Blog: Fixing corporate learning programs

Learning & Development

Fixing corporate learning programs

We look at the anatomy of corporate learning while highlighting the reason why most training programs fall short of their promise and how to bridge the gap.
Fixing corporate learning programs

I am sure you must have been through a training program, on the job or in anticipation of one. Regardless of your experience ‘during’ the program or the workshop, the question remains as to how much of the learning did you apply? Most numbers hover around 10 to 30 percent. And yet, year in and year out, organizations keep peddling on their learning programs, on an ever greater canvas and costlier settings. If the information doesn’t get translated into knowledge and then eventually into ‘ways of doing things’ aren’t we wasting people’s time and organizational resources? Perhaps, most trainers and managers alike know no better way.

Here, we look at the anatomy of corporate learning while highlighting the reason why most training programs fall short of their promise and how to bridge the gap.

The anatomy of a corporate learning program

Think of learning as a confluence of three components – skillsets, toolsets, and mindset.

Learning, especially for an adult and in a work context, happens only when the toolsets, skillsets and the mindset come together. Toolsets are the essential frameworks, models, methods, and scientific takeaways from the session that help solve a problem or achieve the desired results; the skills form the deftness of using those tools in the appropriate context; and finally, the mindset is the very overarching and guiding temperament which is less of a science than art.

A large number of corporate programs, across levels and topics, are designed very narrowly around tools and skills and relatively less on influencing the mindset

To sight an instance, if we talk about Design Thinking, the tools would include empathy maps, customer journey maps, pain-gain analysis, et al., the skills would be about deep listening, mind mapping, insight gathering, interviewing, etc.; and mindset would involve holistic thinking, integrative thinking, and deferring judgment, amongst others. Needless to say, between the three elements of learning, the mindset is the most elusive and difficult to master. Unless the tools and skills are weaved together on the fabric of the appropriate mindset the learning doesn’t stay and, consequently, little gets into practice.

Most corporate executives, especially the more senior ones, are on the critical and even cynical side, unfortunately. With experience comes rigidity, and overconfidence on what has worked in past and limited understanding of the disruptions lying ahead. The seasoned one gets in the corporate ‘jungle’, the less becomes neuro-plasticity and the corresponding the ability to let go of biases and set ways of doing things. Tools and skills are of little use unless the deep-rooted mindset gets questioned and (hopefully) changed. Such mindset related orthodoxies only become more dangerous with individuals exposed to a non-linear rate of change, coupled with a wider canvas of change – social, economic, political, environmental, legal, and technological.

Adults learn through reflection and continuous coaching. That's why successful leaders spend a lot of time coaching their direct reports and getting coached themselves by external experts

The seed of failure is in design

A large number of corporate programs, across levels and topics, are designed very narrowly around tools and skills and relatively less on influencing the mindset. The closest attempt to really nudge the ways of thinking is through case studies, stories, anecdotes, and a few management games. The challenge with such interventions is that these are exciting but not lasting. Participants often find it difficult to translate the information or even insights shared in such exercises to the work at hand. As a result, cynicism gets more pervasive and so does the learning hysteria. In every successive session, the trainer or the coach has to put greater energy to convince the audience of the relevance and utility of the program. It’s a spiral ending with the host organization looking for another coach, without questioning the very design of the program.

Think of designing a corporate intervention across three stages – 1) pre-engagement; 2) engagement; and 3) post-engagement.

As you might have experienced, as a trainer or a trainee, a disproportionate attention goes into the actual engagement, where the trainer/ coach is engaging with the participants. However, level excellent work is done during the program, unless the pre-work and post-work support the intervention, the overall impact remains dismal. Since, most trainers are oblivious of, or are kept in dark of, the pre and post engagement, their ability to influence the uptake remains limited. The learning and development (L&D) team, or the business in question, ought to own the entire engagement, and not just resort to a checklist manifesto.

The design of the program not being holistic (pre, during and post engagement), and not collaborative, often leads to a failed outcome. Remember, regardless of the delivery, if the design is flawed, the outcome would always be suboptimal. 

Now, let’s look at some of the ways of addressing the issue.

A holistic approach to corporate learning

So far we have discussed about the anatomy of corporate learning, comprising of toolsets, skillsets, and the mindset; and the design stages of a learning programs – pre-engagement, engagement, and post engagement, let us now delve into practices of how to make the overall learning experience more effective (read adopted). Each of the three design stages is discussed in terms of some of the best practices that have proven to deliver enduring impact in terms of adoption and change. Most of these pointers are relevant to the program designers and the L&D professionals and the program sponsors from the business, as much as the trainers.

