ATD Blog

Can You See the Forest for the Trees?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sometimes life is just busy. We have the demands of career and family. We have bills to pay, places to go and people to see. We get so focused on carrying on that we can’t see the forest for the trees.

In the training industry, it is easy to be sidetracked by the trees and miss the forest. We get request for training, we fill them. Those are the trees. But what about the forest?

Training vs. learning

Have you noticed that the term “training” isn’t used much anymore? There is a reason for that—it represents just one step in the learning and outcomes process. Today, we talk about “learning, e-learning, learning portals, learning centers, chief learning officers, and so forth.” There is a big difference between training and learning—just like there is a big difference between short-term, individual results and long-term, organizational results.



Knowledge acquisition

Knowledge + application



Individual results

Organizational results




I started in the education field when providing training was a wonderful thing. At the beginning of the year we published a catalogue of training offerings. We provided classes and reported how many people attended our classes, if they liked the class, and if they learning anything. That was enough. Everyone was happy.

Unfortunately, when the training session was over, the learning typically stopped. Even more tragically, statistics prove that without further reinforcement, most learners forget most of what they learned within days. If that is the case, very little of what is taught is actually transferred to organizational results.

Today, leaders want measurable outcomes that impact the organization—in other words, the sustainability of the forest. Long-term sustainable results does involve training AND should always be tied to a long-term goal. Consider these statements:

  • Training is one event that occurs to facilitate the learning process.
  • Learning is a process, not an event. It occurs over time and with experience.
  • Learning occurs when individual behavior has changed.
  • Results occur when the collective change in behavior impacts the organization.

Achieving sustainable impact

Although training is an important element in organizational impact it, is only one piece. If we want to stay relevant, we have to look beyond just the learning event (or trees) and focus on the long-term organizational change (or forest).

Here are some best practices you can employ to achieve sustainable organizational impact.

Rethink your purpose. Do you exist to train people or to help the organization reach goals? Sustainable organizational impact requires prolonged performance improvement outcomes verses “training” alone. Training or knowledge acquisition is a step in performance outcomes, but it is not the entire answer.

If we truly think of ourselves as a partner to the organization to reach goals, we will shift our focus to a longer range focus of performance outcomes or learning solutions that will impact organizational goals. This expands our efforts to include not only the training event, but also communication, coaching, providing informal learning tools and support, partnering with leaders to hold participants accountable.

Move from volume to value and align skill development with organizational needs. Because most of us will not get more staff or support to help us implement our expanded focus, we have to be truly focused on only doing the things that will obtain performance outcomes. This may mean cutting back on some services or classes.


Should you be offering all the classes that you now offer? To answer this you must first know what the goals are of your organization. Once you understand the goals, look at each course offering and ask yourself if this course, no matter how great it is, contributes to corporate outcomes. If you can’t answer yes, perhaps you should stop offering that class.

Think value, not volume. After you have reduced course offerings, ask what you can do to support the organization in meeting goals. Be specific in how you can contribute and be sure you can measure those results

For those of you in regulatory fields, there are classes that you must offer because you are required to do so. However, most of us offer the same mandatory classes year after year that cover the entire topic. Unless you have a specific need, you can usually meet mandatory requirements with a much reduced offering.

In either case, whether a course is mandatory or supportive of reaching corporate goals, you need to serve the right amount of information.

Avoid the “Goldilocks” principle. We tend to train for more than we need to. Reducing content can be an art. It has been said that the brain can only remember what the seat can endure. Here are a few suggestions to help you whittle down classroom or e-learning time:

  • What information is truly necessary for the learner to start applying concepts? When you complete a gap analysis, weight the tasks. Is this a need to know topic to get started? Is this a nice to know, or something that will only be used sporadically? If it is a sporadic or nice to know topic, consider providing the information in another format. (We will talk about this more with informal tools).
  • Do you really need to show a learner how to do something more than one way? This is particular relevant with training software or technical topics. Resist the temptation to show participants how to do things in multiple ways.
  • Can you require the participant to complete a prerequisite before coming to class? This could be done with e-learning, reading, and so on. Learning done in smaller chunks is more memorable.

