During the first session of a workshop I facilitate for ATD, one of the participants asked, “What does a learning culture look like in an electrical power generation plant, where most of the training is for the purpose of meeting industry regulations?” This is an excellent question that got me thinking about learning in a highly regulated work environment.

More so than in other work settings, formal, regular training for all employees is absolutely necessary. Powerplant Employees must be kept up to date on changes in standards, rules, and laws and the company needs to be confident that everyone has been exposed to this information from a risk management standpoint. Consistent and uniform compliance with requirements can be a matter of life and death.

However, it would be a mistake to think that a formal training program alone will result in the learning that is necessary for efficiency and productivity. First of all, one-time, or even annual programs, is not how the vast majority of people learn. They need repetition, practice, feedback, and reflection. And highly regulated industry businesses need employees who are always working towards improving efficiency and productivity, staying competitive in a fast changing global economy, and looking for opportunities for creativity and innovation even in a world that seeks standardization and predictability. These are employees who need leaders and managers that facilitate and support informal, on-demand, just-in-time, and social learning.

Another aspect of learning in highly regulated industries is the Law of Unintended Consequences. Formal training programs cannot prepare employees for all of the possible events that can occur in large, complex organizations. We hear about the disasters (e.g., Challenger launch failure, BP Gulf oil rig explosion, Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident) but employees confront many smaller, less dangerous unanticipated situations every day that need responses not covered in their formal training programs. They need to be able to react quickly, decisively, and with the best interests of all stakeholders. This takes learning from experience in the field, with the guidance of coaches and mentors. This ability cannot be learned in the classroom; even simulators cannot prepare employees for every eventuality.

Moving from a training culture to a learning culture in highly regulated industries is not only desirable but critical for the efficiency, success, and safety of workers, customers, and business partners. Formal training programs are necessary but not sufficient to meet the needs of these organizations.