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Training, Technology, and "The Law of the Hammer": Part 1

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Fri Mar 15 2013

Training, Technology, and "The Law of the Hammer": Part 1
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In 1996, Abraham Maslow (best known for his theorem of the hierarchy of needs in psychology) quipped that “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Two years earlier, the American philosopher Abraham Kaplan made a similar observation: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”

Training, Technology, and "The Law of the Hammer": Part 1-efd9398bf522b18634369ae9299a991c23dcabd40115272c70d93e96c1f2e6d8

This adage came to life in my own family recently, when we learned that our future daughter-in-law found her new car covered with a half inch of ice after an overnight storm. Not sure what to do, she found a hammer in the trunk and proceeded to use it to smash the ice loose from bumper to bumper. Predictably, it was difficult to convince her insurance carrier to reimburse her for the multiple broken windows and sheet metal dents. (I’m sorry to confess that she will fit in nicely with our family!)

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What does this have to do with business and training? A great deal. Let me explain: Recently, I have become concerned that the “hammer du jour” in our metaphoric trunk is high technology.

First, let me say that this article is not a Luddite rant against technology per se. This new millennium has brought to our training tool boxes a host of promising, wonderful technologies like web-based training, virtual instructor-led classrooms, simulations, gaming, and social media, to name a few. These tools make it easier to deliver training to more learners, less expensively, more consistently, and across broader geographies and time zones. In short, we can get more done with less as a result of the technology advances that have emerged.

However, there is a tendency for people to use these technologies like the proverbial hammer. Some organizations have pushed forms of e-learning into cultures with little online learning interest and/or infrastructure. Others have insisted on taking an exclusively “high-tech” approach to teaching “high-touch” skills such as coaching and conflict resolution.

More recently, the universal technology panacea in some quarters seems to be the application of new social media technologies to learning (a.k.a. “Learning 2.0”). The notion that most people learn better and enjoy it more in a social environment is inarguable. For that matter, the traditional classroom (when led by an interactive teacher or facilitator) can be a very social milieu within which to learn, particularly if the learning objectives are focused on human skills, such as leadership.

The Downside

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The social media buzz, meanwhile, is about technology-based interactive experiences including blogs, chat rooms, and discussion forums, not to mention the wildly successful commercial social platforms—Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Yammer. Clearly, these tools can be harnessed within our organizations to make learning more interactive, involving, and spontaneous, while also spanning geography and generation, and capitalizing on the collective wisdom of groups.

However, some of these platforms can be risky for organizations in terms of security and legal liability. Technology can sometimes be surprisingly difficult and inconsistent. Corporate firewalls can be fussy about what they let through. And technology is always changing, which is good for progress but frustrating for infrastructure investments.

In addition, corporate cultures differ, just like people do, and what is easily adopted in one organization may be ineffective in another. And finally, there are regional and international variances in uptake, technology, and governing laws and institutions. Thus, the promise of social media is tempered by the complexities and uncertainties experienced by organizations to varying degrees.

Force-Fitting Doesn’t Work

Unfortunately, some learning and development professionals have tried to force-fit social learning tools and platforms into topics and cultures, whether or not they are necessarily well-suited. And regardless of the tools in our tool box, a few maxims about effective learning systems haven’t changed. Next week, I’ll post these tenets of learning systems design that are key, despite mode or technology. I’ll also list a few guiding principles for using social technologies.

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