Training, Development, and Learning

In this time where talent is getting easier and harder to find (lots of people, hard to find the right ones – ie. the paradox of choice) the need for talent management continues to grow. However, something I see from many organizations and HR leaders is the confusion and the interchangeable use of the words “training”, “development”, and “learning”. One is an event, another is a strategic process, and the latter is an individual experience. Yet many senior level leaders continue to ask for training to answer their development problems…the fly by night training and instructional design contractors (and pretty much EVERY eLearning developer) is all to happy to provide training for a price. And after thousands and sometimes 10s to 100s of thousands of dollars of training design and expensive Learning Management Systems, organizational leaders are not seeing a direct return on their investment in terms of development. And it is killing the credibility of talent management professionals.

Training is like building a house – you start and you finish within a pretty narrow timeframe when you think about the larger span it takes to build a city.  Good training relies on a number of qualified people: contractors, architects, sub-contrators, etc. And if you do it right, it is a great addition to your company. But just as building a house does not create an entire community, training does not develop your pool of talent. It is a piece to the puzzle but it is not development. Development of talent is closer to the development of a community. It takes a greater vision to see how all the pieces fit together. You have the houses, sure, but you also want roads, common areas, sanitation, sales and marketing, regulatory affairs, and landscaping.

The “roads” of your organization is how people navigate. If your organization is clogged with politics (think narrow roads with too many cars), misaligned communication structures (roads to nowhere), or broken systems (potholes and ruts); you can’t channel talent and effort in the right direction. People either get lost, frustrated, or just stop. Either way, if the pathways for people to develop are hard to navigate (just like a neighborhood that is confusing) people start to looking to live elsewhere.

The “common areas” of your organization is the culture and how people interact with each other. Without whitespace and freedom for people to move around without constantly bumping into each other, bad things can start to happen in even the prettiest of places. Most employees seek some level of autonomy and room to move independently to some degree. When you ask people to think “outside of the box” for a solution and the only place they can go is into someone else’s “box”, you’re not likely to see a ton of creativity.

Sanitation is your performance management system. How are you getting rid of the stuff your organization doesn’t want and would be better without? Poor performance management, just like bad sanitation, can make a community sick. Even people who are otherwise healthy become infected by toxic and underperforming employees. You have to execute your performance management plan. Holding people accountable is in many ways its own sense of feedback. People want feedback, they want to give feedback, and most of all, they want the employees who are not pulling their weight to either get the feedback they need and adjust their performance, or be shown the door. Poorly executed performance management, similar to missed trash pickup for months, can create a pretty apathetic environment. People stop doing what they should simply because they see that it doesn’t matter.

Sales and Marketing is how you get new people into your community. You have to have a talent acquisition strategy and you need a brand or at least a concept of what you are selling that is bigger than just the location of your community. Without a talented and aligned recruiting team, you’re getting the wrong residents to your company. With the wrong people in your group you risk turning what could be a great place to live into a culture rife with challenges and conflict, not to mention poor performance.

Human Resource Management is your regulatory affairs group. You need to make sure all the permits are filed, all the taxes paid, all the nuts and bolt of invoicing, etc. Human Resource Management is a huge part of your organization and without all the daily transactions taking place (payroll, time tracking, benefits, etc.) you can’t have employees. Keep in mind, however, that human resource management is not the same as human resource development.

The landscaping is exactly what you might think it is; it is the physical climate of your workplace. Do you have art? plants? carpet? tile? etc. Are there drinks in the refrigerator? Do you have a refrigerator? etc. It is the physical appeal of your exterior and interior. It helps create the vibe. While different from the culture, climate can still influence people’s moods so it is something to pay attention to. Does your company look like a nice place to work?

Oh, and learning. That is something individuals do, not something companies do. I cannot make someone learn, I can create an environment that encourages and rewards learning, I can give tools and resources to help people learn, but ultimately, whether someone learns or not is an individual process. I see many employees who are sent to training to correct behavior and they are resistant, combative, cynical, and sometimes toxic to others who want to learn. Learning is not under your control, just as you cannot make someone like where they live. You can create an environment that is makes learning easier and supports it, but it something each individual goes through at their own pace.

