ATD Blog

Call to L&D: Align With How People Really Learn, Think, and Work

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Learning & Development (L&D) is about increasing the likelihood of success of the organization by developing people’s skills and facilitating their productive activities. In short, we should be helping people think, work, and learn. And, to do it well, we should be doing it in alignment with what’s known about learning, thinking, and working. However, the evidence is that we aren’t, and the suggestion is that we can—and should.

How we learn

Let’s start with looking at how we learn. What’s known about the science of learning suggests that a key element is close alignment between what they need to do and what they practice in the learning environment. Nuances include practice in a meaningful context, with specific feedback, enriched with examples both good and bad, underpinned by appropriate content.

What we see, instead, is knowledge presentation and test. While there are complex reasons why we have devolved to this approach, the result is an investment that won’t—and can’tpay off. The approach of rapid e-learning, to take content from documents (PDFs and PPTs) and add quizzes, has little to no impact (if not detriment in terms of resources wasted).

How we think

The picture doesn’t get much better when we look at how we think. What we know is that we don’t think in the old picture of a formal logical reasoning engine inside our heads. Instead, we make many of our judgments using our intuitions in the moment, which works great in areas of our expertise, but is problematic in other areas.

It’s difficult to get us to think formally at all appropriate times—and it taxes our brains. We work much better when we’re scaffolded with resources. Our brains aren’t good at remembering rote information, but they are good pattern matchers. When we’re supported with technology, which is the complete opposite, we have a far greater likelihood of successful problem solving. Bottom line: we need tools on-hand.


Instead, we try to put information in the head rather than in the world. And when we do put it in the world, we make it impossible to find. First, we don’t use performance support when we could and should, it’s usually not part of the solution design L&D uses. And when resources are created, often by other business units, they are organized by the unit producing them, not the performer’s needs.

More than likely, if a resource does exist, it’s somewhere in dozens—if not hundreds—of silo, and not organized by performer role and need.

How we work

As we move to the picture of how we work, we find a similar pattern. Increasingly, the evidence is that for solving problems, several things play a role:

  • working together
  • safe environment for sharing
  • team diversity
  • open ideas are welcomed
  • having time to reflect.

The important work we do is increasingly around solving problems. In this sense, learning may need to improve or create new products and services, come up with new processes, solve ever more ambiguous or unique occurrences, and so forth. And to do so, we need a culture where innovation can thrive—where people are given meaningful work, the freedom to pursue solutions, and the resources to succeed.
Compare that to the typical organizational approach: people aren’t supposed to waste time talking to one another, answers come from top-down, “this is how we’ve always done it” attitudes, and little time for reflection. In the industrial age, perhaps, these approaches made sense, but we’ve moved on; in the information age, and we need information age approaches.

Moving forward

Information age L&D requires, as before, supporting optimal execution, but also includes facilitating continual innovation. Optimal execution comes from performance support first, respecting that we’re not good at rote performance, and then learning that’s serious.

We desperately need to revisit our approaches here. Continual innovation is facilitated by social interaction, scaffolded to remove barriers and support representation and communication. Underpinning this is an infrastructure to integrate the two halves, a strategy to move the organization to this new way of working and learning, and a culture supporting the organization that makes contributing welcome.

This is the direction that L&D can—and should—be going. It’s aligned with our humanness both in effectiveness and in humanity, as well as being the contributing role that L&D should be offering to the organization. This richer, more valuable approach is the revolution we need to have. 

Ready to join the movement?

About the Author

Clark Quinn, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Quinnovation, Co-Director of the Learning Development Accelerator, Chief Learning Strategist for Upside Learning, and a co-author of the Serious eLearning Manifesto. With more than four decades of experience at the cutting edge of learning, Dr. Quinn is an internationally-recognized speaker, consultant, and author of seven books. He combines a deep knowledge of cognitive science and broad experience with technology into strategic design solutions that achieve innovative yet practical outcomes for corporations, higher-education, not-for-profit, and government organizations.

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