Why is learning seemingly so hard within organizations?

Saturday quick-hitter, so here’s a few reasons:

“Learning occurs best when we are not fearful and not defensive.” I got that quote from this post at Darden. Seems logical, right? Problem: most “learning” since WW2 has been tied to annual performance reviews, which create an inauthentic context of fear and defensiveness.

Execution is valued more than learning: This is part “Temple Of Busy,” part “Everything Is Always Urgent,” and part “If I Execute Well, I’ll Get Promoted, So Who Cares About Learning?”

HR typically owns it: People don’t care about what HR does, because HR doesn’t have its own P&L.

It’s seen as fluffy: If you’re a deal-making world builder or a road warrior sales guy, why do you need to stop and think about “learning?” You’re out there doing it. Slaying the f*ck out of those dragons, baby!

It’s a cost that could be avoided: Most companies still run on cost.

It’s meaningless: We’ve been doing training and learning programs for two generations now, and the same problems exist with managers, processes, workflows, communication, etc. So what do all these books, speeches, and modules actually do? The real answer is: “They make other people money.” The actual answer? They essentially just run in circles and repeat the same thing as the last program you were sent to sit through.

No one really seems to know how to design it: While some good examples of learning programs do exist, most seem to be either (a) cookie-cutter bullshit or (b) some up-sell from a “hot startup.” Inside enterprise companies, L&D programs are usually a legitimate tire fire.

Performance reviews are an outdated relic: Learning is supposed to occur once in a year in an inauthentic, forced way. Ha. That works well for the On-Demand/Knowledge Economy, eh? There are better ideas, but most aren’t there yet.

Deliverables above all: Most managers claim to want A-Players and innovators. It’s usually a lie. They want drones who will hit targets, get stuff off their plate, not ask a lot of questions, not really want to be managed, etc. A-Players and innovators need to have discussions and understand the context of pain points, problems, work process, etc. Most managers have no desire to do that. They claim to want to do that because their bosses use those words (“innovative learning culture of trust…”) but they just want to keep their own head above water, not manage 12 people. Most work cultures are “Deliverables Above All.” Learning doesn’t fit there.

What else you got?

Ted Bauer


  1. You have probably seen the meme that goes:
    CFO: What if we train all these people and they leave?
    CEO: What if we DON’T train them and they stay?

    Or even the bumper sticker “If you think training/education is expensive, try ignorance.”

    Despite the knowledge available on adult education theory, in my career of training adults I see so little of the “science” of learning put to good use. Companies waste, literally WASTE, millions and millions of dollars on useless (ineffective) training. Aside from the cost of the trainer is the lost time for having all those people away from their “real” job. I have moved away from most government training opportunities because they no longer seek highly qualified instructors who can actually transfer knowledge it their organization, but simply go to the “low bid” so that they can claim in a checkbox that their people have “attended training.” That is even more wasteful. And it is your tax dollars.

    And don’t get me started on the deficiencies in leadership development and the consequent leadership selection. You have previously written about Pfeffer’s book “Leadership BS” where he does a great job of making the case about how dysfunctional those two have become.

    Drucker said “What gets measured gets done.” By implication, nothing else does. In the world of corporate training these days, what gets measured is “butts in seats.” (That phrase actually appeared in a GAO report on training in the government.) Whether the class participant actually learned anything that qualifies as education or training, while measurable, is simply never done.

  2. Interesting to me how many workplaces have created a “deliverables above all” culture, devalued learning and development, and have the audacity to simultaneously chastise “job hoppers”.

    Here’s what I think—if you aren’t interested in my professional development and how training me can help prepare your organization for future success whilst simultaneously pushing me to mindlessly churn out a product/service, what basis do you have for getting upset when I leave for more money or a more flexible work environment? It’s “just business”, right?

    In a job market increasingly dominated by at-will relationships lobbied for by employers who want greater productivity at lower cost, why should employees give a shit about loyalty to companies that espouse abusive or borderline abusive employment practices? I say, show up, care about performing competently for your own sake, and move on when the relationship is no longer beneficial.

    The “but…but…companies have invested so much into you when they hire you!” argument rings hollow if it’s primarily framed in a financial context, which it usually is in most Internet thought circles. Without managers actually taking the next step to actually give a shit about an individual’s well-being, needs, and development, the financial investment argument is largely meaningless to employees. Reminds me of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home”: they gave her everything money could buy, but it still wasn’t enough.

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