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

2 July 2013

Formal Learning is (or should be) Expensive!

Clark @ 8:32 AM

It’s becoming clear to me that we’re making a big mistake in our thinking. We seem to think that formal learning is relatively cost-effective, and may even think that performance support and social are more costly.   Yet we need to realize that formal learning is likely our most costly approach!

To start with, we should be doing sufficient analysis to ensure that the need is indeed a skill shift. If it’s an information problem, it should be solved with a job aid. Courses are more expensive.  And we need to take the time that the skill shift really is needed; it’s not a motivation problem or some other problem. In other words, we need to take the time to identify what business problem this is solving that a course will affect, and the associated metric.  That takes time.

Then we need to design an intervention that will address that skill shift: we need to determine what the change in the workplace behavior needs to be to impact that metric, and then design an objective that reflects that needed behavior change.  This is not trivial: a poorly formed objective about knowledge, not behavior, isn’t going to have an impact on the business.

Then, to do formal learning well, you need appropriate and sufficient practice.   That takes time to design properly, ideally with scenarios or simulation-driven interactions.  And the practice needs to be aligned with the learner; it has to be meaningful to them.  Enough of them. This takes time.

Then we need to create an appropriate model to guide their behavior, and introduce it appropriately. And find meaningful examples that illustrate the concept being applied in context, across sufficient contexts.  This takes time, though no more time (once you determine a course is the answer) than other learning design once you get experienced in this more advanced way of designing.  And it takes development resources.

And, of course, if you’re not doing the above, why are you bothering? It’s not going to hit the mark. We don’t, frankly, and to the extent we don’t, we undermine the likelihood that our interventions will have the desired impact.  The point being that courses should not be our first line of defense!

Rapid elearning is cheap and fast, but it’s not going to have any impact.  Most of what we do doesn’t have any impact. If we want to have impact, we have to do it right, and that’s not a cheap proposition.  We need to worry about measuring more than cost/bum, and worry about hitting the business goal.  Then we can truly determine whether we should go this route, rather than another.  But, seriously, you shouldn’t be throwing formal learning at a problem unless you’re willing to do it right. There are times it will be the right answer, but right now we’re throwing too much money away.  Let’s stop, and do it right when it’s right.  And that will be both expensive and worth it.



  1. So true! I think the last point you touch on is crucial with regards to rapid elearning. It seems one of the unintended side effects of all the great things happening with rapid elearning (Micheal Allen/ZebraZapps, Tom Khulman/Articulate, etc.) is that elearning now appears to be fast and cheap. But, is anything cheap that takes company time and doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do?

    The one proposition I might make is that rapid elearning might be used to demonstrate why formal learning is not the solution. Perhaps rapid development to a prototype stage can be enough to show the customer/partner why another solution will be more effective.

    Comment by Nathan B — 3 July 2013 @ 10:40 AM

  2. Right on, Clark!

    Formal learning is the default for minds that were brainwashed with two decades of schooling.

    Comment by Jay Cross — 3 July 2013 @ 10:56 PM

  3. Clark, you’re bang on the money when you say formal learning should be done right. And doing something right is often expensive. But it’s incumbent on us as L&D professionals to be clear about when formal interventions are the correct solution. Too often a poor course is the default position for a training or knowledge need when deploying a high quality course only 20% of the time and using informal/social/performance approaches for the other 80%. It’s easy to teach someone to write a good course. I’m not sure it’s true of deciding when to use it.

    Comment by Ara Ohanian — 5 July 2013 @ 2:20 AM

  4. […] apace but a recent exchange via Twitter rather got my dander up!  In response to an excellent blog by Clark Quinn, Jane Hart from the Centre for Performance Learning Technologies (@C4LPT) tweeted that “Formal […]

    Pingback by What's formal learning ever given us? — 24 July 2013 @ 4:54 PM

  5. Excellent points even though the formal/informal learning is a false dichotomy because the real focus should be on the learning objectives, needs/capabilities of the learners, and evaluating the impact of the learning. There has been too much focus on content delivery in training (especially the fascination with the latest bright-and-shiny tech toy) than utilizing current research on how people learn and designing to that.

    Comment by Bill Brantley — 31 July 2013 @ 9:24 AM

  6. This makes perfect sense, Clark. We are habituated into thinking formal first, when we should be thinking informal first, and considering formal only in those situations in which it adds value.

    I don’t necessarily agree with your statement “Rapid elearning is cheap and fast, but it’s not going to have any impact.” It may be cheap (well, cheaper than commissioning a development studio to produce it), but I would challenge the notion that it is fast (a common misconception, when done right it takes quite a long time!). Also, I think – again, when done right – it *can* have an impact, just as f2f formal learning can.

    However I suspect I’m unfairly picking on what was obviously an instance of poetic licence to make a point: That formal learning (whether f2f or online) may be the right answer, sometimes. But usually not.

    Comment by Ryan Tracey — 28 February 2014 @ 7:33 PM

  7. Actually, Rapid eLearning works well for the practitioner, but then it’s more of performance support than formal learning. And you’re right, Ryan, you can use the tools to create good elearning if you try, but most don’t, and then it’s not really learning, is it?

    Bill, I think there is a dichotomy between formal and informal: formal’s what ‘we’ design, and informal is what learners do on their own. And content delivery isn’t the answer to formal learning.

    Comment by Clark — 1 March 2014 @ 1:46 PM

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress