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Prof. Dr Willem Mastenbroek
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Editorial Staff

Revolutions in Training
David Creelman

I recently helped an organization re-think their approach to training; this exercise really brought home to me how much training has changed. It is not just that we have improved instructional design, a more thoughtful approach to blended learning, or new online delivery options; some fundamental thinking about training has changed. Here are four ideas that have captured my imagination.

A new core element of training
For hundreds of years the core element of training was the lecture. A single lecture might last an hour and often we would have a full day of lectures to justify the cost of bringing people into a classroom.

The new core element of training is short; just a video or a web page that takes five to fifteen minutes to watch or read. It is delivered on-line. It often meets an immediate need such as learning how to create a pie chart, how to fill in an expense form, or how to give feedback.

The point to focus on is the length of time the training takes. The experience of taking a day off for learning is replaced by a short moment that integrates completely into the on-going work. It does not need to be planned, it happens as needed.

A good example of short training is in learning to use a software program. All sorts of online help is available to quickly teach people the one thing they want to know about software when they need to know it. Another good example of short learning is the online newsletter which regularly gives people little bits of learning on new ideas or industry trends. This is not a response to a specific problem; it simply fulfils the need for continuous learning.

Short training does not meet all learning needs, however it does replace lectures as the core element of learning. Most training should follow this format, and chief learning officers should focus much of their attention on short learning as it is their most important delivery mechanism.

The new role for experts
If experts are not giving lectures, what are they doing? Well, of course they are involved in content creation—we will talk more about that later—but the bigger role for experts is answering questions. After a number of short training sessions, people often have questions that are best answered by an expert. The main role of the trainer/expert is to participate in question and answer sessions. The key point here is that learners are expected to have done the work in advance and so come informed with questions that were not answered in the available short training.

A new way to create knowledge
Traditionally, training is based on the idea that experts have knowledge which they download to learners. That is true, but it is only half the story. Dr Henry Mintzberg says, “Thoughtful reflection on natural experience, in the light of conceptual ideas, is the most powerful tool we have for management learning.” The key activity here is groups of peers talking together in a lightly structured way so that they can draw lessons from their own experience.

Reflective learning is not really new, but it has been seen as secondary and not the most important means of management learning. It needs to be a major element of any learning program.

A new source of content
While short learning is mostly created by experts, who those experts are has changed. Most short content is created by volunteers and most of those volunteers are from outside the organization. This kind of thing sends shivers up the spine of training professionals because there is no control over content or quality. In some areas, like safety training, control over content and quality is critical.

However, in the vast majority of areas control is unnecessary. The learner gets good at finding what is helpful for them. If an article or video is useless, the learner will figure that out in a couple of minutes. Trainers have to face up to the uncomfortable fact that the control they once exercised over content and quality is often no longer useful.

Summing it up
The problem with this revolution is that it upsets the role of the training function and ‘the experts’. If content is created by volunteers, and drawn on by learners as they need it, do we need a learning function at all? If experts only do ‘question and answer’, can they make a living doing training? Even if you consider this revolution as leaving half of the existing programs intact, that is still traumatic for traditionalists. Let me answer my own question: yes of course we need a training function. It just needs to re-invent how it approaches training. Many learning professionals will find championing such a dramatic change unappealing. Nonetheless the revolution is here and leading the charge will be a better strategy than trying to stand in its way.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at

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