Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

13 May 2009

Where’s the money?

Clark @ 8:20 AM

I had lunch with John Darling of Q2Learning today.  They’ve got an interesting positioning, going beyond just learning events to a learning experience with a stated goal of achieving proficiency.  I’d known him from before through the eLearning Forum, but we’d never really sat down and talked.  We’d gotten connected via TogetherLearn, and naturally our conversation ranged around formalizing informal learning.

We were talking about a conversation he had with a CFO, where the CFO estimated about 3% of their budget was going to training, and admitted that they needed 20-25% improvement in their ability.  Obviously, there are issues of whether traditional training could have that big an impact, but clearly there’s a mismatch.

Now, I believe that learning is more than skilling up to some minimal baseline.  I believe it encompasses the information access to support performance, mentoring from the top end of novice through practitioner, and communication and collaboration that supports problem-solving and innovation.  And the associated skills.  Not only do novel inquiries and problems get dealt with, but new products, services, customer experiences, and more are the outcome of the full performance ecosystem.

There are two obvious questions here: where would an organization get 20-25% performance improvement?  Not just from training, I’ll wager.  You need to create a more coherent learnscape, where people are continually moving to the center of their communities of practice, where more people are effective learners, self-learners, and together-learners, where the cultural values and learning skills are as explicit as the organizational goals and individual roles.  I’d suggest that you’ll get more from wrapping structure around informal than investing purely in formal!  (Which is not to say that formal isn’t needed, though if it’s no better than most of the training that’s out there, it may as well not be done…)

The other question is: where’s the money?  I want to suggest that when it gets into problem-solving, innovation, etc, it goes beyond a training budget to operations and R&D.  R&D will undoubtedly have some infrastructure costs, but I’ll suggest that the innovation and problem-solving skills that are supported across the organization will have a substantial impact on R&D outcomes as well as more operational metrics.  Similarly, operations has some ancillary costs, but support costs should be minimized by  both empowering staff to augment their resources and sharing their learnings. For that matter, marketing gets into the picture when you consider bringing customers into the learning equation (they will self-help if they can with a reasonable amount of effort!).

My point is that we’re thinking about organizational learning wrong, and consequently we’re thinking wrong about outcomes and budgets wrong as well.  Training departments are often encouraged to be strategic. What I want to suggest is strategic, at the organizational level, is thinking of learning as a continuum from formal to exploration, and recognizing that it is an increasing contribution to organizational success.

In short, we don’t deserve a budget if we’re not contributing to real outcomes, and the outcomes that matter are going to shift from mere ability to excellence, from following the procedure to solving problems, from product life-cycles to customized solutions.

So get strategic, and start thinking about systemic support for ‘learning’.  You’ll get the budget you deserve, so deserve a meaningful budget!


  1. The key as you said is the fact that – We don’t deserve a budget if we are not contributing to real outcomes. And this is where I guess a lot of organizations falter because they are to able to pen down the outcomes from an informal learning mode & hence, they prefer going by the traditional training methods.

    Comment by Rashmi Varma — 13 May 2009 @ 9:52 AM

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more, Clark.

    I think that employee performance and productivity (the drivers of value) are certainly a lot more than the sum of the knowledge and skills of the ‘actors’. L&D departments can spend until the end of time developing knowledge and skills and still have little discernible impact on productivity and value-creation if they aren’t integrated with other initiatives/actions.

    The other two important factors in driving performance and productivity where people are concerned are [1] employee motivation (engagement, willingness to go the extra mile etc.) and [2] ‘environmental inhibitors’ – the things that block people from performing optimally – such as processes that are unusable, tools that are not fit-for-purpose, lack of access to information and experts, lack of a community to extract ‘the right stuff’ from etc.

    What L&D departments really need to do is to get an understanding of which tools they have in their toolkits are really capable of adding value and helping significantly improve performance (and they should be looking to expand and refresh these on a very regular basis – and dispose of the not-so-useful ones). They then need to work with other pieces of the organisational puzzle – line managers, operations, marketing, tech etc. to get the job done.

    The LDR organisation published some research a while ago that indicated that managers who set clear objectives and tell their team members how they’ll be measured in their appraisals will achieve a 19.8% performance improvement. Managers who ensure their team members have the necessary knowledge and skills achieve a 6.7% performance improvement. Managers who do neither achieve nothing. Case closed.

    Comment by Charles Jennings — 13 May 2009 @ 10:10 AM

  3. Rashmi, I agree, and if they’re not able to pin down the outcomes, I think they’re not thinking broadly enough.

    Charles, fabulous contribution, and love those statistics (will be using!). Couldn’t agree more that motivation can trump a priori ‘competency’ evaluation, and barriers are a major problem. Just the amount of bad interfaces boggles the mind. Tuning the performance ecosystem is a huge opportunity to improve outcomes, and some of those steps aren’t ‘break the bank’ propositions!

    Comment by Clark — 13 May 2009 @ 11:54 AM

  4. This is SUCH a tough row to hoe. I’ve been fighting the battle for an interconnected journey – against isolated one off interventions – for almost five years in my organization. Everyone seems to think it’s a great idea, but nobody has the foggiest clue how to start connecting the silos. Add in a few legacy gatekeepers (those with no interest in playing well in an ecosystem) and the feat becomes even more challenging.

    Some of the things we pushed several years back are starting to take hold (not as a result of our efforts – more of a result of ground swell / trend) like blogs, wiki’s, and community tools. But with every roll-out there seems to be a missing strategic piece. The organization pushes out tools (some tools are decent, others have serious usability issues for people used to using these tools) but the tools basically become buckets hung out there for people to throw their stuff in. When the tools are less successful than anticipated, few will get that they failed because we didn’t apply strategy (or common sense and good community practices).

    I suspect many organizations are like mine… Me-centric. If you look at the IT governance folks, their primary concern (only concern) is the system. If you look at the training folks they are tunneled in on training (and if the department is decades old… it’s resident training). Everywhere you look it’s ‘me-me-me’. Take a deeper look within these pieces and parts and you see that the sub-elements, down to the individual, also consider their specialty focus to be of primary importance. I have a strong feeling that if we can find a way to mitigate ‘me-centricity’ for even a short while we will make significant strategic progress.

    My organization considers itself a leader in HPT. And even for our folks, with a government organization at an agile size (<100k), the task of merely imagining a performance ecosystem is daunting. We have a group that is building the network brick by brick, gathering believers and hoping to reach critical mass before the next transfer season (another challenge in a military structured organization).

    This isn’t a zero sum game and it’s not resource neutral. If we half-heartedly roll out an ‘alternative’ and leadership doesn’t support it strongly enough to displace a less desirable intervention then the change lost at the starting gate. If the organization isn’t willing to sacrifice a golden calf or two in exchange for a better oiled machine then there’s a lot of work to do to get the organization ready to make these sacrifices.

    It’s a challenge. But the potential dividends make it really exciting:) Glad to have industry voices taking our side. That’s really helpful!

    Comment by sflowers — 14 May 2009 @ 4:45 AM

  5. You always write such interesting responses. It *is* a tough row to hoe, unfortunately. Glad if this helps, obviously happy to help more. Good luck!

    Comment by Clark — 20 May 2009 @ 1:34 PM

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