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Learning with a Purpose

by Raymond A. Talke, Jr.
President
Minds in Action, Inc.

 

        Throughout childhood, I engaged in unstructured activities – playing sports, games, and activities without any concern for its purpose.  As I look back, I realize that my play activities were actually learning activities.  As unstructured as they were, my experiences taught me valuable lessons in socializing with others, learning and following rules of games and sports, discovering the characteristics of my surroundings, etc.  Many of the lessons I learned as a youth were of the trial and error variety.  I never woke up and decided that I would learn something that day.  Learning just happened as I went through my day-to-day activities.

        As I grew older, I was exposed to more formal learning activities.  I entered school, joined sports leagues, and enrolled in organized youth groups.  Each of these was more structured than my unfettered play.  Although enjoyable, these institutions had an agenda – a set of rules and expectations that I was expected to learn, internalize, and perform.  Instead of the arbitrary and unplanned lessons of my early childhood, these institutions had an organized set of lessons I was expected to learn.  These lessons were designed to allow me to function effectively within the organized group and society as a whole.  The philosophy of these institutions can be best summed up by the motto of a magazine I read as a child, Highlights for Children - “Fun with a Purpose.”   Rather than the unstructured play and arbitrary lessons I learned as a young child, I was now expected to learn from more structured and planned lessons provided by my school, sports leagues, youth groups, and even when reading the magazine. 

        As adults within a corporate setting, we still find ourselves continuously learning.  While performing our jobs, we constantly find ourselves solving problems, experimenting with new ways to do things and confronting new situations.  As we go through our day-to-day job responsibilities we unconsciously store these experiences in our mind and draw upon them later when confronted with similar situations or problems.  This experiential learning is unplanned, unstructured, and we are usually not even aware that we are learning.    Yet, a majority of our learning actually occurs through experience, rather than structured, conscious learning activities.

        At times, we find ourselves confronted with a work situation in which we need more knowledge or greater skills than we possess.  We are conscious that we have a knowledge or skill gap.  To close the gap, we research the subject of our skill gap to gather the knowledge or skills we need.  We might read a book, interview an expert, or research a subject on the Internet.  In each of these instances, we need the information or skill immediately, and take the appropriate actions to acquire the knowledge or develop the skill now!  This self-directed learning is second only to experiential learning in terms of the amount of learning we do.

        Usually, we are only consciously aware that we are truly learning when we are engaged in structured, or facilitated, learning activities.  These activities are created and structured by some other party, and we enter these activities expecting to learn specific knowledge and skills as represented in the agenda, syllabus, or objectives of the learning activity.  Although we spend less time in facilitated learning environments than in experiential or self-directed learning situations, we expect these structured activities to allow us to develop our knowledge and skills quickly and efficiently.  In most cases, we expect to be able to apply the learned knowledge and skills on the job, and by learning the lessons contained in the facilitated learning activities, we will be more successful at our jobs.  Facilitated learning is, at its core, “Learning with a Purpose.” 

Does Your Organization provide “Learning with a Purpose”?

        Many organizations have education or training functions whose purpose is to create facilitated learning activities, usually in the form of classes.  Yet, it is disheartening to note that many of these organizations do not adequately incorporate the purpose of the learning into their learning activities.  Instead, they create classes and curriculums based upon vague directives, broad subject areas, and the availability of subject matter experts.  Whether the learning activity and its objectives are appropriate and targeted to the correct audience is secondary, and analysis of the success of the learning activity is usually limited to the reactions of the class participants as entered on an end-of-class survey form.  The true effectiveness and purpose of the learning activity gets lost in the process of developing and delivering the training.  Unwittingly, these organizations are creating “Learning without a Purpose.”

        When confronted, most training departments will insist that they are offering learning with a purpose.  But yet they often exhibit one or more of these symptoms that indicate that their learning activities lack a true purpose:

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The course subject matter is chosen before analyses of the targeted audiences’ jobs are performed.

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Subject matter experts develop the goals and objectives of courses and curriculums, rather than the owners of business initiatives or job incumbents.

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Senior managers and staff employees design and approve curriculums and courses without the active participation of job incumbents.

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Courses and curriculums are organized around subject areas rather than job functions.

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Learning objectives are created after the learning activity is designed.

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Published learning objectives are vague and/or immeasurable.

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The training department’s success is measured by number of students, number of class days, student reactions, or anything other than the measurable contribution the training provides in meeting the goals of the business.

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The knowledge and skills taught in the learning activity quickly become obsolete.

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The course needs several iterations of development before it is released into general circulation.

