Unplanning Learning: Debunking the Merits of a Traditional Corporate Curriculum

I have a few questions.

  • What does it mean to learn?
  • What does that moment of learning look and feel like?
  • What catalyzes learning?
  • How much learning occurs during training?

There may be some corporate university training programs out there that I don’t know about that are doing a great job producing a high concentration of learning moments. That said, most of what I have seen is a waste of time and resources.

Yep, those are fightin’ words.

Learning means different things to different people. If your definition of learning is that people hear information and at the time can recall it, then perhaps many training programs are a smashing success.

We trainers dump a lot of information into heads.

I would like to propose a new definition of workplace learning.

Learning occurs when the trainee actively seeks and acquires knowledge and is then motivated to use it.

I like this definition because it relates more directly to performance and is focused on the trainee (not on the class). If we held ourselves to producing THAT form of learning, I think we would do things differently.

1. The new learning does not occur when we offer sheep dip (means everyone has to go to the same classes) training. People don’t want to buy that way, travel that way, work that way and they sure don’t want to LEARN that way.

2. If you define successful learning based on the learner’s motivation and application, they the focus would shift from offering what WE think THEY need to connecting to the learner and creating an environment that enlivens their desire to seek and apply new information.

Some corporate trainers out there are thinking – yeah right, that works for a small company, but I can’t train 5,000 this way. It is too expensive.

My response? So be it. It is cheaper than wasting millions on training programs that people dread and that don’t work. Much cheaper. It’s not easy to get rid of one size fits all, but this is our job and obligation as educators. It’s why we are here and needed.

Think about the last time you were on energized to learn something. You were connected to the business, you had a new challenge, you were working closely with someone you admire, you were having fun, you were letting your curiosity take the lead.

As trainers, coaches, and managers, the way we approach helping employees learn is more important than anything. We need to understand the significance of creating a learning-ready environment and we should let learning be a personal and customized experience. For some people, it will be a project assignment, another person might love and respond to more one-on-one time with you. Brainstorming sessions. Brown bag book discussion sessions over pizza and beer. Three people debating at the local coffeehouse. A great book. Inspiration from nature. Meeting someone you admire at a conference. Being asked to teach others. Benchmarking others. Quiet time with a big white board. Reading blogs. Writing a blog. Research. Watching others. Practice. Telling stories. Comparing several approaches. Group goes through a new process together. Repetition. Theories. Trying a new productivity tool. Good example. Bad example. Blended learning. Coaching. University classes. Professional associations. Listening to audio on the way to work. Simulations. Games. Dissonance. Long classes. Short classes. Daily reminders. Newsletters. Music. Mentors. Assessments. Tests. Computer-based training. iPods/podcasts/videocasts. Weekly conference calls. Daily huddles. Giving a presentation. Solving a problem. In response to a challenge. Asking great questions.

We are all unique and what turns us on – for learning – is an individual thing. Instead of overplanning your training to the point of sapping all the learning out of it, try unplanning instead. Get to know people at a deep level. Use your resources to create a provocative and evocative work environment and train learning catalysts (and you can’t sheep dip here either) to help provide great learning experiences.

No sheep dip!

Lisa Haneberg, author of the Management Craft blog, is a professional management and leadership trainer, coach, and organization development consultant. She is also the author of H.I.M.M.: (High Impact Middle Management): Solutions for Today’s Busy Managers, Organization Development Basics, Coaching Basics, and most recently, Focus Like a Laser Beam.


  1. says

    Why Training Might NOT be the Best Answer

    I have two quick comments about this title. 1. I was talking to prospective clients yesterday. They are interested in have me train a few trainers to do classes based on High Impact Middle Management. Nice people, I would love

  2. says

    I like the shift your definition suggests Lisa. We’re currently doing something similar at SLC with a group who asked us to help them develop a mentorship program; we started with the group they wish to mentor, taking them through a set of exercises that produced a curriculum hit-list of what kind of mentorship they wanted, and felt they needed. We are now in phase two, where that group is developing their own program, and we’ll then match them up with the mentors who seem a best fit for their needs, whether one or several, in an individualized program.
    Like you, I often have people ask me for train-the-trainer programs, specifically on management training or the MWA curriculum itself, and I can’t help but coach them first, in understanding what I feel they are asking me for. My view is that training is for skills, opening access is for knowledge, and they both come AFTER the selection of the right talents in managers if management is considered a calling —which in my view, it should always be.
    Back to your definition, I would then suggest that in a business, these wonderfully self-motivated learners must be given the opportunity to employ their new learning.

  3. says

    Rosa, I agree. There are many great skills or practices that inspire us but never see the light of day because as soon as we walk in the door, the email/meeting/status quo inertia soul sucking tractor beam of the everyday takes over.
    Courage. Strength. Resolve. Sass.

