Speed to Proficiency     Creating a sustainable competitive advantage

CAT | Learning Business

boring-smallMy great grandfather made bricks every day. My grandfather held down three jobs to put mom through college. My dad worked at a civil service job he cordially hated – when he had a heart problem that permitted a medical retirement, he refused to have a retirement ceremony – he never went back in the building.

Most of the claim processors I train do not get a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction from their work. They don’t get a lot of pay for it, either. Work is something they do for eight hours to pay the rent, so they can then live their lives.

I’d even hesitate a guess that there are a lot more workers like this than there are workers in fulfilling, interesting, high paying jobs within most enterprises.

It’s weird to me that in the learning field, we talk so much about knowledge workers, about creating positive attitudes towards ones job, about making content that is compelling and interesting. We talk about Enterprise 2.0 and the flattening of the organization. About collaboration and knowledge sharing.

Since the 70’s, we’ve been bombarded with “find your dream,” “follow your passion,” and somehow led to believe that fulfillment and financial sustainability will follow.

We don’t talk about my dad. We don’t talk about the claim adjusters I train. I believe that thinking about these folks and their phenomenal world has gotten way too little attention in our field.

How should this influence our practice?

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Speed to ProficiencyI’m pleased to announce that my new book, Speed to Proficiency: Creating a Sustainable Competitive Advantage is now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Learn how to change from providing “so we did it” training to creating learning initiatives that produce capability change. Everything is covered: Aligning initiatives with the business, understanding the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders, weaving together training with reinforcement and coaching, integrating informal learning and performance support, and selecting the right learning technologies.


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MYOBNot every performance problem is a training problem. We need to know which is which, and stick to the problems we can solve. Throwing training at all every performance problem doesn’t work, and guess which department gets blamed when it doesn’t?

Some years back, I was called by a person who introduced herself as the director of a large botanical park. “We need motivational training,” she said.

“That’s great, I’m in the training business,” said I. “How many people do you need trained?”

“200,” she said.

“In what size groups?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” she replied. “All 200.”

“Oh,” said I, not quite understanding. “And how long do you have for the training?”

“An hour,” she said.

“I see,” I said. “So what you really want is a presentation.”

“No,” she said. “I need them trained.”

“OK,” said I. “Help me understand your problem a little better. Why do they need to be trained?”

“They aren’t motivated.”

“Is that something new? When did this start?”

“Three weeks ago,” she said. “When they were told that everyone would be fired next month.”

Obviously, this person did not have a training problem.

If someone held a gun to their head, the employees could have done their job. They had a motivational problem, one that would not be solved by training.

In their seminal 1970 article Analyzing Performance Problems; or “You Really Oughta Wanna”. Robert Mager and Peter Pipe suggested that “When faced with a discrepancy between the actual and the desired performance of a student, employee, or acquaintance, the usual course of action is to ‘train, transfer, or terminate’ the individual.”

As learning professionals, we need to ensure that performance problems are learning problems, not motivational or structural problems. This is a primary function of the analysis step in ADDIE, to analyze the source of the performance discrepancy. If they don’t have skills, it’s a training problem. If they have them but don’t want to use them, it’s a motivational problem. And if they have the skills and want to do the job but have insufficiency authority, resources, or time, it’s a structural problem.

In the situation I mentioned, one solution would have been to take every Friday and help the employees write resumes, build interviewing skills, and use online resources to find jobs, in exchange for good-hearted effort the other four days. Insofar as part of our charter in L&D is to be performance consultants, this would be a great approach. Other performance problems may be amenable to recognition, incentives, resourcing, or other management interventions that are simply not in the purview of L&D.

But the bottom line is that we can’t throw training at every performance problem. It simply won’t work.

Abstracted from Speed to Proficiency: Creating a sustainable competitive Advantage. In press.   (c) Bill Bruck, Ph.D., 2015

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ASPTwo very intelligent colleagues of mine, Christy Keener and Tom Hilgart, introduced me to this simple yet extremely useful model for thinking about what it takes to enable a person to be ready for their job.

