Why Corporate Training is Broken And How to Fix It

Why Corporate Training is Broken And How to Fix It

Executive Summary 3

Where Corporate Learning Came From 3

Corporate Learning Today 5

Training is not the same as learning 6

Corporate Training Is Broken 7

Senior managers are dissatisfied 7

Chief Learning Officers know training is not working 7

Managers feel training has scant impact 8

Real learning takes place elsewhere 8

Workers are disgruntled 10

Training is out of sync with the times 11

The Collaborative Organization 12

Collaborative Culture 15

Collaborative Motivation 16

Collaborative Infrastructure 17

Collaborative Learning 18

What’s the hurry? 20

References 21


Executive Summary

Corporate training is broken. Training departments are no more at fault than bankrupt companies like Blockbuster Video, Borders, Silicon Graphics, Nortel Networks, Circuit City, Bethlehem Steel, Smith Corona, Polaroid, Wang Labs, or Underwood Typewriters. They all offered great products. They all fell behind the times. They were all eclipsed by new technologies.

The world around corporate training has changed. What worked twenty years ago doesn’t work well in the social, always-on, networked world of business we now inhabit.

Traditional training departments cannot build courses fast enough to keep up with the speed of change. Service industries challenge workers to acquire tacit knowledge — the kind of know-how one learns on the job, not in the classroom. Person-to-person instruction is no longer cost-effective.

Industrial organizations are morphing into collaborative organizations. Traditional training is broken and needs to get back in step with the times.

Where Corporate Learning Came From

The 20th Century was the great age of training.

Corporate training was invented in the early 20th century when instruction by senior managers replaced apprenticeships. General Electric opened the first corporate school. NCR’s John Patterson invented the flip chart and conducted the first formal sales training. Management became recognized as a profession, Harvard Business School opened its doors, and the term “executive education” was first used. Frederick Taylor promoted Scientific Management, and training’s mission evolved from how to do the job into how to do the job more efficiently.

Training became much more formal and important with the advent of World War II as the military used boot camp and training films to train millions of men rapidly, while women were trained to do the jobs the men left behind. The American Society for Training and Development was founded and designers brought a systems focus to training. After the war, big corporations replaced small companies. Drucker wrote The Practice of Management. Bureaucracies mushroomed. White collar workers outnumbered their blue collar colleagues for the first time. Training became a department and a standard facet of every business.

The social revolution of the 1960s gave rise to the concept that learning is individual. Robert Mager and others promoted the profession of instructional design. Malcolm Knowles pointed out that adults learn differently than children. Training technology focused on the person, not the group: PLATO introduced computer-based training; Stanford pioneered instructional television; teaching machines and programmed instruction enjoyed brief popularity. Don Kirkpatrick proposed a model for measuring the outcomes of training. Standardized courses and workshops multiplied.

The 1980s saw the shift from an industrial to an information economy. Peter Senge promoted five disciplines that are finally kicking in now, twenty years later: personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking. Forward-looking companies established corporate universities and tried to become Learning Organizations.

In the late 1990s, the web changed everything. eLearning was born. Venture capitalists funded scores of eLearning companies, most of which disappeared in the dot-com crash a few years later. Remember Digital Think, SmartForce, Pensare, NETg, KnowledgeNet, UNext, Docent, One Touch, Centra, InterWise, and their brethren?

Many of the corporations that adopted eLearning fell under the same mistaken spell that beguiled investors. They counted on big savings in salaries, travel costs, and facilities as computers replaced instructors. Some companies bought employees PCs so they could learn at home, on their own time.

Vendors churned out page-turners and shovelware. Training departments purchased libraries of this garbage and touted cost savings. Unfortunately, workers avoided these awful courses whenever possible and training departments sullied their reputations. Apologists who had fallen for the lure of computerizing all aspects of learning supplemented eLearning with face-to-face meetings and other forms of support and dubbed it “blended learning.”

CFOs questioned the return on their companies’ investment in training. Training directors learned enough accounting to talk about ROI. Unfortunately, Generally Accepted Accounting Principles value intangibles such as employee know-how, reduced turnover, and wisdom at zero. As Einstein observed, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Training became the first area to get the axe when times were tough and many sound programs were gutted.


Corporate Learning Today

The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) reports that companies spend $1,067 per employee (2.7% of payroll) to deliver an average of 32 hours of formal training annually.

