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23 Things--Web 2.0 Lessons Remixed for Nonprofits

Culture of Training vs. Culture of Learning

A few days ago, I posted about an article in Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge. It was on an interview with Harvard professor Amy Edmondson who has found that that learning makes people less productive at work, at least during the learning process. I suggested that organizations should accept that lack of productivity is part of learning and that it shouldn't keep them from encouraging and supporting learning with their employees.  This opened up a bit of a (depressing) discussion in comments when Jason Zannon of DIA suggested that in an industry with high turnover and high burnout rates (i.e., the nonprofit industry), it may actually make sense to not worry about learning:

". . . might it be (depressingly) possible that in a low-margin, high-turnover, high-burnout field, a definition of productivity that doesn't care at all whether you learn might in fact be adaptive for some organizations?

If the actuarial table says you're probably out the door in two years and out of nonprofits altogether in five [<-numbers I just made up], I might just want to extract the surplus value and leave you to learn on your own time ... and by at least certain definitions of responsible institutional management, I might be right."

I agreed with this, but suggested that maybe the reason that there's high turnover and high burnout is because organizations do not support learning--essentially chicken or the egg syndrome. Jason came back with:

"It seems to me that the matter of getting to a learning culture where one doesn't exist at all is the hard step. For an organization with any kind of existing commitment to it, even only a nominal one -- by a conventional signifier, perhaps, something like a budget for professional development, conferences and trainings -- it's a matter of opening that box to encompass other forms of learning as well. After all, most seminars don't come with a clear straight-line ROI any more so than messing around with a new tech toy does."

I completely agree with Jason's point that it's difficult to develop a culture of learning. This line of thinking, though, led me to crystallize some thoughts I've had on what I see as a culture of training vs. a culture of learning. 

Let me preface by saying that I have yet to meet the organization that sees absolutely no value in training. Even those organizations that don't make significant investments in training still acknowledge that training is necessary. They've just decided that they can't or won't make it a priority. This is important, I think, because to me it indicates that there's agreement that learning is necessary on some level, which gives you some place to start from in building bridges from the culture of training to the culture of learning.

That said, these are some of the differences I see between a culture of training and a culture of learning:


Culture of   Training


Culture of   Learning


Organizationally-focused—training   provided based on job function, organizational needs and requirements.


Focused on developing   skills of individual staff—learning in response to individual staff skill   needs.


Event-based—learning occurs   at particular times in particular locations.


Process-based—learning is   always going on and is woven into the  fabric of the organization.


Instructor led, "formal training is the norm.


Supports a variety of formal and informal processes that center on the learner


Learning in response to   regulations/requirements and perceived staff inadequaciesoften used inappropriately to address issues related to poor management and work processes


Learning as an ongoing, natural process that is part of a quality organization—seen as a support to   other organizational quality initiatives


Often unrelated to and/or not supportive of work processes—i.e., training on “case management skills”   that are not supported by work flow


Usually related to and supportive of work processes


Little focus on   transfer of learning to work


Transfer of learning   occurs because learning is well-integrated into work processes


Little value placed on learning--seen as a "necessary evil," a "cost" and/or a way to "fix" staff


High value placed on learning--regarded as an important investment in the quality of the organization and the growth of staff.  


One side note--although this chart represents a kind of either/or thinking, in reality, I believe that organizations probably fall on some kind of continuum between the two cultures. Presenting it this way, though, helps me demonstrate the contrasts between how I view the two cultures in their extremes.

That said, I think a disturbingly high number of organizations have embraced a culture of training over the culture of learning and would find themselves on the far side of that continuum. I'm particularly bothered by the organizational view that training is a panacea for poor management, which implies that it's usually the worker's "fault" when there are problems in doing the work. In reality, poor work performance is usually NOT a result of lack of skill. Instead, it is generally because of poorly designed work processes and/or an organizational culture that says one thing and does another.

Another thing that stands out for me in this--In some ways, I think that culture of training organizations see learning as something that's done TO staff. Culture of learning organizations, on the other hand, see learning as something you do WITH staff.

In culture of training organizations, there's a belief that there's generally something "wrong" with staff that needs to be "fixed" by training. These are usually the organizations where management wouldn't be caught dead attending a training session.  In culture of learning organizations there seems to be a belief that learning is a necessary growth process for everyone, which means that everyone participates in both formal and informal learning events. They see learning as something that's happening all day, every day. 

So where might the leverage points be in moving from a culture of training to a culture of learning? I'm not sure. Part of me thinks that if you can get people to start expanding their definitions of what constitutes learning, as Jason suggests, you can potentially get people to start thinking differently about the roles and processes of learning in organizations. I also think that there need to be some attitude adjustments in terms of how staff are perceived, although this is a much harder area to address.

I'd be interested to hear from others about this. Am I totally off-base in thinking this way? If I'm not, do you have ideas about moving organizations more toward the culture of learning?


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I always thought training was for dogs ....
see slides 6 & 7

You're right, although unfortunately a lot of organizations haven't caught onto that!

Your comparison reminds me of the 'straw man fallacy', in that you are comparing an ineffective training system/culture with an effective learning culture. Furthermore, you are comparing 'the whole' with one of its parts.

A likely consequence of the above is that some people will interpret the comparison to mean that 'training is bad, learning is good'. The idea that training/instruction is for dogs shows a confusion between means and ends. Training, by definition, is a 'technology' for creating learning.

In an effective training system/culture, training is, inter alia, tightly linked to organizational needs and treated as an investment. Employees are not sent off to be fixed and there is a strong focus on transfer of learning. Managers understand that on-the job application (and the learning it creates) is essential to training effectiveness. Most importantly, such a culture is strongly learning oriented.

A training culture is a subset of a learning culture, since training is but one way to influence learning. I don't think a broad learning culture (as you describe it) can exist without an effective training system/culture.

To build a learning culture, it is necessary to build a 'culture of effective training'. This is a leverage point for moving to a broader 'culture of learning'.

I have often attended trainings and come back to the office only to be overcome with the urgent and important and rarely getting a chance to fully integrate what I learned into my day-to-day actions. I wonder how many people would say something similar?

Now that I work from my own home office, I find I learn so much more, informally, that I ever gained from any single training event. I learn every day through actions related to blogging, writing proposal and papers, calling on colleagues and participating in social networks and communities of practice. Perhaps most training could be replaced with thoughtful, intentional, informal learning networks?

Without going too much into the culture of organizations, if we examine the issue from a neutral standpoint, I feel training will move more and more towards the e-learning variety, as people can do the training flexibly, while combining it with their "normal work". E-learning now seems to be poised for a big takeoff, as the total costs of classroom based "physical presence" kind of education becomes more and more expensive, difficult to accomodate in tight budgets and companies start to cut costs. Since the employee does not have to "be away" from work while he/she is getting training, so perhaps companies may tolerate this kind of training?

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