Improving employee learning and performance in organizations today means systems change. I wish it were otherwise, but learning is not just a classroom activity anymore, it must be a total system activity that takes Boysinboat into account strategic goals of the organization, the culture of the organization (values, beliefs, artifacts, structure, etc.), external inputs (home life, economy, social network, competition, etc.), and the quality of the learning interventions (formal training, coaching, mentoring, self-directed study, action learning, etc.). Learning that makes a difference occurs when all of these factors are aligned.   

Braidio CEO, Iain Scholnick, takes up this systems perspective when he says that companies need to fit learning into the workflow of each day. In a Chief Learning Officer interview, he said:

How we deliver learning today in the organization is an artifact of our K-12 experience. We went physically to a building, and we learned from a teacher. That model has impacted our LMS design and how we approach learning. It’s not in the workflow. You have a workflow inside your organization — the crowd learning within your organization and how you structure that based on a day-to-day: What projects am I working on? What information do I need? Who has that information or can give me some guidance? Now, think about what you’re doing with the LMS. You’re going to that K-12 experience. You’re going to that laptop with a very long-winded instructor to lead content. It’s driven from the top down to all their employees who then take a timeout from their workflow to learn. That’s not exactly the most productive model.

He is calling for learning to be integrated into the life of the organization, i.e., into the system.

David H. Maister, in a 2008 article for T+D titled, Why (Most) Training is Useless, implored us to look beyond training and pay attention to the various elements of the system. He wrote:

…I now believe that the majority of business training – by me and by everyone else – is a waste of money and time because only a microscopic fraction of training is ever put into practice with the hoped for benefits obtained.

Unfortunately, training and other kinds of meetings and conferences are too often organized as stand-alone events, with a life of their own, disconnected from the firm’s progress.

What companies don’t seem to understand is that… training is a wonderful last step in bringing about changed organizational and personal behavior, but a pathetically useless first step.

Maister says that in order for training to have impact on the organization, first top management needs to communicate their support, the organization needs to prepare for the change in behavior, managers need to monitor, measure, and follow-up on the change, and there must be recognition and rewards for applying the new knowledge and skills.

A similar argument is made by Michael Beer, of the Harvard Business School. In an interview for the HBS blog “Working Knowledge”, Beer said:

Organizational transformations around the world would be more rapid and cost effective if executives were willing to create the context for effective management training by starting with honest conversations about the system and changing it first.

Before you introduce new training programs, or any other kind of learning intervention, take a systems perspective. Create a context for learning. Prepare the organization for the intended change. Work with managers to develop alignment. Make learning part of the workflow. Otherwise, employee learning will not have the impact you want.