Instructors lead 70% of this training, about 80% of that in person. Many companies are still cutting expenses by off-loading instructor-led training to automated eLearning but they have a ways to go.

The remaining 30% of training is delivered via technology, about half of it self-paced (i.e. instructor-free, often dubbed eLearning) and a third by online instructors.

However, go to any training conference, including ASTD’s own International Conference and Exhibition, and you don’t hear much about instructor-led training or self-paced learning. People at the big events are talking about informal learning, social learning, simulations, webinars, mobile, virtual classrooms, community, interactivity, and web 2.0. What’s up?

Training is not the same as learning

ASTD measures only formal training, the workshops, classes, and assignments meted out by training departments. That accounts for a mere 5%-10% of the way workers learn their jobs.

Workers mostly learn informally, from experience, by trying things out, mimicking what works for colleagues, asking questions, making mistakes, and conversing with friends. Savvy managers expose people working for them to stretch assignments to expand their breadth of experience. None of this activity shows up in ASTD’s and other trade organizations’ statistics.

The times, they’re a-changin’. The Industrial Age is giving way to the Network Era. In the Industrial Age, workers were cogs in the machine. They were rewarded for efficiency and for meshing smoothly with their fellow cogs. In the Network Era, workers replace the machine; workers create the value. They are rewarded for delighting customers in innovative and non-routine ways.

Training is imposed on people (for example, by the training department), as if they are cogs. Learning is what people choose to take in (whether or not through training), as if they can make decisions for themselves. Training assumes the trainer is in control; learning puts the learner at the helm.

The distinction is vital because networks are democratizing the workplace, and workers have an increasing amount of say in what they learn and how they learn it. At the risk of sounding ageist, it sometimes seems that the younger the worker, the more likely they are to resent being told what to do and to expect to be in charge of their own development. The Millennials are used to having information at their fingertips, used to digesting, sharing and creating information on the web.

Training departments are mired in Industrial Age, top-down attitudes, and that’s not playing well with Network Era, customer-focused workers.

Corporate Training Is Broken

Traditional training is not keeping pace with reality.

Senior managers are dissatisfied

Senior managers don’t think Learning & Development impacts business results. Three-quarters of the nearly 1,500 senior managers at 50 organizations interviewed by the Corporate Leadership Conference were dissatisfied with their companies’ Learning & Development function. Only one in four reported that L&D was critical to achieving business outcomes. (CLC)

Chief Learning Officers know training is not working

Chief Learning Officers aren’t satisfied with the outcomes of current corporate learning practices. Fewer than one in four Chief Learning Officers surveyed by Internet Time Alliance said their employees were learning fast enough to keep up with the needs of the business. (ITA)

Managers feel training has scant impact

Upon reflection, experienced managers agree with what’s come to be known as the 70:20:10 model. Knowledge workers learn more than twice as much from experience as from bosses and coaches, and the training department accounts for less half of that.

Real learning takes place elsewhere

Training professionals acknowledge that social and collaborative activities account for most workplace learning, followed by self-directed learning. Company training comes in dead last. (Hart)


Learning Mode Number of Responses Social & Collaborative Activities Personal Learning Strategies Internal Documents and Training
Collaborative working within your team 446 X
Personal & professional networks & communities 426 X X
General conversations and meetings with people 420 X
Google search for web resources 415 X
External blogs and news feeds 403 X
Curated content from external sources 377 X
Self-directed study of external courses 357 X
Internal company documents 341 X
Internal job aids 330 X
Company training 296 X

Informal Survey of Importance of Sources of Learning, Centre for Learning Performance Technology, 2012

Workers learn their jobs in the course of doing their jobs. Study after study finds that 70%-95% of learning in the workplace is informal and experiential. (Studies) Most corporate training is an example of the “Streetlight Effect.”

A police officer asks a man searching for his keys under a streetlight, “Are you sure you lost them here?”

To which the man replies, “No, think I lost them in the park.”

“Why are you searching here instead of in the park?” asks the police officer.

The man replies, “The light is better here.”

This analogy is evocative of HR departments that think formal learning courses and workshops are the way to achieve learning and development success. These departments are searching under the streetlight rather than in the park.

Workers are disgruntled

Workers are frustrated with corporate training because outside the firewall they have better equipment, enjoy unrestricted access to the riches of the Internet, and find it easier to network with friends and acquaintances.

