3 ways to ask: is it a learning problem?

The learning designer as order-taker is a hard place to be.

Sponsors have decided they need learning  to address a business problem. They may have done so for different reasons:

  • we did this last time
  • we have money in the training budget
  • there’s always been a course but we need a cheaper course
  • if they only understood they would do the right thing ( the most common assumption).

Challenging the customer isn’t easy

You create training, it doesn’t work, so the conclusion is that ‘elearning doesn’t work’ or ‘ L&D don’t deliver the goods’. Nonetheless you did what you were told to do and, if you were a supplier, you got paid for it. Challenging isn’t easy, and is unlikely to succeed if it’s just a challenge.

Vintage photo of man pointing at reader.
You, sir, clearly have no idea what you’re doing. Allow me to patronise you.

The best way I’ve found to tackle it is to play dumb – just keep asking questions:

  • ‘So can I just understand this? The call handlers need seventeen clicks to open the ’emergency calls’ log, so we need to train them to memorise the seventeen clicks?’.

But it helps if you have a structure of questions in mind.

Three models

There’s nothing new here – these ideas are as old as business consulting. But we choose the models we use as much because we like them – they ‘fit’ us – as because they’re sound and rational. So here I’ll just talk over three ways of saying the same thing: is it a learning problem? I hope you’ll find one of them appeals enough to become part of your ‘basic kit’.

Performance Consulting

four factors.fw
[clear] The first model I learned from Nigel Harrison of Performance Consulting UK Ltd, although I think it’s distilled from earlier work by Mager and Pipe.
In this approach, by guided questions, you ask ‘if x is the desired performance of the people in question, why are they not doing it?’ Is it because:

* they don’t know how to do it (knowledge)
* they know how to do it but aren’t skilled at putting it into practice (skill)
* they have the knowledge and skill but don’t want to do it (motivation)
* there are factors in the processes, location, systems or reward regime that make it difficult (environment)?

You can have this diagram in mind, which may be good way to summarise your conversation with the client.

The point of the process is that training as it’s normally conceived will only address knowledge and skills, it won’t make the people want to do something that’s either unappealing or needlessly complex or awkward.  I’m not saying elearning can never work with motivation problems, but they would have to be approached as motivation lessons, not knowledge-about or how-to, with the emphasis on why you do something rather than how.

Action Mapping flowchart

Last year Cathy Moore added a new stage to the Action Mapping process between stage 2 ( defining the activity people do in the workplace ) and stage 3 ( practice activities as part of training ). This was a flowchart which asks the same questions of each workplace activity in stage 2 but guides you towards alternative solutions – for example – rather than trying to ‘teach’ a step by step procedure, when the learner might not use the procedure very often,  it might be better to create one page job aid that’s available when needed. Expand this image to see part of the flowchart.

Jane Bozarth 4 quadrants

In a recent article in Learning Solutions magazine Jane Bozarth looks at the same issue from a slightly different angle – when does training work?


She draws four quadrants, corresponding to the four ’causes of poor performance’. Her point is that training is only effective in the bottom right quadrant, where the learner doesn’t have the skills and knowledge but wants them.

In Quadrant A, the employee doesn’t know how to perform and doesn’t seem to want to.  Could just be the wrong person in the wrong job. This could be a motivation or even an environment issue.

The Quadrant B employee knows how to perform, but doesn’t seem to want to.  This is more of a pure motivation issue.  Training, even branded as ‘refresher’ isn’t likely to help.

In Quadrant C, she knows how to perform, and seems to want to, but the desired performance just isn’t there.  Something in the working environment, systems or procedures could be the culprit.

In Quadrant D, however, where you have a lack of skill and knowledge and the desire to work on it, then you have an opportunity to create learning (or performance support) that works.

Talk. Just talk

Looks like a nail to me, son. What you need is a hammer.
Looks like a nail to me, son. What you need is a hammer.

Which one is best? They all do the same job, but the language and the angles are slightly different.  Use the one that you think will help a conversation with your particular stakeholders. You may find one more practical, more visually ‘right’ for you or your client.  Each one is  part of a wider consultancy approach, like Harrison’s Performance Consulting and Moore’s Action Mapping.

The important thing is that you ask the questions. And in a way that doesn’t shut down discussion right away.

Which model appeals to you? Do you have any other ways of asking these questions and presenting the results?

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