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ATD Blog

From Training to Learning—What’s the Hold Up?


Tue Feb 19 2013


When I was introduced to our field, I knew it as training and development. I heard time and again that the great companies invested in their people through training and development. These companies were at the top of their game, and those were the types of organizations where I should seek employment.  That was about a decade ago, and not much has changed.

What do I mean? Somewhere before or during this time, we made the shift as an industry to rebrand our offerings as learning and development. An early 2000 article by i4cp describes the shift in the following way: “Whereas training is provided for employees, learning is initiated by employees. Whereas training takes place when it’s available, learning happens whenever it must. Whereas training usually occurs in classrooms, learning happens anywhere, often with the aid of online systems.” While many of the cutting-edge companies have adopted this framework as best practice, I would dare to say that the majority of organizations are still in the dark.


Obstacles in Our Way

The question that now arises is “What’s the hold up?” Why do we have so many late adopters and adapters to the changes in the field? Below are a few of the reasons why all of us haven’t made the conceptual leap from training to learning.

The Big Pink Elephant: Command and Control. Every executive wants to think that they’re progressive and collaborative. But if you get them in a room and ask them some really tough questions, you will often see the remnants of “command and control” all over them. In command and control organizations, we tell people what they’re supposed to do. Therefore, training as opposed to learning is a natural fit for organizations whose leaders are authoritarian—whether  they are benevolent or not.

TomAto/Tomahto…Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off! Many executives who aren’t autocrats (and especially in smaller companies) really don’t see the difference between training and learning. I believe the fundamental difference was illustrated above. Employees want to be in charge of their own destinies. When there’s an opportunity to advance themselves, they want the tools that they need to get there—and they want those tools immediately. Making the shift from training to learning enables this sort of action.

Learning Investment? We Just Created a Line Item for Training. Let me just start by saying there’s a reason why there are books and workshops on training on a shoestring. For most of us, it was only yesterday that senior leaders decided to give us a small budget outside of the allocated HR dollar—let alone invest tens of thousands in LMS, e-programming, and other just-in-time training technologies. The thought process is who has time for learning when we’ve just adopted “training.” We’re not there yet!


The Age Old Question: WIIFM? One would hope that the decision makers in our organizations would already know the institutional benefit of investing in employees’ growth and development. Unfortunately, we can’t say that with 100 percent certainty. As a result, we must keep at the forefront of our minds that bottom-line results are still the name of the game. Not illustrating ROI in a clear, concise, and consistent fashion has certainly contributed to the lack of adaptation.

Approaches for Overcoming Hurdles

The picture may look bleak, but have no fear! One of the wonderful and fun facts about our industry is that we tend to be agile and flexible. We do our best to accommodate our customers/clients and meet them where they are. In understanding that we have some late adopters and adapters, here are a few things we can do to help our organizations make the leap to where our industry already stands.

Teach to Learn. One of the easiest ways we can promote adaptation is to ensure that those entering the business field as a whole understand that a shift has been made. There are tens of thousands of college graduates every year whose views can be influenced by their professors and what they learn in their business schools. Are our professors still teaching training or have they adopted learning? This is a great place to start.

In addition, our industry leaders can band together and use their influence to ensure that the collegiate chapters of their organizations are clear about where the industry is heading and that they share this information with all institutional stakeholders. If we teach “learning,” then learning will eventually become a part of the common nomenclature. This is certainly a grassroots, bottom-up approach, but it is probably very effective!


Show the Value in Learning. Welcome to the 2013 post-recession business world. We can no longer afford to do things because they seem and sound good. No one has that type of money to waste. In our field, we must show the value in a well-learned employee. This can be done by illustrating hidden costs. However, worker’s compensation, sick leave, and decreased productivity are all things that organizations worry about but never account for in their costs. We can show the value that learning has on these areas by showing how engagement and skill cause these factors to decrease.

Understand that Best Practice Isn’t Best Unless the Executive Says It Is. We have to stop relying on this thing called “best practice.” Our organizations are entirely too isomorphic. This prevents real change from happening because we adopt principles that fail to progress our organizations. Learning is not a one size fits all field. We must research and find the companies that are in our competitive sets that do “best.” These are the ones who the senior leaders have in their slide decks for the annual board meeting. We must couple this research with the goals and objectives of our companies and find what makes sense based on the company identity, not just any company that’s on a Fortune 500 lists with a best places to work denotation.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

It’s obviously taken time for this new concept of learning to take hold—and it will continue to take time. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t more we can do NOW to help accelerate the process. I look forward to the day when even mom-and-pop businesses readily adopt learning as necessary practice. Until then, I guess we’ll keep training!

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