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

5 September 2017

Metaphors for L&D

Clark @ 8:02 AM

What do you see the role of L&D being in the organization?  Metaphors are important, as they form a basis for inferences of what fits. We frame our conversations by the metaphors we use, and these frames guide what’s allowed conversation and what’s not.  To put it another way, metaphors are the basis for mental models that explain and predict what happens.  But metaphors and models simplify things, making certain things ‘invisible’.  Thus, our metaphors can keep us from seeing things that might be relevant.

LEARNING & development

Thus, we should examine the metaphors we’re using in L&D.  We can start, of course, even with the term L&D: Learning & Development.  Typically, it’s the ‘learning’ part that dominates: we’re talking about helping people learn. And this metaphor implies: courses. Yet, we know that formal learning is only part of the picture of full development of capability. So the ‘development’ part should play a role, including coaching and the choice of assignments. Perhaps also meta-learning.  Though I’d suggest that these latter bits aren’t prominent, because learning can be a mechanism for development, and therefore the following steps lag. Which is why movements like 70:20:10 can be helpful in awakening a broader emphasis.

However, there’s more. In Revolutionize Learning & Development, I argued that we should switch the term to P&D, Performance & Development. Here I was trying to recognize that our learning has a goal: the ability to perform. Also, there are other paths to performance, including performance support.  I still wanted development, including formal learning, but we also want to develop the ability for the organization to continue to learn: innovation.  And I’m not claiming that this can break the problem with learning, as P&D might end up only emphasizing on performance, as L&D ends up only emphasizing learning.

The point being is that we need to have a perspective that doesn’t limit our vision. It’s the case that L&D could be just about courses, but I want to suggest that’s not optimal.  A ‘course’ perspective allows the focus to be on the delivery, not on the outcome. With more ability for individuals to learn on their own, traditional courses are likely to wither.  I think it’s a path to irrelevance.

I’ll suggest that we want to be thinking about all the ways that an organization can facilitate doing, and increasing the ability to do. Then we should figure out what parts we can contribute to. If, as I suggest, we want to be professional about understanding learning, then we have a basis to be the best people to guide all of it.

So I don’t know the best metaphor.  What I do believe is that ‘course’, and even ‘learning’ can be limiting. (I’ve also thought that ‘talent development’ is not sufficient.) I’ve suggested P&D, but perhaps it’s organic and about organizational growth. Or perhaps it’s about performance and increasing. So, now, it’s over to you: what do you think would be a helpful way to look at it. Do we need a rebranding, and if so, to what?


  1. “L&D” has always been problematic for me. I assume it became the vernacular of the profession in an attempt to be all inclusive. But to me it is redundant. People, teams, and organizations don’t “develop” without learning. The acquisition of new knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs is the process of learning. “T&L” is better because at least it recognizes that training is about delivery, not necessarily learning. I believe that we will continue to need learning professionals who will help managers facilitate all of the various ways in which people can learn in organizations. But I think the days of a formal L&D department are numbered.

    Comment by Stephen J. Gill — 6 September 2017 @ 8:38 AM

  2. Organizational effectiveness sounds right to me, though that term is already in use for a slightly different purpose. Human performance is also interesting — it might help broaden the expertise required in the field. I think “development” is a presumptuous metaphor; we have no idea how the world will shake out, and so it’s probably unwise to lead people down development paths that are not responsive to shifts in the workplace and in the business. “Effectiveness” or “readiness” or “performance” which speak to immediate goals are better in that respect.

    Comment by Alex Khurgin — 6 September 2017 @ 10:17 AM

  3. […] Metaphors for L&D  Clark Quinn, 5 September 2017 […]

    Pingback by MWL Newsletter No 30 – Centre for Modern Workplace Learning — 10 September 2017 @ 1:31 AM

  4. Stephen, agree with facilitating learning, but I also think that there will still be a role for formal learning. It’s just ‘who’ and I think that L&D *can* be the facilitators, but they need to step up. And Alex, I agree that org effectiveness is already in use so we may be stepping on toes. I think development can still play, *if* we hand off responsibility for what is learned, and focus on facilitating the how. Thanks for the feedback!

    Comment by Clark — 11 September 2017 @ 10:34 AM

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