And now to my point. Development is how all of these things come together to build a community. And while my analogy is somewhat simplistic, it  illustrates that development is a long-term and continuing process. Training is an event, and usually has a very specific design for a very specific purpose. You build a training class, people come, they leave. Training is a tool in the development process. What are you doing to create a culture that encourages people to do more, try new things, recruit new talent, keep the landscape nice, and keep their “common areas” clean. How are you translating a development strategy into something more than just going to more trainings?  One of the worst things you can do is expect people to be better simply because of training. No matter how great the training is, if people are not allowed and encouraged to do anything different when they get back, then the training was just something they went to and will NEVER translate into different behavior. (read “Dumping the Water Back in the Pond”). How are you creating an environment where people CAN learn, change, and grow?

Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us” highlights Mastery, or an innate desire to  get better at whatever we are doing, as one of three drivers of human behavior (the other two being Autonomy and Purpose). People want to get better, they want to develop. Good talent professionals create communities and houses and cultures that help people do what they instinctively want to do anyway – develop, grow, learn, and expand. So the question is: are you simply building houses or do you want to develop a community?


Performance Management v Development

I think there is a drastic difference between performance management and performance development. They each serve different purposes and originate from a different philosophy of how employees show up in the work place. One comes from a place of trust and the other comes from a place of distrust.

A Paradigm Shift
A performance management approach tends to a result in an effort to minimize loss instead of capitalize on opportunity. To borrow a philosophy from Marcus Buckingham (Now Discover Your Strengths; First, Break all the Rules), “you ‘manage’ your weaknesses, and you ‘develop’ your strengths.” Buckingham also cites the work of excellent Olympic coaches that focus not on what needs to be corrected but what opportunities can be nurtured. His general philosophy is that your weaknesses will never be your greatest asset so why spend all you time trying to make them great, the better use of your energy is to develop your strengths, that is where greatness can be found.

Performance management of the same vein tends to manage employees weaknesses and therefore will most often not lead to greatness. People get managed to the level of “acceptable”, never to greatness. Another common use of the performance management system is to “manage” people out the door. Again, hardly a model for excellence. Now, I am not saying that occasionally performance management philosophy is not applicable, I simply invite the possibility that it is not an effective mentality if you are looking to maximize your workforce, at best your workforce will be “adequate.”

Development is a key Engagement tool
Another way to look at this is through the lens of employee engagement. BlessingWhite’s 2008 Engagement survey ( indicated that in North America only 29% of employee were truly engaged and 19% of employees were actually disengaged. But what of that middle group, the people who are capable or energetic, yet can’t seem to get to the next plateau? By BlessingWhite’s definitions it was split among the “Almost Engaged” (27%), “Honeymooners and Hamsters” (12%), and the “Crash and Burners” (13%). According to their analysis, all three of these middle groups crave development. Across all groups, “achievement and development” are key factors in engagement. So while performance management might be an effective strategy for helping those employees who have quit but have not left yet (the “Disengaged”) exit the organization, it will not help the other 81% of your employees get any better.

Incorporating Development
Performance management should be a process not a program or a system. A process for managing poor performance out the door. If you are truly invested in retaining employees, improving productivity, and moving your company to the next level, then invest in a performance development strategy. Performance development strategy is more about providing resources and removing roadblocks to performance than correcting undesired behavior. Sometimes it means training, sometimes it means a mentor, sometimes it means starting or involving them in stretch projects. Development is whatever your employee wants it to be. Your job is to 1)help them get the resources they need to improve, and 2) make sure those developmental goals are congruent within the larger context of the organization. Think big picture as well as microstrategy here.  What benefits the organization and the employee, not just me as the supervisor? And career path is not always the same as career development, some employees don’t want to move to the next rung of the company ladder, but they do want development (see “Career Path, Talent Pipeline, and other cliches that miss”)

The Outcome
Imagine if you will, what would happen if you could engage or reengage even part of that middle population at your workforce.  The biggest difference I see in this whole outlook is whether you see employees as a dispensable commodity or as a valuable investment.  From a financial perspective the goal is to manage your losses and develop your assets.  If your employees truly are an asset, then stop managing them like you would a liability (protecting yourself from the worst case scenario) and start investing in their development.  I guarantee the return far outweighs the investment.