5 Issues That Plague Learning

Some learning problems never end. The challenge is to make sure that they aren’t still being written about in 10 years.


When it comes to accountability, learning leaders face five persistent dilemmas. These are not new, but they persistently erode credibility and success in the learning function.

  1. We’re the No. 1 solution but the first to go when there’s a problem. Executives frequently request learning solutions. Yet, at the same time, those same executives will be the first to cut the learning budget. Why? One reason is that we rarely follow through and show the value of the request in business terms, leaving the requester to wonder if the learning was really effective. This dilemma is complicated by the fact that most executives view learning as a cost and not an investment in employees.
  2. Most job-related learning is wasted. Learning leaders often discuss scrap learning, or the portion of learning not used on the job. We want it to be applied, but, depending on which study you examine, this wasted learning can be anywhere between 50 and 90 percent. The transfer of learning to the job is a constant and perplexing problem that needs to be addressed early and often — before, during and after a learning program.
  3. Most e-learning and online learning break down to the application and impact levels. A third dilemma is based on the need and desire to have learning just in time, at the right cost, in the right amount, at the learner’s convenience. This is difficult to achieve logistically unless it is formatted as technology-based learning. While convenient, accessible and low cost, e-learning is not as effective as facilitator-led learning when measured at the application and impact levels. The concern is to make e-learning effective at these levels, using designers and developers creative spirit and administrators’ business-minded focus. We all know that a great facilitator can inspire, encourage, support and even insist that learner’s apply what was learned. Absent the facilitator, this task falls to the designers and developers.
  4. Most learning and development is not connected to a business need. Because most learning comes as a request for a learning solution, it is rarely connected to a business need. Ideally, learning should address a problem in the business that needs to be solved or an opportunity that needs to be pursued. Learning should start with the end in mind, and that should be a business measure. This will require a performance discussion with the requester, and this is possible. Jenny Dearborn, SAP’s chief learning officer, said last year in a conference presentation that SAP will not implement a new learning program unless there is a business need clearly defined for it.
  5. The definition of success for the learning function hasn’t changed much. It needs to. Having a one sentence definition of success for the learning organization is important because it quickly communicates why learning exists as function. Years ago, success was principally measured by the number of participants, the time involved and the cost of the learning. Then, measures of participant reaction and satisfaction were added. For most learning functions, this evolved into defining success based on measuring what people have learned.

For some, the measure of learning success has moved to identifying what participants are doing with what they have learned. A few learning organizations have defined the learning center as a business contributor, as participants can affect their work, department or division. Learning should be defined as successful when not only participants use what they have learned, but also when that learning has an effect on them. This changes everything because without impact, the learning function is not successful.

We know that much progress has been made, and we applaud those efforts. But that progress is insufficient. This column could have been written 10 years ago, and it would have been as relevant then. The challenge is to make sure that 10 years from now we are not writing the same things.

When it comes to accountability, things are changing rapidly. The learning function must change as well. Change is inevitable; progress is optional.

Jack J. Phillips is the chairman, and Patti P. Phillips is president and CEO of the ROI Institute. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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