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

18 March 2013

Yes, you do have to change

Clark @ 6:22 AM

Of late, I’ve seen a disturbing trend.  Not only are the purveyors of existing solutions preaching caution and steadiness, but it even seems like some of the  ‘names’ of the field are talking in ways that make it easy to think that the industry is largely doing ok.  And I do not understand this, because it’s demonstrably wrong.  The elearning industry, and the broader learning industry, is severely underperforming the potential (and I’m being diplomatic).

We know what leads to effective learning outcomes.  And we’ve known it for decades (just because MOOCs are new doesn’t mean their pedagogies are): clear models, annotated examples, and most importantly deep and meaningful practice focused on significant skill shifts (let alone addressing the emotional side of the equation).  Learners need to perform, repeatedly, with guidance, over more and more complex contexts until they achieve the level of performance they need.  However, that’s no where near what we’re seeing.

What we see are knowledge dump/test tarted up with trivial interactions.  People will pass a test, but they will not have achieved the ability to affect any meaningful business outcomes.  If it’s knowledge that performers need, create a job aid, not a ‘spray and pray’.  And facilitate people in self-helping.  As things get more complex and moving faster, there’s no way everything can be kept up with by new course development, even if it were a useful approach, and mostly it’s not.

We’re even measuring the wrong things.  Cost per seat hour is secondary (at best).  That’s ‘fine-tuning’, not the core issue.  What’s primary is business impact.  Are you measurably improving key performance indicators as outcomes?

And that’s assuming courses are all the learning unit should be doing, but increasingly we recognize that that’s only a small proportion of what makes important business outcomes, and increasingly we’re recognizing that the role needs to move from instructional designer to performance consultant.  More emphasis can and should be on providing performance resources and facilitating useful interactions rather than creating courses.  Think performance support first, and communities of practice, only resorting to courses as a last result.

Tools that make turning Powerpoint presentations into page-turning content aren’t going to fix this, nor are tools that provide prettified drill-and-kill, nor ones that let you host and track courses.  There are places for those, but they’re not the bulk of the opportunity, and shouldn’t be the dominant solutions we see. There’s so much more: deeply engaging scenarios and simulation-driven interactions on the formal side, powerful job aid tools for performance support (particularly mobile), coaching and mentoring as a better solution than courses in many (most) cases, performer-focused portals of tools, underlying powerful content management suites, and rich social environments to support performers making each other smarter and more effective.

I’m not quite sure why the easy tools dominate the expo halls, except perhaps because anyone can build them.  More worrisome is that it can let designers off the hook in terms of thinking deeper.  We need to focus first on rich outcomes, and put the tools secondary.

While the industry congratulates itself on how they make use of the latest technology, the lack of impact is leading a drive to irrelevancy.  Learners tolerate the courses, at best.  Operations groups and others are beginning to focus on the performance solutions available.  Executives are beginning to hear a message that the old approach is a waste of resources.

Hiding your head in the sand isn’t going to cut it. The industry is going to have to change.  And that means you will have to change.  But you’re a professional in learning, right?  So lead the way.  The best way to change is to take that first step.



  1. Clark I you’re right here, in many ways. First, things are changing in many ways. Second, we can’t ignore it. We must change or risk irrelevance. Third, Business impact matters. It is all that matters. Fourth, yes there is a place for tools, but L&D’s job is NOT creating courses/content. It is about impact.

    This is a pithy, direct and much needed polemic. If we continue as we are, we will become a trivial side show. Let’s instead focus less on what L&D has always liked doing (making things) but lead on delivering business impact.

    Comment by Donald H Taylor — 18 March 2013 @ 6:53 AM

  2. […] Learnlets » Yes, you do have to change. Clark Quinn nails a good one today. In writing about effective learning, he notes: […]

    Pingback by Clark Quinn says “Yes, you (we!) do have to change” | Full Circle Associates — 18 March 2013 @ 9:44 AM

  3. Absolutely agree with all you say here. There is a need for HR, L&D or whatever you want to call it to drop the niche marketing approach and move into the arena of added value – across the company (and that means right to the top!). The number of seats filled is not a good judge of the skills and ability improvements that senior management live by; better by far to show how ability, efficiency, self-development, team-work, mentoring/peer-support, flexibility – and profits increase.

