Any time we develop a new skill, we learn it over time, with plenty of practice and application along the way. For some reason, we approach professional learning a lot differently than we approach learning other things. You would never expect to learn how to drive, to play an instrument, or speak a new language in a day—so why do organizations continue to invest in professional development programs that happen in just a few short hours, with no follow-up or opportunities for practice? For consultants and coaches who support these organizations, there is little to no demonstrable ROI for their efforts, and no way to see if learning is taking place beyond participant enjoyment.  

Think back to that time that you learned to drive in one day. You jumped in the car and settled in. An instructor joined you for two hours pointing out where all the buttons were, regaled you of past successes that they’d had driving, and motivated you to be the best driver that you could be.

There were no nerves, you put your seatbelt on and adjusted the mirror. You felt good—you’d been told how to drive.

You looked over your shoulder, indicated, and pulled out smoothly in to traffic. The clutch went down, you shifted up a gear, and started cruising. You need to turn at a roundabout so you calmly think back to the 23 minutes you spent with the instructor talking about ‘being the best you can be at a roundabout’ and instinctively moved in to the right lane and slowed down to a stop. Simultaneously you put the clutch in, shifted down, and then cruised through that roundabout…

Of course, this never happened.

The first time I got in a car I was terrified. I remember moving at 11 mph, feeling completely out of control with no idea how to stop or shift, scared that I would stall in the middle of an intersection. It took me hours, spread over weeks, to get comfortable on the road. Even then, I was guided all the way by a teacher who was showing me what I needed to know, how to apply it, and then master it until it became second nature.

This is how we learn in any other context—we don’t run a marathon by standing up, walking out the front door, and cracking on for 26.4 miles. First we need to walk, then run, then build up endurance. We don’t learn to play an instrument sitting in a room for eight hours while someone shows us how to play the violin, and then leaving to go home to just get on with it for the next 12 months, before getting back together and learning for another eight hours.

No, that’s just not how learning happens.

So why is it that at work, that this is how we are told we should learn? How can you possibly expect someone to take onboard eight hours worth of content, ask them if they enjoyed it at the end of the day, and then expect them to get on with it?

Organizations, and the consultants that support them, continue to rely on on-site training—often reserved for senior leaders and high potentials—where they spend a day away from their desks covering content and enjoying some catering. However, when they get back to their desks the next day, they are often overwhelmed catching up on emails and meetings, and have little to no support in implementing what they learned in their daily work activities.

Six days, weeks, or months later, it should be no surprise that not much has changed. It’s the equivalent of giving someone a day long lecture on how to drive, not letting participants practice (or even sit inside the car), and then expecting them to be experts behind the wheel.

When you compare workplace learning with any other type of learning, it’s no wonder that learning isn’t applied, and that the learning landfill keeps growing. And why wouldn’t it? How can anyone possibly be asked to recall what they learned six months ago, without any ongoing support for integrating their learning into their behaviors, and then be asked to apply it?

It’s important to take things on in a phased manner. If we think back to learning to drive, you didn’t learn how to do everything at once. You learned a little bit of content (like learning the rules of certain traffic signals, or how to use a turn signal), and practiced in the car with a teacher. You built on what you learned, applied it, then came back the next week and learned a bit more.

We need to apply the same principle to workplace learning.

What would it look like if instead of assuming that everyone can assimilate, internalize, and action massive amounts of content, we took into account the how people actually learn?

Learning takes time. It always has.

Instead of trying to deliver eight hours of content in one day, and then expect participants to find their own way to apply it to their work, what if instead, we thought about workplace learning the same way we approach learning to drive or play an instrument? Providing little bits of content, spaced out over time, with built in systems for learners to unpack how the concepts apply to their daily work activities, to actually apply those concepts through new behaviors, and revisit key findings over time.

The loop is clear: learn a new concept, change behavior in context of daily life, apply that concept regularly, reflect, and finally repeat with new concepts. It may sound obvious, but for many consultants and the organizations who hire them, the standard operating procedure is: learn a bunch of new concepts without any clear understanding of how they can directly apply, go back to work, and then nothing. Even if a handful of participants from a live session applied what they learned, there’s no way to follow-up, or measure the changes that result from the learning.

Unfortunately, in the world we inhabit, quantity seems to trump quality (where quality in learning is measured by what is actually implemented). It’s a tough shift to move from teaching lots all at once to keep face, to providing a little bit of learning, with lots of application support, more often.

Fortunately, the consultants and coaches who are able to embrace this shift will enjoy a significant competitive advantage over those who continue to rely on content heavy approaches to organizational change. Those who can design content and programs that leverage the way people actually learn—with a little bit of content, a lot of context, and support for follow-through and application—will be able to not only impact business outcomes for their clients, but to prove the ROI of their programs for prospective clients.

Just as you can’t learn to drive a car in a day, your clients can’t learn to be better leaders, better sales-people, or more agile in times of change with just a few hours of content delivery. True learning takes time and practice in the real world—whether that’s behind the wheel of a car, with an instrument in hand, or in the context of daily work activities.


Learning Myths