Awareness is “knowing about.” It’s the ability to define terms, know where resources are located, explain a business process or guideline. For example, employees need to understand the policies related to personal time off; failing that, they need to know where to obtain this information. Awareness is often associated with some of the lower order verbs in Bloom’s taxonomy: the ability to state how many days off I will accrue this year, and to list the times when PTO is not required (for instance, bereavement leave). For some things, awareness suffices.

For other things, skillfulness is needed – the ability to apply defined processes and procedures in standard situations. This is often true when a person is supposed to refer complex situations to someone else. For instance, a Level I Customer Service Rep (CSR) should be able to quickly, confidently, and accurately use the job aids and past knowledge to answer a defined set of questions related to the product he is supporting. She should in addition, recognize calls that she is not qualified to answer, and be able to escalate the call to a Level II CSR.

For our purposes, we can think of proficiency as the ability to do a complex task independently in novel situations. Another way of thinking about it is that proficiency comes when we shift from asking for assistance to providing it to others. It is when a person is proficient at the various tasks comprising her job, that readiness has been achieved.

So if we are in the readiness business (https://goo.gl/BSz2rY), we really need to start by understanding what readiness entails for each job that our audience does. We need to base our planning for becoming a learning organization on an understanding of what skills and knowledge are optional, and which ones are vital. We need to understand which areas a given person needs passing familiarity with, and where proficiency is required.

Achieving proficiency takes time and effort – on the part of the organization and on the part of the learner. Make no mistake, for those critical skills, it won’t just be about training. It will be a continuous learning process that may involve formal and informal learning, social learning, performance support, coaching.

If you agree that the fundamental purpose of the learning organization is to promote readiness, then the primary goal should be to develop speed to proficiency in our interventions, recognizing that proficiency may take weeks or months to achieve.


Abstracted from a forthcoming book on learning effectiveness  (c) Bill Bruck, Ph.D., 2015

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Keep CalmI often hear learning professionals bemoan the fact that the learning function “gets no respect.” More specifically, when times are tough, I often hear that “learning is the first budget to be cut.” It is seen as nice to have, not essential.

How could this be? In a complex and rapidly changing world, don’t we need to staff our companies with people who can think on their feet, process data quickly and accurately, and make good decisions?

$170M Savings

We saw a striking example of the impact of a well-designed learning process in our work with the claim organization within a Fortune 200 property and casualty insurance company. The problem was that claim adjusters were not documenting medical disability claims using objective, specific language to justify their decisions. Insurance companies measure the potential losses from such things by doing random audits of files to determine how many cases they would lose if they were taken to trial – a statistic called Loss Improvement Opportunity or LIO. In this case, the LIO was three hundred million dollars ($300M) – five times industry average. An expensive custom eLearning program had been put into place, but it didn’t solve the problem.

Our solution was a two-week learning process that taught the concepts related to medical disability management via eLearning. Then, using web meetings plus discussion forums, we introduced a sequenced case study. Next, learners were given a sample file, and asked to post questions they would ask of the medical specialist in private forums seen only by them and the instructor. Instructors role-played medical specialists in a web meeting to answer these questions. Learners then documented the file (which had no “right answer”) using the SMART principles they had been taught. Senior adjusters served as coaches and gave detailed feedback on the cases, then another web meeting was held to discuss key learnings. The process was repeated with a second file and – if required for certain learners – a third.

Six hundred claim adjusters were trained using 12 senior claim adjusters as coaches over a six week period. Within two years, the loss improvement opportunity dropped from $300M to $130M – a $170M savings.

A 10x Increase in Speed to Proficiency

We saw a second example of the impact of a well-designed social learning process in our work with the underwriting organization of the same company.

The company had a problem. Each year, they recruited 20-30 college seniors to be underwriters and sent them for eight weeks of training at headquarters over the summer. Then they would send them to various field offices across the US. When they were sent into the field, all too often they would systematically unlearn the new techniques and best practices taught in headquarters. Senior underwriters in the branch – often in supervisory positions – would tell the newcomers about the “real world” and “how things are really done.” New ways of using information technology to research customers and other techniques taught in class were discouraged by old timers.

