How Not To Sell Learning / Performance / Training & Development Projects


Some recent gleanings from the online L&D (learning & development) community, which I’ll weave into a commentary on a post by Jay Cross:

In a homage to George Carlin, Jay Cross recently wrote an column with a list of “8 Dirty Words,”  which he says L&D professionals should avoid using when talking to senior executives and pitching their projects or services.  For those of us who not only deliver these services but who actually sell them (though some would argue everyone in this field has to be in the business of selling, if they’re going to survive), Jay’s list is worth exploring.

#1  — First on his list is “learning” and “learner,”  and his point is that the words are generic and suggest academics, rather than “collaboration” or  “boosting brain power.”  I’m continually amazed at how much energy in this field goes into debates about semantics, but I guess if we’re talking about what constitutes effective and persuasive communication to decision-makers, then fine, let’s look at that.

Now, I agree that “learning” is vague and “learner” is jargony, but unless you’re selling vitamins and dietary supplements to go with your proposed L&D project (now there’s an idea!), I doubt that “boosting brain power” will get you very far with corporate decision-makers.  How about simply “improved business performance” or “talent development?”  Yes, talent development encompasses recruitment and succession, as well as training and development, but that’s okay.  (As a side note: I think many companies would benefit if they required their recruiters and L&D folks to work together under one umbrella with shared performance metrics… sounds crazy, I know… )  Similarly, by framing “learning” as part of  “improved business performance,” we implicitly acknowledge that not every business problem requires an instructional solution. Those of us who are in the position of diagnosing business problems and proposing instructional solutions have an ethical obligation to our clients to first “do no harm.”

Also note: Jay Cross is a columnist for CLO Magazine — that’s Chief Learning Officer — and this field is commonly referred to as Learning and Development. So “learning” is not going away so fast. The simple truth is that every company has its own lingo. So, if the person you’re talking to is the Vice President of Training and Development, then you talk about “training and development.”  If the person has given themselves the title of Head of Corporate Education, then you talk about “education.”   ..and so on…

#2 & #3 — Next, he tosses “social” learning and “informal” learning into the fire.  Agreed. Let’s reserve our spiked Kool-Aid for ourselves… keep it inside the Twitter echo-chamber, folks.

#4 — How about  Knowledge Management (“KM”)?  Notwithstanding the fact that many companies don’t even have basic systems in place (think shared servers with a jumble of folders and files), and that fact that many companies would do well to invest in getting their intellectual property in order and their internal best practices shared n a more structured way, I mostly agree with what Jay Cross writes, namely:

Knowledge management may be two words, but it’s a single concept. That concept is broken. Knowledge is inherently unmanageable. Traditional, top-down KM has failed over and over again. It’s based on the assumption that an elite can figure out what workers need to know, package it as explicit data, and serve it up in a database. Most of the knowledge workers seek is tacit and beyond the reach of databased systems. The smart money is betting on bottom-up knowledge bases, compiled and maintained, by the people who use them. By the way, I also contend that you can’t manage talent and that LMS do not manage learning.

#5 — Now we come to that controversial word,  “training.”   Yech, training.  Then again, as one commentator notes, it’s not an entirely bad term:  People accept that “military training” and “personal trainers” are useful.  However, in many contexts, “training” can have negative connotations  too.  As the saying goes, would you rather have your daughter attend a course in sex education, or sex training? (that’s an old joke… most recently saw it as a #lrnchat quotable by Clark Quinn).  Enter Donald Clark’s Big Dog Little Dog training defense , which includes a fresh assault on some of the fake research myths that permeate the training world.  On the flip side, the term “training” does suggest a strong one-way orientation, as in, “Here is the process.  Follow it.”  and in that way, appears to presuppose how a given solution will be delivered, which may or may not fit with the client’s needs.   So with our newly invigorated ambivalence about “training,”  we’re forced to go back to item #1 above… if this list were an Excel worksheet, we’d have a Circular Reference error.

#6 — eLearning.  I’m holding off on this one, too much to talk about in this one post.

#7 — ROI. This is an overused and abused TLA… it’s even made it onto the list of the #lrnchat drinking game.  The term is captured nicely in this equation posted by Jane Bozarth:  http://twitpic.com/y4nj1

#8 — Web 3.0   Ugh.  Jay Cross puts it delicately when he says that people who use that term “betray their lack of understanding of what’s going on.”  Some of my buddies who hail from the UK — and who are less delicate than Mr. Cross — would simply call them a “wunch of bankers.”   (yes, just as geese travel in flocks, so do bankers travel in wunches.)

In Summary:  Avoid the echo-chamber jargon. As for “education” vs ” learning” vs “training, call it whatever you want… better yet, call it what your client wants to call it, and use your talent and energy to deliver effective solutions.

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on January 27, 2010, in Business, Instructional Design, Jargon, Learning, Sales and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Thanks for including me in this list! Dave Ferguson helped with revisions to the ROI-of-training formula. He made me take out the unicorns.

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