How do we deal with unwilling corporate learners?

Recently Brent Schlenker returned to blogging after a year back in the corporate training world, and he talked about some of his experiences. At the end of his post he made an interesting – if not depressing – statement.

“The truth is, there are no learning problems in corporate settings. There are only people unwilling to learn”

He then asked, “How do we change that?”

When I tweeted out the link, a number of us on Twitter began to have a conversation around this question. I tweeted a couple of things, including

and also

But then I realised I was confusing two, albeit, related issues : willingness to learn and ability to learn for oneself. So I decided to try and plot these two issues on a chart.

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 09.14.38

Whereas those who are willing and able to learn for themselves (in the top left-hand quadrant), just do it and pretty much sort themselves out,  it is those in the bottom right-hand quadrant – the directed, unwilling learners who are not motivated or interested in learning, and expect to be taught. And this is clearly where most training efforts are placed. Hence the constant stream of advice about how to make learning effective, appealing, engaging – how to use the right colours or font sizes or images or games or whatever – in a desperate attempt to motivate the unwilling learner.

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 09.18.23

But  these efforts can also turn willing learners into unwilling learners.  And there is a lot of evidence that shows how individuals are becoming frustrated and angry at “knowledge dumps with trivial interactions”, or being forced to click on every interaction on a screen – just to prove they have “learned” it, or who see no purpose or relevance  in what they are being asked to learn (bottom left-hand quadrant).

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 09.21.39

But it is the top right-hand quadrant  that is interesting.  There are surely many who are fundamentally, willing learners, they just don’t know how to learn for themselves. These are the people who can do with our help to revive their innate ability to learn – which has unfortunately been knocked out of them by the education system.

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 09.26.22

What about the others?

The willing, self-directed learners who like a lot of autonomy certainly shouldn’t be forced to endure (e-)learning solutions intended for unwilling, directed learners, they should be largely left alone, and offered more appropriate approaches, if and when required (eg compliance/regulatory training).

As for the unwilling, directed learners, then maybe LESS effort needs to be spent at simply throwing, costly highly engineered e-learning at them, and MORE effort needs to be spent on (a) helping them become self-directed learners, (b) helping them find solutions that suit them as individuals, and (c) building responsibility and accountability for learning – with the obvious consequences if this doesn’t happen. All with the aim of moving them from the right-hand side of the chart to the left-hand side.

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 09.30.47

One thing that seems clear from  my little activity here, is that providing a one-size fits all e-learning/training solution for every employee in the organization solves very few problems and causes far more.

As with most of my blogging, this post is mainly to help clarify my own thinking – it’s certainly not a definitive answer to Brent’s question, for as Brent himself tweeted later in our conversation

What do you think?

UPDATE: Here are some posts others have written on this topic

32 thoughts on “How do we deal with unwilling corporate learners?

  1. Pingback: How do we deal with unwilling, corporate learne...

  2. Simon Brown

    Fit the training to the need – what the job needs a worker to know, or what a worker needs to know in order to do a job.

  3. Sharon Boller

    Very nice point about the quadrant labeled “directed learner.” The challenge (or at least one of them) involves figuring out why learners inside corporations seem to require/want so much hand-holding in the learning process.

    It could be that we’ve never created a self-directed environment. It also could be that most workers are juggling lots of stuff – and feeling overwhelmed by daily responsibilities and information overload is not conducive to a self-directed approach to learning.

    The luxury of time is an essential ingredient to a self-directed learning approach. You need time to explore, time to make some mistakes, time to reflect on what it is you are learning. Corporate America is very short on time. Hence, I think we’ve evolved directed approaches to learning that try to minimize the time required for people to learn.

    I also think we do a poor job in corporate American at distinguishing what we truly need for people to learn to do and what we simply want them to be able to find/locate as they need it. So we create overly elaborate learning solutions for things that we don’t really intend for people to remember and under-cut the learning situations that need to be far more robust for people to truly gain skill or in-depth knowledge.

    Kudos to Brent Schlenker for starting an intriguing conversation.

