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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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 comments to How do we deal with unwilling corporate learners?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

  • Thanks for this post – encapsulates a lot of the challenges which confront me at the moment. Also, seen serendipitously alongside this from Euan Semple : http://euansemple.com/theobvious/2013/9/23/you-cant-enforce-curiosity < which reaches conclusions along similar lines.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • Wow!!!

    Very informative post Jane! Excellent post Tom!!!

    You may be interested to check 17 Tips To Motivate Adult Learners
    http://elearningindustry.com/17-tips-to-motivate-adult-learners

    Have a wonderful day,
    Christopher Pappas

  • 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…

  • 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?

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

    • 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

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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!

  • [...] 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 …  [...]

  • [...] …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.Whereas those who are willing and keen to learn (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 whatever – in a desperate attempt to motivate the unwilling learner.  [...]

  • [...] 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 …  [...]

  • [...] …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. Whereas those who are willing and keen to learn (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 whatever – in a desperate attempt to motivate the unwilling learner.  [...]

  • [...] Hart wrote an interesting post recently about how to deal with “unwilling corporate learners”. Though couched in the [...]

  • [...] 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 …  [...]

  • [...] existing ‘people unwilling to learn’.  Jane Hart picked up on his post, and in her reply teased apart two separate things: Whether learners were willing to learn, and whether they were [...]

  • […] 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 …  […]

  • […] 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 …  […]

  • […] 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 …  […]

  • […] Although this MOOC has still one week to go before it finishes, I have found it to be valuable and worthwhile in my learning because I could directly apply it to my daily work. Connectivist MOOCs have been one the most instrumental and critical personal development activities I’ve ever completed but I think it’s because I’m a self-directed and willing learner. […]

  • […] post, I was fascinated how Helen explored a range of tools in her post and in her practice. I noted Helen’s link to Jane Hart’s matrix of willing (unwilling) learners and self-directed (directed) […]

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