Can training departments learn from zoos?

About 6 weeks ago I wrote a posting on this blog, entitled What is the future of the LMS?  Within a few hours, my colleague in the Internet Time Alliance (ITA),  Harold Jarche had followed it up with one of his own, LMS is no longer the centre of the universe, and so began, what we at the ITA are now calling, The Great LMS Debate (you can see the chronological list of postings here.)

At the Learning & Skills Group Conference earlier this month, Jay Cross mentioned this debate in his keynote and a number of other session speakers picked up on it too, and this sparked off further discussion in blogs and tweets.  On Saturday Charles Jennings added a further posting to this thread, called Real learning, let’s not confuse it with completing templated exercises.  Charles’s rational, reasoned and elegantly written post is a must-read, and it got me thinking even further. Firstly Charles reminds readers:

We shouldn’t confuse what L&D/Training departments spend a lot of their time on with real learning. Learning professionals spend a significant amount of their time (maybe even the majority) designing and delivering content and then evaluating completions and short-term memory outputs from structured mandatory and compliance training modules and courses. “

He then goes on to define “real learning”

“Most of us have been persuaded that the majority of real learning occurs in the workplace through experience and practice and over the water cooler through conversations and reflection.”

“Learning is an accumulation of experiences supported by practice in context and by interaction with others – who may be your peers, your supervisor, or your friends. Even your friendly learning professional.”

The distinction between “training” and “learning” clearly seems to be one of the stumbling blocks to moving forward. Only the other day, my ITA colleague, Jon Husband, referred me to a tweet from @panklam  Patti Anklam at the recent E2.0 conference, that said

“big obstacle to social learning conversations: people translate “learning” to “training” automatically, unconsciously”

In recent times, a number of people have tried to explain the differences between training and learning. For example, Jay Cross, another ITA colleague, has written a lot about the important role of informal learning in an organisation in his book and on his Informal Learning blog as well as how it differs from training

“Learning is formal when someone other than the learner sets curriculum. Typically, it’s an event, on a schedule and completion is generally recognized with a symbol, such as a grade, gold star, certificate or check mark in a learning management system. Formal learning is pushed on learners.

By contrast, informal learners usually set their own learning objectives. They learn when they feel a need to know. The proof of their learning is their ability to do something they could not do before. Informal learning often is a pastiche of small chunks of observing how others do things, asking questions, trial and error, sharing stories with others and casual conversation. Learners are pulled to informal learning.”

But maybe it is more useful to consider training as a subset of  learning where the majority of learning (the actual percentage can be argued over) that takes place is informal.

I wanted to come up with an analogy to make this concept more memorable, but the best I could do was this.  Wild animals kept in captivity are a subset of the total wildlife population, where the majority live in their natural habitat in the wild.

As with all analogies you can’t push them too far, but as I looked into this one further, I realised that training departments (that manage training) might actually have something in common with  zoos (that manage animals in captivity) after all.

I read that zoos have had to change in recent years due to ecological pressures.  They have not only reduced the number and species of animals they have as exhibits, but also focus now on conservation issues, and some have even rebranded themselves.  For instance the  New York Zoological Society, based at the Bronx Zoo, became the Wildlife Conservation Society and is also now responsible for millions of acres of protected lands around the world with field conservation projects in many countries.

It seems to me that Training/L&D Depts might be able to learn something from this as they are also experiencing pressures (financial, technological etc) and need to think seriously about their future role and survival.  If they took the same approach as zoos, they might want to consider reducing the number of training courses they design, deliver and manage (perhaps just to the absolute essential ones as required for compliance and regulatory purposes), and  move the focus of their efforts from managing training to supporting informal or “real” learning.

This might be done, in a similar way to zoos, by working on field projects with individuals and teams to help them help themselves to address and support their own performance and productivity needs through informal and collaborative approaches.  Like zoos, L&D departments might then consider re-branding themselves in such a way that reflects this new role, with titles that demonstrate their focus on “performance” rather than “learning”.  This re-branded function would also provide new opportunities for learning professionals who wanted to specialise in this area of work rather than on training design or delivery.

But what about the tools and systems required for this type of work?  Just as conservationists use different methods to care for the animals in the wild than they do in zoos, there is clearly a similar need for new tools for individuals and teams to use for working and learning. Charles Jennings makes a very interesting suggestion in his article in answer to this question:

“Maybe LMS vendors would be better off sticking to their knitting and letting the maelstrom that is the profusion of targeted ‘2.0’ (for want of a better term) tools that are emerging virtually every day to provide support for process-based learning.”

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