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The tyranny of white rabbits

Reclaiming learning

The tyranny of white a rabbits

Years ago, when I attended officers academy we often had to hand in tactical analysis papers. Getting those done was a night long marathon for most, including me. Handing it in two minutes to late meant failed - a 90% plan delivered on time is better, than a 100% plan delivered to late. Gosh I hope they still practice that.

A week later we would get our papers back, with comments and what I presume was the antecedent to emojis. The written feedback was usually quite specific and detailed, so I guess the emojis in the margin like small bombs, skulls, white rabbits and an occasional tombstone was there to ease the tension or stress a point.

It was pretty easy to decipher what the bombs, skulls and tombstones meant, whereas the rabbits was more tricky, until a teacher was kind enough to explain it to me; Lieutenant Holm, this is not the Hogwarts school of witchcraft, we do not magically come up with theories or conclusions based on the weather of the day or our convenience. We base our decisions on the facts at hand. All the facts. We use our knowledge, experience and research to weigh for and against, and to qualify our decisions indulgently. I believe some call that methodology, others just good practice. Yes, Major Sir.

That may sound like just a good story, but it is actually true and I write about it because I see the phenomena in the learning and development industry and it always make me think on the white rabbits. It is phenomena of causation versus correlation.

Just a decade or two ago, competence development was a perk in line with bonuses and cake on Fridays. Today, it is different and learning has become big industry that seem to continue to grow in any foreseeable future. New technologies emerge weekly and thought leaders stand on each other's toes to curry favor the "new" book on workplace- or adult learning theory. The slightly ironic thing about all this is, that we as humans are learning-beings, it is in our very DNA and we've been learning since the beginning of days, and the "how" is well documented. Yet, LinkedIn debates are heated and sometimes makes me think of Robert McKee words; "Rhetoric imitates science by presenting evidence and drawing conclusion, but the difference is that science weigh all evidence, both for and against a theorem; rhetoric slants its argument by laying out only the evidence that support the claim. In other words, science seeks the truth, rhetoric seeks the win". It is the tyranny of white rabbits and i must admit I sometimes just press snooze.

Don't get me wrong, as any good reflective practitioner I really like to see the field reach new heights and technology to take new landmarks and rub out the difference between real and virtual learning experience, but the let us be honest, the technology is not there yet.  

No alt text provided for this imageTo people outside L&D, discussions about rewiring neuron connections, cognitive learning design and whether formal learning takes place 20 or 4 % of the time, is neither very important nor terribly useful. They want results and preferably results that will fit in a balanced scorecard or can be formulated in a KPI. Alternatively they want to know which intangible resources L&D bring to the table - which is a fair claim.

Most L&D professionals and learn tech companies have given up the effort to draw a causal relation from learning to fiscal results - and wisely so, the number of white rabbits was simply to conspicuous - therefor the center of attention has spun around the more fluffy term; performance. Today, there is a general acceptance of the correlation between L&D and increased performance. If we go a step further we might not be satisfied with just increased performance, we as L&D professionals are in the business of business development, and should always counterbalance the increased performance, with cost and the value it brings to the organization. What we want is organizational excellence at least possible expense. So there is two ways to do this; by providing learning of scale or by focus - I recommend the latter. 

Learning efforts works best by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishments will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes. Learning cannot be denominated to one-size-fit-all technologies or methods. Learning is a process with multiple steps, that takes place on assorted levels, using a variety of methods and tools. The right training at the right time can have a significant impact, but whether the "right" means e-learning, learning in the flow of work or even classroom training, is impossible to say. As learning professionals we should remember what Gilbert’s behavioral engineering model taught us: Worthy performance is always the interaction of individual capability and environment. Optimizing performance requires attention to both. 

I am glad to say that white rabbits still haunts me and many of my colleagues in the field of organizational- and workplace learning. Happy, because it is such an important field that deserves recognition and to be taken serious. A field with great impact on the continuous development, thriving and sustainability of people in business organizations, now and in the future of work. The white rabbits remind us as professionals, that learning is about people and therefor calls for both a human-centered approach and an eye for the core business. Kudos to the many trainers, instructional designers and facilitators who put their time, effort and professional pride into quality learning processes for real people, in real businesses, making a real difference.

About the author

Allan Holm

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