grave-2036220_640(1)I read this article, Fixing Workplace Learning – Inconvenient Truths, late Friday afternoon, and have been stewing about it all weekend. First and foremost, I completely agree with the author, Bill Sawyer: The workplace learning field, for the most part, lacks professionalism to an astonishing degree. And, from what I’ve seen, the quality of Instructional Design just keeps getting worse. We are mesmerized by the new; think mobile delivery, virtual reality, and gamification. But, still haven’t mastered the basics of designing instructionally sound training. Making poorly designed training available on the iPhone isn’t going to make it more effective. Mobile is a delivery mechanism, not a solution to increase instructional soundness.In fact, the more I stew about the points Bill raised, the more I agree with him in wondering if Learning and Development (L&D) is a profession at all. I have a hunch, though, about how we got to this sad state of affairs and why we seem to be stuck here, not withstanding his observation about money and ego.

1. Organizations Have Adopted The College Professor Model Of Teaching

They wrangle a Subject Matter Expert into designing and delivering training with the thinking being that they can teach others what they know and how to do what they do. Some can. Most are sabotaged by automaticity – a phenomenon in which an expert internalizes procedures through practice to a point where it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for them to break the procedure down into its component steps.

Ideally this is where a trained Instructional Designer would jump into the breach. Through dogged interviewing, they would help the expert extract what they know and then document it to enable others to learn. But, the prevailing thinking is that it would take an Instructional Designer far too long to learn what the expert knows. So, this step in the process is skipped. (On a side note, I’ve learned such complex topics as how cellular technology works in the matter of a few hours. A good Instructional Designer knows how to get a Subject Matter Expert to provide Khan-Academy type explanations to fast track the content development process.)

The skills of Instructional Design, a core component of Learning and Development, simply aren’t valued. Instead, you have professionals in other fields assuming this responsibility. Their allegiance to and identification with is to their original field, not Learning and Development. And, they don’t have, nor in most cases see the need to acquire, a background in the science of learning.

2. No One Actually Knows (Or For That Matter Wants To Know) Whether Learning Occurs

Ιf any evaluation is done, it is mostly of the smile-sheet variety. I can’t tell you how many learning leaders have assured me that they are certain their training is effective because learners have indicated that they like it. What are learners supposed to do?! If they indicate they didn’t learn, they look like dummies. So, they blithely circle “Excellent” or “Very Good” on the smile sheet and figure that they’ll learn what they need to know on the job. It’s easier that way.

And, learning leaders are still confused about what ROI is or when it should be calculated. I was at a recent breakfast for Chief Learning Officers during which learning leaders continued to discuss ROI as a measure to prove the impact of training. As a former Finance major, I wanted to weep. It’s no wonder business leaders don’t take their Learning and Development counterparts seriously.

ROI is a metric that should be calculated before an organization invests in training, along with the probability of achieving the desired ROI, the break even point, and the anticipated payback period. They all provide guidance to help an organization decide whether it should invest in training and how much. Granted, if an organization decides to go ahead with the training, ROI should be measured to see if the training had the anticipated impact, and if it didn’t, to figure out what remedial measures to put into place to salvage the initial investment.

Its purpose is not (and I can’t stress this enough) to demonstrate the impact of training. Think about it. Do you want to be the one to tell senior leaders that the $250k they spent on training was all for naught? I don’t.

In the end, “what gets measured gets managed”. As a result of the lack of adequate measurement, the bar for creating instructionally sound learning is set very low if it is set at all. Such standards, another core component of a profession, are missing in action.

3. No One Is Accountable For Ensuring Learning Happens

This is the proverbial “hot potato” that has been tossed around for years. Can you imagine if programmers weren’t accountable for the results of the programs they coded? Or if surgeons weren’t accountable for the success of the operations they performed? Well, that is what happens in L&D. If any learning happens at all, it is a lucky happenstance.

(By the way, this should be a three-way partnership. Learning and Development is accountable for creating effective learning experiences and a safe environment in which learning can occur. Participants are accountable for learning. And, managers are accountable for ensuring that learners have the opportunity to apply what they learned immediately after the training and to provide follow-up coaching as needed.)

In short, you have people from other professions, who have no background in the science of learning nor see a need to acquire one, developing, designing, and delivering training; a lack of universally known and accepted standards that define instructional soundness; no one measuring results, and zero accountability for the results no one is measuring. All of this has gradually evolved to the current state in which we find ourselves.

Final Thoughts

I can’t say I am hopeful. This situation has evolved steadily over decades and the conversation never seems to advance. But why should it? Learning leaders are still rewarded for butts in seats, smile sheet scores, and completion rates.

The one thread we could pull that might unravel this dismal situation is accountability. Accountability would improve meaningful measurement. Measurement would improve the quality of instruction because it is a feedback mechanism. And, organizations would hire people who have a background in the science of learning to design and develop training because effectiveness would matter. From here, we could get a toehold to establish this very real body of knowledge as a profession.

Originally published on