is effective. Or that less than 10% of leaders are confident that people development activities will lead to lasting change.

Alongside my co-author from IMD business school, Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur, we have been working with businesses to try and resolve these two key issues. We have developed a model that helps define what these contextual factors are - things like motivation, ability, and social support - and set of tools to help and equip managers - who are the frontline for all learning and development – with techniques that they can use, quickly and easily, day-in, day-out.

But models, tools and techniques are only useful if you use them. And what it requires first is a change in mindset and world view. Businesses and corporate learning functions have to recognise that learning and development is fundamentally different from academic learning, and thereby free itself to face up to the real challenge before it - how to change people’s behaviour.

Nik is co-author with Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur of Changing Employee Behaviour: A Practical Guide for Managers.



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