        If we look carefully at learning activities offered by corporations, we’ll find that many suffer from one or more of the above symptoms.  This indicates that the development of learning activities is treated separately from the core businesses of the company.

The Tenets of Learning with a Purpose

        Structured, facilitated learning activities are not trivial undertakings.  They consume money and time to produce, and more money and time to deliver.  Developers have to create the learning activity.  Facilitators must learn to deliver the learning activity and then actually teach it.  Students must take time from their busy schedules to attend the learning activity, and they must often travel to do so.  The sponsor of the learning activity (usually the corporation) invests a great deal into the creation and delivery of facilitated learning.

        Based upon the magnitude of this investment, isn’t it appropriate that the sponsoring organization demands the same level of success and accountability for learning activities as it does for other business initiatives?  Yet few corporations truly hold the training function accountable for the proper results.  As a result, downturns in business often result in a reduction of the training budget, even though it is at these times that training efforts should be redoubled.  But yet, who can blame corporate management for reducing training expenditures if the training function can’t justify its contribution to the business?

        By incorporating “Learning with a Purpose” into the everyday activities of the training function, the value of facilitated learning and its contribution to the business can be justified.  But to do so, the training function must incorporate the following tenets into all of its activities:

  1. All facilitated learning programs must be designed to advance or attain the accomplishment of corporate or organizational goals and objectives.
  2. All facilitated learning programs must provide value to both the sponsor of the learning program and the learners.
  3. All facilitated learning programs must provide skills to the learners that are relevant to their current or future job responsibilities.
  4. The value of facilitated learning programs must be measured against the attainment of corporate or organizational goals and objectives.

        A training program cannot truly be considered “Learning with a Purpose” unless all four tenets are incorporated into the development and delivery of the learning activity.  Let’s look at the characteristics and practical implementation of each of the tenets.

All facilitated learning programs must be designed to advance or attain the accomplishment of corporate or organizational goals and objectives.

        This statement implies that the corporate business goals and objectives, and nothing else, must form the foundation and serve as the instigator of a facilitated learning program.  A business entity is in business solely to achieve its goals and measures the success of these goals by a series of objectives.  A business that meets well-defined and well-conceived objectives is deemed successful.  A business that engages in superfluous activities that distract its employees from the attainment of its business goals and objectives is often unsuccessful.  Therefore, any facilitated learning activity must be dedicated to developing employee skills that will enable the employees to contribute to the attainment of the business’ goals.

        In order to implement a facilitated learning activity that meets the criteria of “Learning with a Purpose”, the learning activity must begin with the business goals and objectives it plans to address.  This is the mandatory, non-negotiable starting point of any successful learning initiative!  If those calling for a specific learning activity can’t articulate the business goals that the learning activity is to address, the proposed learning activity is likely to be superfluous and of limited value to the business.  Sound learning activities are those that are linked to the attainment of specific business goals.

        If the requester of a learning activity does have a business goal in mind, further analysis must be performed before the development of the learning activity begins.  The following questions must be asked and answered before the learning activity development starts:

How does the company plan to achieve the business goal and objectives?

What tasks are involved in meeting the business goals and objectives?

Which individuals or job roles are responsible for performing each of the tasks?

What constitutes successful completion of each of the tasks?

Do individuals in the identified job roles currently possess the skills needed to complete the tasks to the required level of competence?

        We should not even commit to the development of a facilitated learning program until these questions have been answered.  The answers to these questions actually help us formulated the terminal objectives for the learning activities.  These terminal objectives define the tasks the target learners should be able to perform upon completion of training, the environment in which the tasks will be performed, and the competency level expected of each learner.

All facilitated learning programs must provide value to both the sponsor of the learning program and the learners.

        Once the learners have been identified, and the goals of the learning program have been established, we must consider the value the learning activity provides to the learner.  If we accept that the learning program must provide value to the business, “Learning with a Purpose” must also provide perceived value to the targeted audience of learners.  The learners must feel that there is a compelling reason for them to learn a new set of skills and that their contribution to the achievement of the business goals and objectives are essential.

        Often, establishing a compelling reason to learn is not entirely within the control of the provider of the learning activity.  The corporate culture must allow the learner to exercise their newly developed skills and be recognized for doing so.  The organization must provide an environment in which every employee is made to feel that they are a vital contributor to the success of the business.  In order for a business to be successful, all employees, not just those in the executive suites, should be viewed as vital contributors to the success of the business.