First, we created an online community for the recruits. Prior to hire, from January through June, the trainees interacted with an underwriting VP as well as program alumni. In the coffee shop they discussed the favorite sports teams and where to jog when they came for training; in other rooms they were able to ask alumni questions about the underwriting profession. After the summer training, when they got to the field, the community center re-opened and trainees were assigned to participate in it for four hours a week for eight months. Underwriting techniques were reinforced with stretch assignments and successes shared in round-tables. Coaching rooms allowed them a private place to ask questions and receive feedback from their mentors and buddies – graduates of last year’s program. Bi-weekly conference calls provided other round table opportunities, and notes were posted in the community center

I asked the CLO why he was continuing this program for the sixth consecutive year of underwriter training. “We like it,” was his response.

“What could we tell our other clients?” we asked. “Tell them all we like it,” he replied.

“Could you put a number to ‘we like it?’” we inquired. “Forty million dollars. That’s how much each of these underwriters was underwriting after eight months in this program,” he explained.

“Was that compared to – say – $39 million otherwise?” we wondered. “No,” he replied. “This happens to be the amount underwriters with nine years of experience in our company write, on average. And we’re getting it after eight months – over ten times faster than with our old methods.

What would you give to be able to tell that story to your CFO?

Key Take Aways

As you can imagine, these programs were not the first to go when budgets were tight. Why? Let’s look at a few key factors.

  1. The learning programs were aligned with the business. In the first situation, each year the VP of Claims had to explain why their losses were five times the industry average. Solving this problem was a key priority for him, and the learning organization helped him do it.
  2. The results were business results. In neither of these cases did the Chief Learning Officer (CLO) report on how many people liked the programs. In fact, in the claims training, pretty much everyone hated it (except the CFO). The results were expressed in terms that were meaningful to corporate executives – cost containment and revenue increases.
  3. Program goals focused on job proficiency. The programs did not focus on compliance. The programs did not simply make people aware of concepts and processes. The programs required that learners demonstrate the skills they were to use on the job.
  4. Learning was a process that took the time that it took. In the first case, the program was a two-week process. In the second, it was an eight-month process. In both cases, however, the calendar and seat time was what was required to produce the required results.
  5. The programs were social. In the claim program, most of the social interaction was in the form of focused feedback from coaches. In the underwriting program, most interaction was in the form of being able to ask mentors and other learners how to handle various situations.

Are we our own worst enemies?

In the scores of companies – large and small – that I have worked with, I have observed that training programs like the ones above are the exception rather than the norm. Instead, I often see the bulk of the mind share, budget dollars, instruction and design efforts, and learner seat time focused on such things as:

  • Creating compliance training that often boils does to training “so we can say we did it,” for litigation risk management.
  • Rapidly developed eLearning that is all too often a “data dump” from subject matter experts, with little focus on (a) the skills the new worker needs, nor (b) how to best transfer the required knowledge and skills.
  • The communication and assessment of basic facts, rather than a focus on critical thinking.
  • Training events (i.e. courses and classes) rather than learning processes.

It might be an interesting exercise to audit the efforts of your training department by asking the following questions:

  • Do your activities address the key needs of corporate executives?
  • How much of your training focuses on compliance v. skill building?
  • Would line managers generally agree that after training, staff can hit the ground running, or do they believe that managers are still responsible for the bulk getting new folks up to speed?
  • What portion of your training is assessed?
  • What portion of those assessments use the metrics of the business, rather than learning metrics (i.e. Kirkpatrick Level 1 or Level 2 results)?

Bonus questions for those developing eLearning internally:

  • What portion of your eLearning courses incorporates a coherent instructional design v. simply disseminating content?
  • What portion of your development and review process focuses on catching minute grammar errors or finding the ultimate graphic for a slide?

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TrainingIn the days before PCs were on every desktop, and all human knowledge available on every smart phone, companies had training departments, staffed by training directors and trainers, who executed training plans. Now we have learning organizations, chief learning officers, and learning strategies.

It’s interesting to think about the differences between training and learning.

Locus of behavior

The one that is most striking to me is that training is something the instructor does, while learning is something the learner does. We might say “I received training” – where ‘training’ is used as a noun, but when we use training as a verb, it’s something we deliver to someone else.

