The fundamental challenges in learning haven't changed in the digital era

The pace of change in our technology driven world is astounding. There are so many opportunities to revolutionize the way we do business. But effectively adopting change is no trivial matter. It's very easy to become overwhelmed and feel left behind.

To combat this, organizations engage in training to further the skills of their employees. This training traditionally comes in various formats: conferences, workshops, hobbyist meetups, online courses and even onsite training. Regrettably the majority of this training boils down to exposure therapy at best. It's not put to use and quickly forgotten.

As an avid learner I'm keenly aware that I can easily invest more than a 40 hour work week trying to stay abreast of the latest in technology. And I know I'm going to forget the majority of what I consume. I've come to realize the only way learning sticks is when it's applied to produce a meaningful outcome. Everything else is simply exposing myself to concepts with the hope that when a future need arises, I'll recall avenues to explore.

There's value in exposure therapy, but it's not possible for any individual or organization to be aware of everything. There has to be a limit to the amount of time dedicated to exposure therapy. Unfortunately most organizations dedicate all of their learning investments to exposure therapy. This rarely leads to an impact on the organization. It's easy to become frustrated and stop investing in learning altogether.

The biggest problem with exposure therapy is that it's only targeted to impact individuals and not the organization. Many organizations resist exposure therapy because of high turnover. Justifiably they wonder if the individuals will even be around when the need arises. Ironically, if learning has an impact on the organization, in addition to the individual, individuals are more likely to stick around!

Exposure therapy is a lot like trying to hit unknown targets by shooting in every direction. The trouble is we're more likely to run out of ammo before we come close to any target, let alone realize many of the targets are out of range. If we clearly identify our target before we invest in training, we'll know exactly what direction to aim.

A target is simply a desired outcome. Instead of learning to stay abreast of everything, use organizational principles to derive visions of a future organization to identify what a desired outcome would look like. With that future vision, quantify and qualify the impact. Fine tune the outcome to maximize the impact. Craft learning to aim directly at the outcome, instead of firing in every direction.

I've outlined a set of steps to help structure learning to maximize the organizational and individual impact.

Start with the Outcome

Arnold Schwarzenegger attributed his success at body building to having a crystal clear picture in his mind of what he wanted his body to look like. He set out to sculpt his body with a vision of success in his mind. We should start with a vision of the organization we want to become and work backwards to get there.

Here are some questions to help create a vision:

  • Why, why, why?
  • How can we better serve our customers?
  • What strengths can we build upon?
  • What challenges do we face?
  • How will things be done differently?
  • How will conditions improve?
  • What would success look like?
  • How can we further the principles and purpose of our organization?
  • Why did we pick this topic for training?

Don't focus on hypothetical next actions, focus on the desired outcome.

Avoid Suboptimal

If a process routinely produces a noticeable amount of waste, which I like to think of as garbage, it has likely amassed something of a junk yard that needs to be cleaned up. If we streamline the process, the junk yard is going to turn into a land fill.

Sometimes it's wise to put an outcome on hold and work on improving a different aspect of the organization. This is especially common with efforts to improve efficiency before effectiveness.

Consider what undesirable outcomes may result from achieving the vision.

Justify the Outcome

In Jerry Maguire, Rod asks Jerry to "Show me the money." Nothing helps validate a plan faster than quantifying the potential value. Financial impact always sends a clear message of priority and support.

If someone tells me they don't know what an outcome is worth or it's not worth very much, I immediately know we're not on the same page and there's more work to be done before we can responsibly proceed. If someone tells me an outcome is worth a hundred thousand dollars and why, we know exactly what we need to focus on.

Money alone isn't the entire picture. Money exists to sustain a business so it can exemplify its principles. It's equally important to qualify the intangible impact on things like morale, relationships, communication, satisfaction, knowledge, goodwill, and trust.

Combining the tangible and intangible value affords the first level of feedback about the effectiveness of a plan. Fine tune the outcome with this information to maximize its impact. Cut out every aspect that adds little or no value. Enhance valuable aspects to produce more value.

Understanding value is the only way to make a generalized outcome much more specific and obtainable. It helps ensure everyone is on the same page. Sharing this understanding with others can help validate assumptions about potential value and what outcomes are realistic. Value can also be used as a guide to test and fine tune the steps necessary to achieve the desired outcome.

Share the Vision

In the game of Marco Polo one player is blindfolded and chases the rest. The blindfolded player locates participants by shouting "Marco" to which they reply "Polo" and simultaneously move to evade capture.