    Comment by Peter Condon — 19 March 2013 @ 3:07 AM

  4. Clark – Our small college offers a a parallel track to BS degrees involving training for USCG mariner licensing. The two LMS “camps” are 1. Academics which just took a 2.5 hour tour of Canvas Instructure and 2. Continuing Ed which focuses on performance development in a compliance based industry with alumni as customers. As the head of Camp#2 I see the value of deploying the unique PD focused “memory trainer” tool from anewspring.com

    To their credit, Canvas knew about “branching” and adaptive learning. Their response to USING THEM – “when enough members of the community request it that’s when we’ll move it to engineering.”

    Comment by Victoria Blackwood — 19 March 2013 @ 5:23 AM

  5. […] reading this post by Clark Quinn today something […]

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  6. Enjoyed reading this Clark, as I attended the Learning Technologies conference in 2008 after being in L&D for little over a year. I was lucky enough to listen to the two J’s (Jay and Jane) and my career path has gone down the collaboration and community route and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. Trouble is the change we’re talking about here takes time, effort and commitment and in a world where instant gratification and returns sits along side the shiny new toy syndrome it’s no wonder that progress is slow. It’s happening though and change is all around us – the choice is simple. Be part of and lead this change or watch from the sidelines and get a new job.

    Comment by Mike Collins (@MikeCollins007) — 20 March 2013 @ 3:57 PM

  7. Clark, it’s never easy going against the tide but you are right to do so. There is a great deal left to be done in our industry and we cannot be complacent. I don’t underestimate what learning professionals have achieved. But you’re right to say that we are not going fast enough, far enough in understanding and working with the business.

    Comment by Ara Ohanian — 21 March 2013 @ 2:36 AM

  8. Love this sentence, Clark: What we see are knowledge dump/test tarted up with trivial interactions.

    Tarted up. That’s a good way to put it. Animated gifs. Flying around with my midriff exposed in Second Life. Endless suggestions about templates and jazzed up presentations.

    We are good at distracting ourselves with sweets when we need to go back to meat, potatoes and vegetables. You said it. Rich outcomes. Oh yes, and the right outcomes, those that capture the thoughts and efforts of those who succeed, accompanied by questions about why they do and why they don’t, with programs paired to those answers. This blog post might be useful– http://www.allisonrossett.com/2012/05/31/needs-analysis-something-old-something-new/

    Appreciate what you said. Thanks for it.


    Comment by Allison Rossett (@arossett) — 21 March 2013 @ 12:46 PM

  9. I really enjoyed this article Clarke. However, I am often frustrated at how conditioned some learners are and how they still turn up expecting to be “trained”. There is a need for a midnset change from all involved.

    Comment by Jane Leonard — 25 March 2013 @ 3:27 PM

  10. Clark, wow does this blog post ever resonate! Over the last month plus, I’ve attended Training 2013, KnowledgeAdvisors Symposium, Learning Solutions, and the CLO Spring Symposium. I’ve spoken with dozens (if not hundreds) of organizations at these events. I’ve become alarmed at how the higher ups are all touting learning impact, business impact, ROI, etc. The organizations as a whole, however, seem focused on dumbed-down information/knowledge based elearning. If organizations want to dial up workforce performance, they need to also tackle the challenge of improving mission-critical skills and behaviors. Sure, it’s harder, but it feels like all of us with a focus on talent development need to up our game. Considerably!

    Comment by Bryan Austin — 25 March 2013 @ 3:54 PM

  11. Totally agree, Clark. I keep saying it to the L & D people I work with – we have to be part of the change or preferably leading the change or we’ll be left behind.

    Comment by Kate Cobb — 25 March 2013 @ 4:02 PM

  12. Clark, while I agree with much of your post, I’m going to sound off a “Yes… AND…” warning. We must realize that while change continues to be much-needed, there are wonderful new tools to help us get there both from an measurable outcome AND engaging/appealing to learners perspective. Sometimes “shiny new toys” can be the spoonful of sugar people need in our dry and parched learning wasteland to “help the medicine go down.” True change-agents will be most successful when they balance the need for thorough assessment, and rich design with cost-effective solutions. When that does happen to require training, let’s not have blown the budget so that we are limited to offering only an animated PPT. Thanks for sounding off so passionately. It’s refreshing and motivated me to comment… for a change…:-)

    Comment by Robb Bingham — 25 March 2013 @ 4:07 PM

  13. Well said, Clark. I think one of the biggest barriers to this change in the way organizations think about learning is the departmentalization of learning. By making learning the responsibility of HR, or Training, or L&D, or CLO, or whatever, we marginalize the function and it just becomes one more thing to get done. We need to make employee learning the responsibility of every manager and every employee (i.e., your job is to learn; it is not to attend training). That will help bring about much of the change you are calling for.