  4. Pingback: How do we deal with unwilling corporate learner...

  5. Pingback: How do we deal with unwilling corporate learner...

  6. Pingback: How do we deal with unwilling corporate learner...

  7. Lee Graham

    Good post to get people thinking… I agree w/ @Simon. Create the training to focus specifically on teaching the learner the actions they need. Nothing more, nothing less.

    1. Jane Hart Post author

      A good start – but I think the problem is more deep-rooted than this would solve. It’s more than just teaching/training – in fact most jobs can’t be “taught”; people only learn how to do them, by doing them and through a willingness to self-improve.

      1. Brent Schlenker (@bschlenker)

        I think our conversation here touches on how important it is for Learning professionals to also understand the world of Organizational Development. The OD guys/gals deal with much of the same and there is overlap in each industry’s goals…more than most think, But I’ll save that for another blog.

  8. Pingback: You can’t enforce curiosity - The Speakers Company

  9. Pingback: Comment gérer les apprenants peu (ou pas...

  10. Ara ohanian (@aohanian)

    Jane, as always you provoke some interesting thinking here and I have a question for you. How much do you think these four types are general and how much do you think they are characteristics we exhibit depending on circumstances? I suspect that some people who are unwilling learners at work may be self-directed learners outside work. For example, when engaged in their hobbies.

    1. Jane Hart Post author

      Ara, thanks remember self-drectedness and willingess are two different things. So whilst self-directed learners willingly learn for themselves both at work and at home, they often become unwilling learners at work when they are forced to learn in a way that has been prescribed to them – because one of the key elements of self-directedness is autonomy – the ability to choose what, when and how you learn.

  11. Pingback: Learnlets » Being explicit about corporate learning

  12. Pingback: How do we deal with unwilling corporate learners? « Learning in the Social Workplace

  13. Pingback: How do we deal with unwilling corporate learner...

  14. Pingback: How do we deal with unwilling corporate learner...

  15. Mark Andrews

    Regarding the unwilling corporate learner: Recruiters take note: Years ago when studying Harlem Renaissance leader W. E. B. Dubois’ Talented Ten theory, I coined this phrase…”There is little value in filling up the gas tank of a car with no engine!”

    Just saying…

  16. Beth Kanter

    Just curious – wonder if you have an assessment survey or something where you can identify what type of learner and match them with the right learning program?

  17. Lindsay

    Regarding the unwilling corporate learner ,I suspect that some people who are unwilling learners at work may be self-directed learners outside work.

    1. Jane Hart Post author

      Hi Lindsay, yes that was my point. Many are essentially willing and able – and used to a lot of autonomony in how they learn, but don’t want to be told how to learn in a very presecribed way at work

  18. aohanian

    Jane, thanks for that insight. How much of an individual employee’s autonomy in learning is under the control of the L&D department and how much is set by managers or the structure of the organization? I suspect that L&D probably has very little power in this matter.

    1. Jane Hart Post author

      Individuals can have as much autonomy as they want in terms of their self-directed learning. Within an organisation there is also of scope to offer more autonomous approaches to training – e.g. there is no need to make them take a course in a very prescribed way. Since it should be based on performance outcomes they should be able to work on the content as they feel appropriate for them, in order to achieve those performance outcomes. After all learning is the means to an end, not the end itself.

  19. Pingback: Comment gérer les apprenants peu (ou pas...

  20. Pingback: How To Pitch The Value of Personal Learning Networks to a CEO – Wise or Folly? | Activate Learning Solutions

  21. Pingback: Personal Learning and Cooperation | Clyde Street

  22. Keith Quinn

    Part of the problem may be that corporates tend to offer only “one-channel” solutions (e.g. predetermined one-size-fits-all) rather than offering a range of options related to key learning areas.

    We have been using mobile learning approaches to try to provide a range of options which hopefully fit a range of learner needs in particular learning areas. Time will tell if this has any success.

    1. Jane Hart Post author

      Keith – Yes, different channels will be important, but also different formats and approaches – ie not just pushed-down content – in a very prescribed way, just on a different devices!

Comments are closed.