Conversely, we cannot use ‘learning’ as a verb describing something we provide to someone else. We can train them, we can teach them, or we can instruct them. However, unless we are from the far reaches of Appalachia, we can’t learn them; even there we would larn’ them instead!

Dictionary definitions

I don’t want to get lost in the varieties of specific definitions, but as I use the first definitions that come up when googling the terms, training is “the action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behavior.” Learning is “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught.”

There are two points that are of interest to those of us in the learning profession.

  • Training is specific – it’s a particular skill or behavior. This certainly accords with my experience providing training. Good training is training that has behavioral learning objectives. We talk about lifelong learning and learning to learn; we don’t talk about lifelong training or training to self train.
  • Training is accomplished through the act of teaching, or instruction. Learning may happen through “experience, study, or being taught.” While one may quibble with the exact wording of the definitions, there is a face validity in the notion that learning happens through a variety of modalities, only one of which is being taught.

What do we “do” in a training department?

I would suggest that, insofar as we think of ourselves as being in or leading a training department, we determine training requirements, design and deliver training, and report on its results.

There are robust methodologies for each of these tasks, including: Problem analysis, job analysis, training needs analysis, ADDIE, pre- and post tests, SMART objectives, training delivery guidelines, and a host of others.

The resulting training, when well-developed, has certain common characteristics.

  • It is usually event-based, with a discrete starting and stopping time – or in the case of self-paced training, an estimated number of hours to complete the work.
  • It has a defined set of objectives.
  • It has an instructional design.
  • It is developed by the trainer or an instructional designer.
  • It has a pre-defined assessment methodology.

Isn’t that enough?

If you agree with my proposition that we need to be in the readiness business (see http://q2learning.com/blog/?p=981), then while training may be important or even necessary, it is not sufficient.

It is not sufficient because you can’t learn to ride a bicycle at a seminar. The acquisition of complex skills usually requires a process over time, and cannot be accomplished during an event.

It is not sufficient because in a rapidly changing environment, key personnel (perhaps all personnel?) need to be able to respond to new situations, use new technologies, adapt to a changing social environment.

It is not sufficient because the training model does not encompass some of the most important learning modalities: informal learning, learning from experience, learning from performance support tools, mentoring, and coaching – to name but a few.

A thinking shift

As learning professionals, to add value to the organization we must be in the readiness business. To be in the readiness business we must shift our thinking out of the “providing training” box to enabling learning.

Only then will we begin to consider how readiness is best to be facilitated throughout the organization.

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Ice TruckI was thinking about a conversation I had a few years ago with Richard Flanagan, co-author of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning. We were talking about the organizational training, and in particular, how so much training does not seem to be focused on business results. It reminded me of a story told by Wayne Hodgins. He relates how prior to home refrigerators becoming commonplace, people used to store their food in ice chests, and ice was delivered to their door by ice trucks. Within a few years after home refrigerators became commonplace, all these ice delivery companies had gone bankrupt. This was all the more odd since they used refrigerators in the delivery trucks, so they understood the mechanics of the new technology. His conclusion? These businesses failed because they were short-sighted about what business they were in. They thought of themselves as in the ice business, where if they had thought of themselves as in the food preservation business they might have been the early adopters of refrigerator manufacturing. What I came away with from my talk with Richard was the same question. What business are we in?

When we proclaim the wonders of rapid eLearning, it’s pretty apparent to me that we’re not in the behavior change or performance improvement business. In fact, it’s not at all clear whether we’re in the learning business at all, or simply in the content publishing business. And if learning were the same as content publishing, universities could all close their doors in favor of libraries.

So what business are we in? What business do we need to be in in order to stay in business during the next down cycle? I would suggest we need to be in the readiness business; and this may create as fundamental a change in our activities as it would have for the ice delivery businesses above.

And the related question comes down to this: Will the VPSales and the CFO be strong allies for you in maintaining and increasing the training budget next year? If not, are you in the right business – and what would it take to get there?

Excerpted from Speed to Proficiency: Creating a Sustainable Competitive Advantage. (c) Bill Bruck, Ph.D., 2015 (paperback and Kindle)

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