    Comment by Stephen J. Gill — 26 March 2013 @ 6:36 AM

  14. One way to be more relevant is to find sources of real pain within whatever parts of the company produce the most value. Forget about learning for the time being, focus on problem solving. Partner with, and validate your approach with the field. Use the levers of power to get action and make sure that your solution really is the best choice. Use your entrepeneurial skills to support the solution. See what happens.

    On another note, there’s been a fascinating change in measuring value in sports. In Baseball, the field of Sabremetrics has revolutionized management by creating more subtle statistical measures of individual worth, than the old standards, such as batting average, earned run average and home runs. I’m wondering if we can use this technique in business. Can we measure factors such as the ability to de stress a situation, percentage of positive feedback, idea generation, or laughs generated per hour? What factors do you think should be measured?

    Comment by Paul Drexler — 27 March 2013 @ 4:08 PM

  15. Hi Clark, I totally agree with you. However the l&d people will have to be strong to get the cooperation of manament involved. E-learning takes relatively little time and can be ticked-off from the “to do list”. Mentoring, communties of practice, deeper learning takes more time and with more work having to be done by fewer people, the demand for elearning within our organization is growing. So actually, in my opinion the biggest challenge for the l&d department is to ceate awareness of what is needed to learn.

    Comment by Brigit Calame — 31 March 2013 @ 8:53 AM

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  18. Now, these are outcomes that I can sink my teeth into: ”deeply engaging scenarios and simulation-driven interactions on the formal side, powerful job aid tools for performance support (particularly mobile), coaching and mentoring as a better solution than courses in many (most) cases, performer-focused portals of tools, underlying powerful content management suites, and rich social environments to support performers making each other smarter and more effective.” Real world engagement evaluated from real world perspectives with real results that can be used in the real world.

    I get it. After getting pegged as creating boring classes, online educators have moved from filling endless online classes with read and reflect assignments and TF/MC assessments to trying to entertain the learners with dancing ponies. But is real learning taking place? Are the outcomes being met? How do we know? What measurements are we taking? How are we assessing the assessments? One thing I find is that there is so much time being spent building and rebuilding classes to “make them better” that we never really have time (take the time) to fully evaluate the value of what we are putting out there. Can I build a class that works? That depends on your definition of “works.” We can bore them to death with read and reflection or we can entertain them with flash files and ppts, but ultimately we are responsible for proving they are learning.

    What about end-of-course surveys? Aren’t they giving us significant feedback? End-of-course surveys are giving us what the students want and not necessarily what they need. A small child wants to eat endless piles of candy, but a good parent (teacher) knows he needs a well-rounded diet. We have to be purposeful in our assessments of whether the outcomes are being met by designing assignments that give clear indications of the students’ ability to demonstrate mastery of the concept. The question is whether we will slow down long enough to put the systems/processes in place to make clear evaluative processes happen. “If it doesn’t work, throw something else at it” may work well in some obscure scenario, but it definitely is not an acceptable approach to online education … and yet we do it.

    Thanks for being a voice of reason for the students.

    Comment by Angie Wetmore — 14 July 2013 @ 8:10 PM

  19. […] Workplace and Connected Knowledge Lab Slides 10 & 11: Top 100 Tools for Learning Slide 20: Yes, you do have to change, Clark Quinn, 18 March 2013 Slide 21: I’m not an idiot, Geeta Bose, 9 March 2011 Slide 22:  How […]

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  20. […] of internal collaboration tools (Chatter, Jam, Jive etc), there seems precious little emphasis on performance outcomes. There also seems to be a tacit assumption that most people will collaborate. History teaches us […]

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  21. You make a lot of good points. For us as an eLearning company it is always a challenge to do more for businesses than just provide their eLearning courses – but we try to act as an HR partner with clients wherever possible. Would love to hear an updated version of your thoughts on eLearning in 2017!

    Comment by Shane — 4 July 2017 @ 3:15 AM

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