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

16 November 2010

Big ‘L’ Learning

Clark @ 6:04 AM

We’ve been wrestling for a while about how to deal with the labeling problem. The problem is that when you mention learning to anyone but the L&D team, they immediately hear ‘training’ (and, frankly, too often so to does the L&D team). And, of course, really the issue is performance, but too often that can mean machine throughput or semi-conductor yield or something other than the output of the human brain. This has continued to be a barrier for having meaningful conversations.

I also want to address the broader suite of human brain outcomes: research, creativity, design, etc., as you’ll have read here before. The answers aren’t known, and this is likely to be the important work. Other than creating a portmanteau, or making up a new word entirely, however, I’ve been at a loss for a label.

Recently, I’ve started talking about “big L learning”. ‘Inspired’ by the fact that the Liberal party in Australia is really the conservative party (leave it to the Aussies :), so they have to distinguish between big L and little l liberal, I’ve decided that perhaps we can distinguish between little ‘l’ learning and big ‘L’ learning. If nothing else, it might get someone to ask what I mean and provide an opportunity to open up the discussion.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than open to an alternate suggestion, but in the interim, I’m going to keep playing with this. I’ve been wrestling with this for years, and haven’t come up with anything better. I welcome your feedback.


  1. Hi Clark,

    That’s a great idea. I struggle with this not only in conversations but when writing proposals where I seem to be forced into talking about training (even my website says training when I don’t want it to!). I don’t have any better ideas but the fact you have come up with something helps – thanks!


    Comment by Dawn — 17 November 2010 @ 2:29 AM

  2. Having worked in the Call Centre for many years – I have observed this very issue many, many, many times. In one case – a directory assistance service – the required average call handle time (AHT) was 21 seconds – but it took 5 seconds to say the greeting, another 5-10 seconds for the client to express what they needed and another 5-10 seconds to find the number and answer the call. The solution? Yep, remove the greeting. This resulted in an additional 10-20 seconds of banter that went something along the lines of:

    Staff member: What number please?
    Client: Is this Directory Assistance?
    Staff member: Yes it is, how may I help you today?
    Client: Is this ACME Directory Assistance?
    Staff member: Yes it is, what number are you after?
    Client: Oh, that’s good, I wasn’t sure if I was speaking to the right people then.
    Staff member: Yes – you are, how can I help you today?

    Removing that greeting almost doubled the length of the AHT. We (L&D) were asked to ‘train-to-fix’. We conducted a Skills Gap Analysis (SGA) which included a judicious use of a stop-watch and found that the majority of staff required no additional training. The resolution turned out to be a pre-recording (which we recommended). Nothing to do with training – but it did take the skills of the L&D Department to do the analysis to support what the team leaders had been saying all along.

    I belive a good L&D Consultant worth their salt is like a detective. If you ask the right questions and do a proper TNA and SGA, then identifying what can and can’t be resolved by training is farily straight-forward.

    One challenge is getting management to recognise that the solution isn’t always ‘Big L’. Yep, I’m sooooo lovin’ this term…

    The other – as you point out – is trainers often lack skills that truly make L&D Specialists invaluable to an organisation. They so often agree to deliver ‘train-to-fix’ because they don’t understand the difference between TNA and SGA, or just don’t get that needs analysis is more than management telling you to train X, Y, Z.


    Comment by Jennifer — 17 November 2010 @ 3:33 AM

  3. You’ve realy pin-pointed a problem that rolls around in my brain. Totally agree that the L&D function rarely beyond “training.” I still see the word “learning” being taken as synonymous with “classroom” or if we are really lucky it will extend over to “job aid.” If we can’t see through that smoke-screen, then how can we expect anyone else to hear “learning” and think about something holistic? We can’t see through our own jargon!

    It is unfortunate that semantics play such a key role, but I guess words really do matter. If only we could make up an entirely new word that would evoke images of ongoing development (environmental, experiential, and incidental) that helps improve the quality of life, performance and impact of an employee……

    Until then, I am down with Big-L Learning. :-)

    Comment by Allison Anderson — 17 November 2010 @ 8:55 AM

  4. A better example would be culture and Culture. Culture (big C) is used for the arts, a specific manifestation of a society’s culture, often used with “high” (ie. high culture). I always think of Culture as being available only to a small group that can appreciate it.

    The small c culture, however, is the study of a society’s values. It is the basis for every thing including our educational system, economic system, beliefs, communication structure, language, etc… Small c culture is much more difficult to describe or identify, but there are attributes that have been developed (e.g. Hofstede, Hall, anthropology) to help describe culture.

    I think the same could be used with Learning and learning. Big L learning is the formal learning we see in L&D departments, schools, etc… It is measurable and identifiable. Small l learning is the creation or understanding of knowledge upon which everything is based. Like culture, it is difficult to identify learning, but there are attributes that have been developed to describe learning.

    Comment by virginia Yonkers — 17 November 2010 @ 9:04 AM

  5. Interesting reversal of how I intended it to be intended, sounds like a couple of you are thinking about the big L being put forward as formal, where I intended the reverse: save Big L label for when we’re beyond training. However, glad to hear that this may be a valuable interim approach.

    Comment by Clark — 17 November 2010 @ 10:13 AM

  6. Jennifer – what a GREAT story! Perfectly illustrates the problem. Thanks.

    Comment by Dawn — 17 November 2010 @ 8:44 PM

  7. Hi Clark,

    I too have been struggling with this. I like your solution and I agree with you Big L Learning gives me the feeling of something beyond formal learning (little l learning).

    The girls and guys at Internet Time Alliance use the term Working Smarter instead of learning. I like this as it gives more punch when talking to a client to say that I want to help you to work smarter, instead of saying I want to help you create some learning activities.

    When I first came across that term I didn’t really understand it. But now I have tried it out a couple of times and it actually seems to work.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas!

    Comment by Mattias Kareld — 18 November 2010 @ 12:03 PM

  8. […] In a recent post, Harold Jarche talks eloquently about moving into the networked era, and practices of workscaping.  He points to this insightful model by Jane Hart, showing the bigger picture supporting performance in the workplace, or what I like to call Big L learning. […]

    Pingback by Internet Time Alliance | Beyond Execution — 18 April 2012 @ 5:10 PM

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