If we don't share the vision of the organization's future, many will be left blindfolded, only able to discern direction by intermittently chasing Polos. As a select few fine tune the vision in the short term, and adapt to new visions in the long term, it will seem as if they're constantly evading capture. The blindfolded won't be able to contribute towards defining and validating visions, only frantically chasing and never knowing what they're accomplishing.

Share the vision, desired outcome, purpose, principles, and even the tangible and intangible value with everyone. Why wouldn't we want to maximize the creative power of everyone involved?

The only reason I can imagine an organization would avoid full disclosure is due to a lack of trust. If we don't trust everyone involved in the process, then we need to go back to the section on sub-optimizing and first deal with the lack of trust. People have to work together to achieve their best work, a lack of trust will make this impossible.

Predict Success

Desired outcomes are predictive indicators of potential value. If we accomplish the desired outcome, then over time we'll reap the potential value. The exact amount is unknown, but the outcome itself indicates it'll be significant.

As we execute a plan to achieve the envisioned outcome we need some way to determine progress. The plan itself will require fine tuning. Quantifiable metrics are especially helpful. Whatever the metric, it should predict that we're on the path to success.

Here are some examples:

  • How will turn around time on customer needs improve? What is the current trend?
  • How frequently do customers complain or report defects?
  • How fast are defects caught? Consider a distribution of the number of defects versus time after a change was introduced. Maybe add a third dimension to look at the trend in this distribution!
  • Count how many features are suggested and then rejected based on current objectives, plot a trend of this, these are the features that likely would've been implemented if a clear set of objectives weren't identified.
  • If an outcome is to reduce the amount of time spent on a process, measure the time spent and look for a trend that indicates improvement. Simultaneously use other metrics to avoid compromising quality.
  • If boosting morale was part of the value, look at trends in overtime. Even a slight decrease in overtime, if correlated to interventions, is an indicator that sometime in the near future people are going to feel less stressed and have an improved sense of morale.
  • Qualify intangible metrics like how people feel on a weekly basis

Metrics can help determine when it's time to call it a day. Sometimes an objective isn't all that cut and dry and could be achieved with varying levels of success. We have to know when we need to trade off diminishing returns.

We do need to be careful about what we measure. It should be a predictive indicator of the outcome and we should consider the unintended consequences.

Devise a Plan

During the proverbial midlife crisis when one looks back on their youth and envisions being young once again, the potential value seems incomprehensible. Rushing out and buying a sports car seems like the logical next step. But no matter how expensive the car one cannot reverse time, one can only drain their bank account.

We have to make sure the outcome is viable. To do this, pull a plan of action from the desired outcome. The plan needs to address how everyone will learn, practice and apply techniques to achieve the desired outcome. Feedback and support are required across the organization to achieve success.

With a rough idea in mind we can estimate what that might cost. Getting a grasp on cost isn't about estimating every minutia. It's about identifying potential costs and risks. Risks should be explored just enough to understand what it will take to avoid and/or mitigate the impact.

Keep in mind this plan isn't concrete. The desired outcome is the objective, not the intermediary steps to get there. We'll tweak the plan as we go and incur costs beyond our initial estimates. Therefore, we better have some margin to absorb the unknown. Potential value and potential cost help gauge potential margin. If there's little to no margin to begin with we're already doomed to failure. If there's any way to strengthen the margins, we can tweak the outcome as long as we don't compromise the potential value.

Just like with sharing the vision, leverage as much talent as possible to brainstorm potential actions to attain to the desired outcome.

If the outcome is too lofty to achieve monolithically, we can break it into pieces that incrementally achieve higher levels of value and put us one step closer to our vision. The full investment can be deferred until we learn more.


Once we have a plan we can use all of the information to incrementally work toward the desired outcome. The desired outcome should remain constant and allow us to fine tune the steps as we learn. If the desired outcome significantly varies it's likely that the above planning process needs to be re-applied.

When all is said and done, reflect about what worked and what didn't. Measure the value as time marches on. Look for hidden value and hidden costs, things that were missed when envisioning the future. Use this wisdom to improve future investments in learning.

Invest in Outcomes

Resources for organizational learning are always scarce. Organizations should invest in outcomes. Employees still need to be empowered and given time to familiarize themselves with new technologies and techniques but doing this in an organized fashion is sub-optimal, this is a much more grassroots endeavor. Organized learning is best applied to organizational improvement.