Training has such a bad reputation that executive coaches have been forced to change the words they use in conversation with senior managers. Instead of bringing up learning, they talk about working smarter. Here are what the forbidden words really mean and how executives interpret them.

Taboo Term Meaning What Executives Hear Better to Say
Training Building capacity, improving performance Schooling. Ineffective. Not on my dime. Working smarter
Social Collaboration, collective intelligence. Goofing off, Facebook, the football pool. Collaborative
Informal Predominant way people learn to do their jobs. Continuous. Natural. Haphazard, lackadaisical, sloppy. Experiential
eLearning Generally, useless shovelware. Inexpensive alternative to training. Online Learning

Definition of training terms in the minds of executives


Training is out of sync with the times

Traditional training departments can no longer build courses fast enough to keep up with the speed of change. Service industries challenge workers to acquire tacit knowledge — the kind of know-how one learns on the job, not in the classroom.

Most workers have better connections to the Internet and social software at home than on the job.

The world of business is undergoing a profound shift. Workers are making more of their own decisions. They don’t want to be told what to do. They want to learn but they don’t want to be trained. Learning is shifting from top-down to bottom-up and sideways. Collaboration is replacing command and control.

It’s not that training departments have started screwing up; it’s that the world around them has changed. Training departments push training, while workers search and ask for the information they need. Both just want to get the job done, but they’re operating in different eras. The disparity creates a power struggle that the workers are destined to win.

Industrial-age hierarchies are evolving into collaborative networks. Corporate learning must follow suit.

The Collaborative Organization

Every business has one foot in the Industrial Age and the other in the Network Era. It’s not either/or but rather a matter of degree. The evolution from Command-and-Control to collaborative organization occurs along many dimensions.


Timeframe Industrial Age 1800 – 2010 Network Era 2010 –
Organization is… Machine, clockwork Living organism, collaborative, network
Expected from workers… Loyalty, compliance, efficiency Create value, higher purpose
Time orientation Past, conformity Future, innovation
Control Top-down, PUSH, obedience, command and control Bi-directional, PULL, autonomy, and share
Governance Dictatorial Democratic
Incentives Extrinsic, carrot and stick Intrinsic, purpose-driven, fulfillment
Infrastructure Rigid, factory Flexible, open
Relationships based on… Power Trust
Learning Classes and courses Conversations and experience


Organizational transformation is a journey of a thousand steps. One aspect moves forward and another tugs it back. Momentum builds and progress occurs on multiple dimensions. It’s not healthy when one sector of the organization runs far ahead of the others. Simply bolting on informal and social learning as a new technique doesn’t work. A company cannot take full advantage of networked learning without shifting its values, culture, and practices. It must move toward becoming a collaborative organization.

Let’s examine four early steps toward becoming a collaborative organization:

Collaborative Culture

Trust is fundamental to being collaborative. You don’t collaborate with people you don’t trust.

Conversations are the stem cells of learning and trust lubricates conversation. Together, we’re all smarter than any of us; that’s why collaboration works.

Bill Graham was a salesman for Allis-Chalmers in New Jersey before he became a rock promoter in San Francisco. He told me that when it comes to trust, the cultures of the East Coast and the West Coast were really different. “On the East Coast, nobody trusts you until they check you out, know where you went to school, who your friends are, and where you live. On the West Coast, everybody trusts you until you screw up.” (Graham)

Managers in collaborative organizations trust workers to be guided by corporate values and mission. Trust drives out micro-management.

Collaborative Motivation

Gallup reports that 49% of employees are not actively engaged and that 18% are actively disengaged. Those who are not actively engaged aren’t adding to the bottom line; the actively disengaged are subtracting from it. (Gallup)

When management has high expectations of workers, they generally live up to them. When expectations are low, workers live down to them. Collaborative motivation dispenses with the concept that managers control workers. Instead, managers should inspire workers, set expectations, and get out of the way.

Dan Pink’s marvelous book, Drive, the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, demonstrates that knowledge workers are motivated by a sense of autonomy, mastery, and a purpose that is great than themselves. (Pink)

  • Autonomy, the desire to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery, the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Purpose, the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

Autonomy, mastery, and purpose motivate people more than money. In fact, too much money eradicates intrinsic motivation and degrades performance.

“Getting out of the way” is the path to autonomy. Wise managers take control by giving control. Mastery of skills and accomplishments are the direct result of applying that autonomy. Purpose sets the goals and frees the worker to act in their pursuit. Collaborative companies inspire workers by replacing rulebooks with shared beliefs and freeing workers to make their own choices in upholding the organization’s values.