  4. says

    Good point. Gotta say I do get weary of explaining that training gets relegated to “a flavor of the month thing” which “never sticks for us” because the inertia of a broken work culture has taken over as the playground bully.

  5. says

    Great topic! And I generally agree with your argument, Rosa.
    I especially like this line: “As trainers, coaches, and managers, the way we approach helping employees learn is more important than anything.”
    Like you, I’ve seen a zillion training programs over the years. Most were forgettable and have faded away in my memory. But a few stand out.
    Maybe a way of figuring out how to design and deliver meaningful training is to focus on the few that have remained in us and ask:
    “What was one of the most memorable learning (or training) experiences you ever had? What was so memorable about it? Why was it so memorable? How did it affect you? Change you?”
    Perhaps from this sort of analysis can come a set of design principles that a client can use to envision a meaningful approach to learning.

  6. says

    Great suggestion Terry; I’m sure that Lisa’s article has hit home with many of us.
    What about it Ho‘ohana Community? How would you answer Terry’s questions? Let’s keep this great conversation going.

  7. says

    How timely. I just walked in the door from taking a day long Excel class at the University of South Florida. I commented on the survey card that Beverlee, the instructor, was one of the best I’d ever encountered. On the way home I thought about clarify my own self in order to write about the experience. So I will.
    Beverlee’s passion to teach beamed sunshine throughout the room. She injected just the right amount of humor to maintain smiles and keep eyebrows from plummeting. Ewwwes and ahhhs could be heard from us students when she unvailed the dastardly secrets behind such things as the auto-sum. I can’t remember hearing such animation drawn from students.
    Now, another reason this experience might have made such an impact was the topic: Excel. Excel has tormented me like an abscessed tooth. Maybe learning a bit about it was like having the tooth pulled…much like what is said above about topic.
    This is a most pristine view of learning Lisa!

  8. says

    I was so encouraged to read your post Lisa, I am in the process of building a series of tools for my business owner clients. The whole purpose is to tap into the individuals personal interests, motivation, and desire for growth.
    The early prototypes have been amazing in producing results and helping people overcome their self-imposed limitations plus understand complex information and get into action.
    Thanks for the affirmation!

  9. says

    Greg – that’s great. I hope that organizations start asking for learning models and structures that go beyond the usual Needs Assessment -> Class List approach.
    Dave your story about your Excel class is great. We need more trainers like that! I have never been to a computer class that measured up.

  10. says

    There must be some latent geek in me Dave, for I had taken an Excel class once which was the most incredibly eye-opening, and empowering class for me — and the instructor was far from memorable. It was the subject matter that excited me. Compared to now, not many software choices existed at the time I first learned Excel, and I thought the program was pure magic. To this day, there’s nothing like learning a cool new macro” if Beverlee was here in Hawaii, your comment would stir me to quick action signing up for her next class.

  11. says

    Okay you guys, I’m jumping in! Great article Lisa and I agree that the whole concept of corporate training needs to be examined. I think the self-motivation for learning has to part of the process so a personal connection is a must.
    Interestingly enough, one of my best trainings started as a 2 day Sheep Dip “corporate training” class for communuication skills. Imagine me and a room of 150 managers of a resort reluctantly sitting together for a class on customer service communication. It was not a fun start, but at the end of the class there were about 20 of us who really took the lessons to heart and were changed by the experience.
    Why? The teacher made it great and I was in serious need of the lesson (though I did not know it at the time). The teacher was dynamic, energetic, and funny as heck. In fact I endeavor to model my training style after her approach. She was able to keep our attention for those two 8 hour days and even allowed our little group take it to another persoanl level while the rest of the 121 managers were still thinking of customers.
    Since then I have incorporated the lessons learned in that class and have taught my lessons to others. The skills I learned those two days has changed how I have communicated with others and to this day has served me well.
    Would I have had this Aha! moment if I was not exposed to the Sheep Dip? Probably not. Does this mean that we should keep the Sheep Dip approach? I say in moderation. Like a Liberal Arts curriculum in college, I think we do need to expose ourselves to all types of learning and give those reluctant students a chance to meet great teachers. So can we do both? Can we have effective training that exposes us to learning and then nurtures the spark? Is the coffee shop meetings the next generation of adult school?

  12. says

    Sounds like you had a great training experience. Some people do. Sheep dip training is not a waste for all participants. But if you look at the group as a whole and at the classes as a whole, often the ROI comes out looking pretty darned bad.
    Content makes a difference, facilitators make a difference, culture makes a difference, context makes a difference. Heck, even the brand of donuts make some difference. But the million dollar price tags still make me go OUCH at the end of the day…

  13. says

    I agree with you about the ROI, and the donuts :). I feel that real learning is personal and your approach to find a different “classroom” for training is a great start. I hope and pray that companys can let go of the over-planning training and allow everyone to find their learning. I love the “No Sheep Dip!” philosophy.
    I also look forward to reading more answers to Terrence’s questions.