I have been part of several discussions over the past few years that questioned the value of creating courses and delivering formal training. There’s a perception among some people (including some L&D folks) that as long as you have Google and a good network of resources that you can look up anything you need. The other, related idea is that everything can be learned on the job with performance support, without formal training. In this post, I’ll examine the first question: Do people need to learn, or can they look it all up?
Question 1: Do people need to bother learning?
The first argument asks if people need to bother learning anything at all, or if they can just look it up when they need it. Do you really need to remember if you have a mobile phone and a search engine always available?
For example, Bruce Graham started a lively conversation in the Articulate Heroes community a few years ago by describing someone he met at a conference. She said she takes all the elearning in their organization, regardless of quality, but doesn’t bother to remember much because she knows she can always look it up later. Bruce explains that Henry Ford approached building cars the same way; he found ways to assemble a group of experts and made them available any time he had a question.
He did not need to learn, just have access to knowledge.
If this is how people are REALLY now using online learning, and using our product(s), do all our clever animations, graphics, interactions and so on actually matter any more?
Let’s just give out facts, because millennials know how to access it, and will go back when they need it.
Why do they need to bother learning?-Bruce Graham
Sometimes, you can look it up
I think plenty of things can just be looked up at the time of need. I don’t need to memorize the recipes for most of the dishes I cook; I can just read the recipe to get the exact amounts and steps. For those sorts of tasks, we should probably be creating job aids (recipes and hints for work tasks) rather than courses. At a minimum, we should be creating training plus job aids, or training that helps people learn how to use performance support.
I once wrote a course where one of the main goals is for people to know where to find and how to use the resources. We don’t care if they can remember all 10 points and 50+ subpoints of this policy. We care that they’re aware that the policy exists and that they can navigate the website to look up the policy when they need it.
Therefore, the content delivery is very light. The practice activities are questions like “look up in Table 1 what you need for this safety precaution” and “use this self-assessment to determine what components of the standard you’re currently meeting or not.”
Deeper, internalized expertise
Some tasks require a deeper expertise though. A musician can’t stop in the middle of a song to look up a fingering. A salesperson can’t ask a customer to “hold that thought” while he fires up the elearning on objection handling. A doctor can’t ask a patient to wait while she pulls up the example audio of what a heart murmur sounds like for comparison. A line manager can’t walk out in the middle of a meeting to review the online course about delegation.
Those skills require internalizing knowledge deeply enough that you can use them at the time of need. You can’t have everything be “just in time.”
Plus, you need enough internalized knowledge that you can understand and use the performance support. Reading a recipe isn’t going to help me if I don’t know how to measure ingredients and perform key tasks. Recipes often assume you know how to chop, whisk, saute, and deglaze–but those baseline skills have to be learned somehow.
Finding information isn’t learning
In the discussion Bruce started, Steve Flowers argued that searching is fine for finding information. However, that’s not the same as training.
We have unprecedented access to good and bad information. To perfectly valid facts and information that can help us get things done. To perfectly misleading and wrong information that can lead us down the wrong path.
This is the core problem with the way many view training and learning. This conflation of movement of information with the efficiency of a training solution is flat wrong. It’s not about storing information in our heads. It’s about being able to adapt and adapt quickly to whatever challenges the task you’ve trained for presents. This rarely hinges on our ability to recall information. Doesn’t mean information isn’t important. But that’s only one ingredient.
Cake != Flour. It’s more than that.
Information != Knowledge != Behavior != Task Success != Results
Work is more complicated than, “Let me Google that” for many types of things that we do. Adept search skills are great. Helpful. But that domain expertise does not transfer to all other domains equally.-Steve Flowers
I think Steve makes a really important point here. Training is more than just sharing information. It’s also providing people opportunities to practice skills and get feedback to improve performance.
Which tasks need to be trained?
Sometimes, looking things up (like a recipe or a table of standards) is enough. Sometimes, it’s not. So how do we figure out which tasks are skills that need to be trained and which ones just need a job aid or a searchable resource?
Julie Dirksen shares an idea in many of her presentations that I think helps make that distinction.
Think of a task or topic where you might create training or performance support. Is it reasonable to think that someone can be proficient without practice? If people can be proficient without practice, you don’t need training. If people need practice to be proficient, that’s a skill where training might be helpful.
Performance support might also be helpful, especially after the initial training when people are practicing on the job. If it’s something you need to practice, just searching for information won’t be enough though.
Should we create courses or just performance support?
In this follow-up post, I respond to the question of whether or not we should create courses (Hint: I think we should, at least sometimes.)
Originally published 5/15/2018. Updated 9/30/2022.