        However, there are several things the developers and deliverers of the learning activity can do to provide value to the learners.  First and foremost, the learning activity must respect the learners.  Corporate training is not the place for subject matter experts to “strut their stuff.”  Instead, corporate learning activities must keep one clear goal in mind – the development of skills in the learners.  Learners will be receptive to facilitated learning if the learning activities respect their existing abilities and experience, recognize the pressing day-to-day job responsibilities of the learners, provide the learners with skills that are viewed as relevant, and are interesting.  Therefore, learning activities must be designed to provide skills that will actually be used on the job, delivered in a compelling fashion, and not take any more time than is required.  Superfluous information that does not contribute to the development of skills must be avoided, and all activities must be developed with the learner, not the facilitator as the central figure.

All facilitated learning programs must provide skills to the learners that are relevant to their current or future job responsibilities.

        This tenet contains several important components.  First, all learning activities must be dedicated to developing skills – things that the learner can actually do on the job.  In order to develop skills, learners often need to develop a base of knowledge and even alter some attitudes.  But any teaching of knowledge and attitudinal components must be delivered in support of developing a skill.  In the environment of corporate training, knowledge that cannot be actively integrated into performing an action on the job is wasted.

        As an example of this concept, let’s consider the requirements to drive a car.  In most jurisdictions, potential drivers are given a written test to assess their knowledge of the rules of the road.  This written test is designed to evaluate the knowledge possessed by the driver.  Yet, these jurisdictions won’t issue a drivers license to an individual solely on the basis of passing the written test, even if the candidate earns a perfect score!

        Why?

        Because an individual who possesses knowledge may not actually be able to perform the skill of driving a car.  In order to perform the skill, the individual needs to internalize the knowledge and transfer that knowledge into action.  The only way to assess an individual’s skill to drive is to have the individual pass an actual road test.  A person will only get a drivers license after he or she has demonstrated the skills needed to drive an automobile safely.

        Within the context of a business environment, which is more important – what an individual knows or what an individual can do?    If we accept the premise that an employee’s actions dictate their success, we must accept the premise that all learning activities must be created to develop skills and not just broadcast knowledge.

        The second component to this tenet is the assertion that all learning activities must be relevant to the job responsibilities of the learner.  In other words, the learner must be able to apply their learned skills on the job within a short time after the conclusion of the learning activity.  If learners don’t feel that the learned skills can be applied on the job, they will feel less compelled to develop the required skills.  This will ultimately result in the failure of the learning activity.  Even if the student does learn the skills, their retention of the skills will be eroded as time elapses unless the student can reinforce their ability by performing the skills on the job.

        Finally, this tenet implies that the learning activity is centered on the needs and development of the learner.  Although this statement seems obvious, many corporate learning activities are instructor-centered, rather than learner centered.  The mere delivery of facts and the demonstration of skills do not ensure that learning has taken place.  The learner must be able to use and exercise the skills during the learning activity before the learning activity is deemed successful.

The value of facilitated learning programs must be measured against the attainment of corporate or organizational goals and objectives.

        The final tenet addresses the actual value of the learning program and describes how it should be measured.  A learning program cannot be declared a success just because students leave positive surveys at the conclusion of the class.  A learning program is only successful if the learners develop skills during the learning activities, apply those skills on the job, and by applying those skills, contribute to the attainment of the business goals and objectives.

        If we truly develop a learning program based upon “Learning with a Purpose”, we can quantifiably describe how the learning program contributed to the success of the business.  This involves developing a mechanism to assess the level at which the learned skills are being used on the job.  Observation, surveys and follow-up interviews are all valid methods of determining if skills are actually being applied.  Analysis of business performance metrics, setting correlating factors and conducting surveys are all valid ways of establishing how much the learning program contributed to the achievement of business goals and objectives.  The choice of measurements is dictated by the capabilities of the organization.  However, a “Learning with a Propose” program does not end at the conclusion of the class; it ends when a job application and contribution to business success measurement strategy is developed and concluded.

The benefits of “Learning with a Purpose”

        By incorporating the tenets of “Learning with a Purpose” into all corporate training initiatives, we can ensure the success of the training and justify its contribution.  The business environment is constantly changing, and recently these changes have been accelerating.  In order to be successful and keep pace with these changes, corporate employees constantly need to update their skills.  Facilitated learning can help employees develop their skills and businesses achieve their goals.  But to do so, the developers of learning activities must always keep the purpose of the learning in the forefront of their activities.  Like the children’s magazine that is dedicated to “Fun with a Purpose”, we can ensure that we are delivering “Learning with a Purpose”.

 

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Last modified: 05/06/07