Remember: We don’t want to provide too much information at a time, or too little to have confident learners. We want to serve the amount of information that is “just right.”
Extend accessibility. As we rethink our purpose, we must also rethink what constitutes a training event. If we think of training as any event in which knowledge is acquired, it broadens our array of training tools.

  • Classroom: Although classroom events will not be completely eliminated, they are very costly. The location, instructor, materials, time a learner spends away from their job—it all costs money. Consider reducing classroom time by requiring a pre-requisite in the form of reading or e-learning. Save the classroom for hands-on application where a facilitator adds value.

  • E-learning: E-learning is often more convenient for the learner. Advantages include cost savings of training documents, consistency in content/delivery, ability to change/update curriculum instantly, broader access to corporate experts and authorities, opportunity to reach numerous geographical locations without incurring the costs of travel and loss of productivity due to travel. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking e-learning can completely replace the classroom. It is great for small amounts of information that can be provided in short bursts, but e-learning offerings are not necessarily the right fit for large amounts of information. Again, we are looking for the right “solution.” If the solution costs less and takes less time but does not adequately train the participant, it is not a good solution.
  • Informal learning tools. Applying what is learned while on the job is a critical step in performance outcomes. Because we know that learners will not remember everything from a classroom or e-learning event, we must serve the information in a just-in-time format. Today’s learner wants information when they need it, where they need it. We live in an instant society where information can be found on the internet or from an app. Are you supplying information when and where learners need it? Do you have an online portal for learning? Do you have an app for just-in-time information accessible from phones or tablets? If not, start thinking that way.

When you go high-tech, you must go high-touch. With all the accessibility options, we must remember that human element cannot completely be replaced. True performance outcomes take coaching, accountability, and reinforcement. When you reduce classes and content offerings and add just-in-time learning tools, backfill your newfound time with personal support to the learning and/or their manager. Coaching is a catalyst to performance improvement. 

Measure your success.  If our goal is to impact the organization with measurable performance outcomes, we must measure to truly know if we are making a difference. When you negotiate how you can contribute to the organizational goals, be sure to ask what success will look like. Then, measure your success.

If you do not measure, you will not know if you are contributing to success. If you measure, you will know if you reached your goal, or conversely, if you need to keep up the reinforcement and coaching until you do. Be sure to share the results with organizational leaders so they know you are making a difference—
that you are partnering with them to increase their success.

So, the million dollar question: Are you focusing on the trees or the forest? 

About the Author

Linda Hainlen is the director of business development at Sedona Learning Solutions, a Kirkpatrick Certified Facilitator, and an international author. She served as director of learning solutions for IU Health in Indianapolis, IN for 18 years.

Linda has over 25 years of proven experience as a training manager--including real world experience applying the Kirkpatrick principles. “Utilizing the Kirkpatrick Business Partnership Model truly transformed my results and elevated my division at IU Health to a strategic business partner in the organization. I am passionate about working with other organizations to help them elevate their results through partnering and obtaining sustainable outcomes.”

Linda is an engaging facilitator and presenter, who authentically and successfully connects with audiences by bringing concepts to life through sharing her own experiences from working in a highly regulated industry. Her practical and genuine approach inspires participants not only in thinking but in applying their newfound knowledge and skills.

Under Linda’s leadership, her division at IU Health was awarded the highly prestigious ASTD Best award in 2011. Linda has been published several times, including a white paper co-written with Jim Kirkpatrick on the topic of healthcare. Her ATD Infoline on “Designing Informal Learning” made the top 50 best sellers and was translated into 83 languages. Linda has been a speaker at several international conferences and has worked with companies from around the world to improve their effectiveness and achieve measurable outcomes. Industries served include higher education, corporate learning, nuclear, and healthcare. Sedona Learning is currently the only US Kirkpatrick Partners affiliate.

1 Comment
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Thank you Linda for this helpful article! As I learn about the Goldilocks principle I am curious about the reasoning to avoid the Goldilocks principle if we are aiming for learning that is "just right". My understanding is that the Goldilocks principle supports the guidance you provided. Thanks.
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