November 4, 2013

Dear C-Suite: We Don’t Do Training Anymore

csuite2In 2012, Peter Aceto, the President and CEO of ING DIRECT – a Canadian bank with 1.78 million customers and over $38 billion in assets – delivered a speech where he waxed lyrical about being a social CEO. Two points come to mind from that speech. Early on in the talk, Peter said, “I believe we are at the confluence of two revolutions – a social revolution and a technology revolution.” He went on to say later in the speech, “How people work and make decisions is not new, however, technology and social networks has allowed this type of sharing to happen faster, with a broader group of people and outside of traditional boundaries.”

Did I mention Peter is a President and a Chief Executive Officer of a bank?

It’s time to help the C-Suite – aside from Peter Aceto and other learning savvy and employee engagement focused C-Suite leaders – to appreciate and understand that organizations don’t do training anymore.

Sure, for the purists and traditionalists in the learning space who are hell-bent to ensure the ‘sage on the stage’ continues, I’m certain they will scoff at the very mention of trying to erase the term training from Oxford’s illustrious dictionary. But it is my argument learning professionals must help the C-Suite understand that training is merely an event and that learning must now be defined as a connected, collaborative and continuous process. Learning can happen in formal, informal, social, non-formal and experiential ways but it does not solely happen – as is traditionally defined in C-Suite circles – as training. That is, we must help re-educate (and coach) C-Suite executives.  Learning is not merely a classroom event or an eLearning course, and training isn’t learning.

As my colleague Dennis Callahan once wrote, “learning happens everywhere not somewhere.” I liken it to what I call ‘pervasive learning’.

csuite3John Hagel, Co-Chairman at the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation and author of several books including The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, also tends to agree. “I am struck by the fact that,” he said to me in an interview, “when I broach the subject of talent development with C-level executives, they almost invariably have two reactions: this is about training programs and that’s the responsibility of our HR Department.” John went on to say, “as a result, they tend to view it as an expense item and it tends to be one of the first things cut in times of pressure.”

Jane Hart, founder and principal of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, says, “formal training has been the standard way of developing people for so long now that it has just become accepted practice that this is the way things are done.” She went on in our interview to assert, “we do know from studies, however, that senior managers don’t really believe formal training brings significant rewards, so many retain their training departments because they are expected to do so.”

If the C-Suite thinks talent development is solely about training — a term with which we now abhor — and they leave it to Human Resources (or the Learning Department within HR) to execute, yet the Learning Department itself is there delivering formal courses because ‘that’s how it’s always been done’, it’s no wonder the C-Suite’s view is that learning is in fact training. HR and/or the Learning Department aren’t doing anything to change the fixed mindset of the C-Suite on the definition of learning in the first place so how could they possibly change their own views? It’s not as though the C-Suite spends a lot of time thinking about this particular issue.

And, if the C-Suite believes training equates to a fixed expense line item (think external vendors, T&E, muffins in the classroom, etc.) and the organization happens to run into a quarterly budget or financial issue, it’s no wonder they immediately think, “cut the training”.

csuite1Jenny Dearborn is the CLO at SuccessFactors and SAP Cloud and sees a disconnect between the definition of learning in the organization and how the C-Suite actually learned things themselves before they got to the C-Suite. She said to me, “if you ask anyone in the C-Suite what was their most impactful and career advancing learning or development experience, it would not be a formal training course or even their formal education or degree program.” She didn’t stop there with the irony dripping. “Their career-changing learning experience was a job rotation, stretch assignment, or special project,” she passionately added, “and the coaching and mentoring that went along with it on-the-job to ensure professional growth and success.”

Jenny is right. The irony with the C-Suite is they think training is simply an event and thus an expense, yet their own best learning experience has most likely come from the informal, non-formal or social learning opportunities she so deftly outlined above.

In the summer 2013 issue of MITSloan Management Review Magazine, an article appeared entitled, “The Executive’s Role in Social Business“. The piece provides a fabulous point for learning leaders to contemplate: “Adopting social technologies can often mean changing the way people work, and that means leaders need to invest time and effort in explaining the purpose and value of the new tools as well as providing the necessary financial and organizational support to sustain these workflow changes over time.” What can learning leaders contemplate? They need to invest the time and effort explaining how important our new definition of learning is to the C-Suite itself.

Jane Hart runs a survey every year entitled, “Learning in the Workplace”. The 2013 results with over 600 participants continue my premise that learning in the organization is shifting to a combination of formal, informal and social yet learning professionals aren’t doing much to help the C-Suite understand the importance of the shift. In fact, I believe they are abetting the current situation. Jane reports that 68 per cent of those working in HR or L&D consider formal training and eLearning “to be of little or no value for them in the workplace.” Now that’s ironical.

When cloud-based learning organization Skillsoft surveyed 503 CEOs of organizations with greater than 250 employees across 13 business sectors, quite frankly I was shocked at the results. For example, 42 per cent of the CEOs interviewed remarked “the length of a course was a more important deciding factor than its content.” Also from the report was that the “measurable return on investment from training mattered most to only seven per cent of respondents.” The good news? It seems as though the C-Suite doesn’t care if the training has ROI but the bad news is they still think the content comes in the form of a course, regardless of whether it’s short (42 per cent) or not short (58 per cent).

But the C-Suite still thinks that learning is training, right? And the HR or L&D Department is doing everything they can to help them shift their mindset, right?

Network CommunityIf, as the ASTD remarks, “U.S. firms spend $1,067 per employee (about 2.7% of the entire staffing budget) to provide employees with an average of 32 hours of training programs annually,” how might we switch from a total number of courses and hours of training programs mindset to one that incorporates more of the informal and social learning mechanisms that actually make up a pervasive learning model?

I argue we ignore Woodrow Wilson who once said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” Let’s prove his quote wrong and instead help the C-Suite understand learning need not be trapped in a box or a classroom or an LMS. It need not solely be considered a line item budget cost. It needs  to incorporate the entire cadre of learning offerings, options and opportunities.

John Hagel followed up our conversation with some very sage advice. He believes we need a “holistic approach embracing [the] physical environment, virtual environment and management systems – everything that shapes the environment that we work in.” His belief is there are few C-Suite executives who understand that “the most powerful form of learning and talent development occurs in the day-to-day, on-the-job work environment and that it is directly tied to tangible performance improvement in the metrics that matter.”

It’s time for the HR and Learning Departments to take the proverbial bull by the horns and help the C-Suite understand that the organization doesn’t simply conduct training anymore.

Jenny Dearborn also provides us with similar sage counsel. She often asks her C-Suite peers to think back to their own career and determine the most impactful development experience they might have experienced. Jenny says, “100 per cent of the time they say a special project, committee, stretch assignment, or a mentor.”  She will then ask her C-Suite peers to think about how best to put structure around those types of informal experiences so it can scale to support their entire business. “Then I lead them down the logic path that points to social and collaborative learning – then they get it,” she concluded.

CSUITE5Jane Hart wants us to think about Silicon Valley start-ups where they “treat learning in a very different way – and usually adopt very social collaborative approaches to learning and working.”

Oh, and what about Peter Aceto? Why don’t you visit him on Twitter (@ceo_ingdirect) or his open blog at I can assure you his open, collaborative leadership style he demonstrates externally is equally reciprocated behind the firewall of ING Direct and that he believes learning happens everywhere not somewhere. The combination of social and informal learning alongside new collaborative technologies has created a sharing culture at ING Direct. He is a C-Suite leader who fully embraces ‘pervasive learning’.

What actions are you going to take to re-educate your C-Suite?

<Originally published to CLO Magazine, November 2013 Edition>


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