The “easier than ever” culture in Learning & Development
January 29, 2021
A few months ago, I had a long and intense conversation with a client to hash out the details of a training course I was to design as part of a broader change management consultancy intervention. The idea was to start with this course to gauge expectations and needs and thus see how to approach the next step of intervention in their culture and processes.
If you’re in, you’re in; if you want to learn, you’re going to have to do your part.
As soon as we got into the course details, I clearly explained to her the premise that I base most of my collaborations on: that this was to be a joint effort, that she was going to have to work with me and that we should be demanding in what we ask of the participants. This last point is especially key. I mean, if you’re in, you’re in; if you want to learn, you’re going to have to do your part.
I suggested asking the participants (specialist staff and professionals from a top-tier organisation) to do some research before our scheduled workshop. They would have to make an effort to get their neurons firing, to tune their antennae, so to speak. As a facilitator I was sure that this would provide sturdy scaffolding to help them take in what we were going to cover in the workshop. I also planned on having them do some fieldwork between sessions, to collect some data that we would need to solve an “innovation challenge” and hone certain skills in the process. I knew that if they put some effort into the assignment, we would begin a virtuous circle of learning by doing. I also knew that it would require a certain degree of interest and dedication.
As it turned out, my “let’s put them to work” premise was terribly hard to get across and, well, bombed. The client told me that she preferred training pills that would convey concepts and skills without requiring “so much work” from the participants. What she really wanted was a magic formula that would guarantee effective learning with minimum effort.
Her way of explaining this was to ask me for something more entertaining, more fun and, although she didn’t use these words, more spectacular and bursting with flower power. She asked me for one of those courses that would blow people’s mind and also let them enjoy themselves a little. In other words, she was looking for an escape from the tedium of work, which would do little to help the participants develop new professional and personal skills. Whenever I am asked to play the sociocultural cheerleader, I suggest giving away movie tickets. It is not the kind of thing I do, or am good at, or think I should do.
What I ask for is balance and at least a sliver of commitment, which necessarily means putting in some effort to hone the skills being taught.
I’m not saying that training courses and programmes should be lacklustre or dull. Nor am I arguing that you have to act in a wearisome, stern or humourless way to get people to learn. Nor that participants should have to work their backsides off to get something out of their training. What I ask for is balance and at least a sliver of commitment, which necessarily means putting in some effort to hone the skills being taught. This is even more crucial when it comes to acquiring skills that force us to rethink our assumptions and step out of our comfort zone. This cannot be achieved without a certain amount of work.
Of course, training has to be designed to motivate. I’m not evoking the old-fashioned saying “spare the rod, spoil the child” here, but learning curves are indeed steepest at the start. Nowadays, we’re experiencing this nauseating inertia towards “low-cost” training, especially for courses organised by someone else (for example, an employer), rather than something we look for ourselves out of amusement or interest.
Organising minimum-effort learning may improve satisfaction surveys in the short term, but the medium- and long-term results will be excruciatingly questionable
I see an overflow of enabling paternalism in this. Organising minimum-effort learning may improve satisfaction surveys in the short term (“what a great speaker, so much fun, how quickly I learned”), but the medium- and long-term results will be excruciatingly questionable, especially when it comes to transferring skills to the workplace or to one’s personal routine.
Julen Iturbe-Ormaetxe has laid out his thoughts on this topic in “The effort(less) culture”, as well as in “University standards”. The latter, although focused on school education, also serves to rattle our assumptions of professional training. This is an issue that has always concerned me, and one that I will continue to write about. To boot, here is another of my posts that underlines the same thesis: On effort culture in education.
Returning to my story, after exchanging a few messages, I finally gave in to the client’s request and decided to forgo the exercise I so firmly believed in. Later on, as we approached the day of the workshop, I was given a new task: “Hey, Amalio, put together a summary of the trends that you’re going to talk about, so that people can use it as a study guide during and after the workshop. We want these summaries to showcase how thorough the course is.” Then, biting my tongue and mustering all the patience I could, I replied that it would be much better if it were the participants themselves who wrote up this summary based on what I tell them and their own research, that we could put them in teams to prepare the summaries on their own, and that we could discuss them together afterwards. I cautioned that spoon-feeding them a summary would promote a passive attitude, seriously dampen their learning and condition them far too much for my liking. In short, we would miss out on their insights. On the contrary, I said, if they know that they are going to have a post-workshop assignment, they will pay better attention and exercise their ability to filter out and synthesise key points.
Erich Fromm was quoted saying that people “seek answers […] but they also demand that it be easy to learn, that it require little or no effort, that results be quickly obtained”. But, at the risk of sounding like an old fart, I’m certain that nothing truly worthwhile is achieved without effort. Richard Sennett had my back when he said that resistance and hardship are important sources of mental stimulation; when we have to struggle to learn something, we learn it well. That means that training that strives to spark a significant change in people must come at a cost.
People are willing to make much more effort than some bureaucrats assume, as long as that effort is genuinely motivated and contextualised
Effortless learning is a pipedream. And the curious thing is that people are willing to make much more effort than some bureaucrats assume, as long as that effort is genuinely motivated and contextualised in a coherent way. Initial resistance can be overcome with proper design, but for that to happen the people organising training need to stop being so paternalistic.
Amalio Rey is an expert in participative innovation models based on collective intelligence and the creation of networks and collaborative ecosystems.