When does the real learning happen - during the workshop, or after the workshop? I maintain that learning happens after the workshop is over - through reflection and practice

In pre-engagement, focus on the why and the who

Between working for the company and learning for oneself, what do most employees instinctively choose? My experience says – working for the company! Why do employees willingly, and quite happily so, forego learning opportunities knowing very well the learning imperative? Well, the answer is psychological. Working for the company is relatively routinized and hence, less effortful and offers instant gratification, in terms of work getting done, and in the mid-term, salary and other accolades. Whereas learning for oneself, is out of routine, is effortful, increases the cognitive load, and the payout isn’t very clear or imminent. Naturally, the mind would gravitate towards the less effortful, routine activity, even if that’s adding little value, even in the short run.

The first and foremost role of the L&D manager must be to talk about the learning imperative and show the intended audience the end state, the expected outcome. People, left to themselves, can’t visualize the end state so easily, for they are in thick of the present. L&D managers can do that more dispassionately and creatively. Secondly, they must promote the program and the resource-person more strategically. Often, it’s reduced to a routine task, where the end purpose gets lost through a series of emails. It’s needed to elevate the conversation and position the resource-person (provided she is well identified) as a panacea to the current plight and a learning partner. 

Hence, by focusing on the ‘why’ (the learning purpose) and ‘who’ (the coach) of the learning program, the L&D team would be able to generate more psychological traction and weed out the ones who are genuinely not keen on learning. Trust me, not everyone is keen to learn or does learn, do better bet on the select few and cut the losses right away.  The how (pedagogy) and where (venue) also play an important role in enriching the overall experience. But nothing is more urgent and important that the purpose and the right resource person.

During engagement, focus on mindset, apart from tools and skills

Thanks to the proliferation of online learning programs and zillions of course materials on all conceivable topics, what do you think can’t be learned online – tools, skills, or mindset? I reckon it’s the mindset that’s difficult to develop online. In fact, most videos talk about skills, right from the most rudimentary to the sophisticated ones, and tools at disposal, but the mindset of how to use what and when doesn’t come that easily or cheap. And yet, most learning programs miss out on the need and means of developing an appropriate mindset.

Once the L&D team has set the context and brought the right audience in the room, the task is for the coach to ensure that the conversation is elevated from raw facts and mechanics to the purpose and thinking patterns. From the ‘matter of fact’, the conversation must shift to ‘matter of thoughts’ and how thinking and subsequently acting, could get influenced. The tools and techniques, if remembered afterward, only happen in the milieu of the appropriate mindset, and if the coach misses out on those, no one would ever bother.

The content can always be picked up online or through notes, or other means, but the ‘why’, or the appropriate mindset is difficult to come by and takes a while to be established.

Post-engagement, mentor specific teams

When does the real learning happen - during the workshop, or after the workshop? I maintain that learning happens after the workshop is over – through reflection and practice. In the midst of the training program, it’s very easy to get into a different plane, and most seasoned trainers are capable of transcending their audience; but learning happens on the Monday morning when the participants are back at their work. That’s when the gravity of workplace reality sucks them in. How much of what they know or have been told remains? Not much, ironically.

Adults learn through reflection and continuous coaching. That’s the reason why successful leaders spend a lot of time coaching their direct reports and getting coached themselves by external experts. Coaching or mentoring is where the learning from the session gets contextualized and grounded in reality, and hopefully adopted as a way of doing things. The key is to not mentor all and sundry, but the most promising ones, and that too, in a group setting. By betting on a select few, you contain the investment from all the parties involved, create a sense of exclusivity, and hopefully let these trained few carry the baton forward.

Unfortunately, most learning programs don’t even factor in mentoring. They stop right at the workshop and then comes the next batch. The ones who have been through the program at the first place are lost in the jungle and no one knows of the translation of concepts to reality – the least of all the resource person. Most corporate are like black boxes to the external trainers – they come, deliver and leave! Between the trainer and the organized, frankly, it the organization’s loss.

Remember, not everyone is to be trained, or is amicable for learning, and hence, bet on specific individuals and let them lead the way. Make the coach or trainer a part of the design of a holistic learning process, and more importantly, focus sufficiently on the mindset, for skills and tools are relatively easy to pick up. Hope this note helps.

Do share your views.


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Topics: Learning & Development

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