Collaborative Infrastructure

Collaborative Infrastructure is the circuitry that connects workers with what they need to work and learn: co-workers, information, customers, news, models, plans, directives, gossip, and more. I call these the “knows.” This table maps the knows to the infrastructure elements that support them:

The “Know” Supporting Infrastructure
Know who Profiles, expertise locators
Know how Conversations, network
Know why Purpose, aspiration, motivation
Know what Content management systems, wikis, blogs, curation
Know now Feeds, Tweets, streams
Know where Search, tags, indexes, rankings
Know when Project management, shared calendar

How workers connect to colleagues and knowledge

Workers collaborate to solve problems and come up with fresh thinking. They donʼt learn about these things; they learn by doing them. Deep learning is experiential.

You can put knowledge into a worker’s head through learning, or into the job itself which we call performance support. Should we make people learn the knowledge or should we put it into an app? Do I need to memorize something or simply know where to find it when I need it? It’s a perennial trade-off.

In the old days, when knowledge workers were not tethered to the Internet, workers stored most of the knowledge they needed in their heads. Now they store information in their outboard brains — their hard drive, or, more likely, the cloud. Performance support is a vital piece of the collaborative infrastructure.

Collaborative Learning

Collaborative Learning is learning without borders. Organizations improve it by removing obstacles, seeding communities, increasing bandwidth, encouraging conversation, and growing networks. It’s a natural way to learn and grow.

The pace of progress is faster than ever before. A rising tide of information threatens to swamp us all. People work at one career after another. Workers must learn all the time to remain productive and relevant. Organizations that fail to learn will die.

Learning can no longer take place outside of work: you’d miss too much. Besides, learning on the job is more effective than learning outside of the job. Learning must be embedded in work. As a result, work and learning are becoming indistinguishable. The work is learning and learning is the work.

Work and learning are converging

Follow these steps to get a jump on collaborative learning in your organization. .

  • Focus on helping high performers work smarter; novices aren’t the only people who need to learn.
  • Stop punishing people for failed experiments; if you never fail, you’re not innovating.
  • Create a directory that enables people to locate who knows what.
  • Apply the 80/20 rule to critical functions and seed communities of practice around them.
  • Encourage people to narrate their work, documenting what they do to share with others.
  • Root out information hoarding; make sharing the norm. Some companies fire hoarders.
  • Reduce cycle time: the world’s not going any slower. Instant messenger, Twitter clones, podcasts.
  • When feasible, substitute self-service and peer learning for workshops.


What’s the hurry?

The urgency of boarding the train to collaborative learning depends on your organization. If your company is becoming a social business, installing social networks, and experimenting with collaborative culture, your train has already left the station. Traditional training will be left behind, but companies who evolve and move toward informal learning will not.

Aside from the opportunity to emerge a hero instead of a goat, bear in mind that:

  • The generation coming into the work force has no patience for spoon-feeding, single-track instruction, or working alone.
  • Boomers are leaving the work force, taking their knowledge with them unless it is transferred to newcomers by collaborative means.
  • As the global economy shifts from factory work to service work, workers need the human, judgmental expertise and emotional intelligence that one doesn’t learn in class.
  • A flat world means global competition, faster production cycles, and more to keep up with.
  • Time is speeding up. It’s impractical to try to learn in advance when what you need to know won’t stand still.



(ASTD) ASTD 2011 State of the Industry Report: ASTD’s Annual Review of Workplace Learning and Development Data http://astd.org

(CLC) How can we improve the impact of the L&D function on business outcomes?
Corporate Leadership Council, Corporate Executive Board
retrieved from the Web June 14, 2012.

(Studies) Where did the 80% come from? http://www.informl.com/where-did-the-80-come-from/ This page lists research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Institute for Research on Learning, Connor, Raybould, Education Development Center, CapitalWorks LLC, Canadian National Research Network on New Approaches to Lifelong Learning, eLearning Guild, and Good Practices.

(ITA) Internet Time Survey of CLOs, retrieved from the Web June 22, 2012

(Hart) Only 14% think that company training is an essential way for them to learn in the workplace

(Gallup) Employee Engagement Overview

(Pink) Drive, http://www.danpink.com/drive

(Kelly) The New Knowledge Worker: Enabling the Next Generation

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