In 1994, The Learning Alliance was published. This book, by Rob Brinkerhoff and myself, made the case that HRD (human resource development) was changing dramatically and that the key to employee learning had shifted from the training department to the relationship (i.e., alliance) between managers and the learners they supervise.
We wrote in the first paragraph of the Preface:
A revolution is taking place in the development of human resources. The traditional centralized corporate training department, with its catalogs of classes and workshops, is quickly becoming a relic of the past. In its place, a system of employee training and development shaped by a new paradigm for learning is emerging. This paradigm is characterized by a focus on business goals, customer needs, the total organizational system, and continuous improvement… In those organizations whose training leaders have accepted the paradigm shift, HRD practices are very different. The responsibility for developing employees and directing their learning on the job has shifted to each employee’s direct supervisor. Information and skills are provided when and where they are needed.
That was wishful thinking. Twenty years later, I’m disheartened to admit that fundamentally not much has changed. According to ATD's State of the Industry Report, most of the training and development dollar is still spent on formal, classroom training. This is after the invention of learning technologies that have the potential to transform learning in the workplace; to make learning just-in-time and just-the-right-way for each person.
Exceptions do exist. Some companies have made the learning and development of employees everyone’s responsibility. Some companies have shifted responsibility for learning to their managers. Some companies reward learning that happens from risk-taking and experimentation. Some companies have cultures in which continuous learning is one of their strongest values.
However, for the vast majority of organizations, the traditional training culture dominates. These organizations still need to recognize the value of the learning relationship between managers and their direct reports.
In a blog post titled, “Why We Need Mutually Beneficial Relationships at Work”, Shawn Murphy points out the importance of this learning relationship:
First, we need a relationship between leaders and employees that hones in on expectations of everyone involved in the work relationship. Employees need to understand the expectations for performance and results. Employers need to help employees realize their potential and help them flourish in life. Finally, the organization needs to provide the resources and people to help a mutually beneficial relationship thrive.
As I have argued on this blog previously, if organizations, whether business, government, or nonprofit, are to remain competitive and relevant, they need to dramatically change the way they think about learning. They need to develop a culture in which continuous learning is valued by everyone and is supported on a day-to-day basis in the supervisory relationship between learners and their managers.