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Five learning myths to dump before the New Year


Nigel Paine debunks some common learning myths.
The New Year is a time to declutter. Chuck out all the old baggage hanging around and start anew. Well that is the theory anyway! I think that some mental clutter could be tidied up as well and that is something we do all too rarely. So here are my five old ideas that can be safely consigned to the rubbish bin of history. If you do this you will look at your role slightly differently and that cannot be a bad thing. So have a very good Christmas and a fresh thinking new year.

Myth #1: If we build it they will come

Still prevalent and distracting. I attended a small workshop at a conference recently and the US presenter was demonstrating a new, elearning course his company had developed. The issue was poor uptake of v1. The solution, design (and spend a lot of money on) v2. I asked him what proof he had that the new course would improve uptake. He looked incredulous and replied: ‘Just look at what I have demoed. This is a great programme.’
Just because he build it, does not mean they will come. And in many ways that attitude is a massive distraction from more complex learning issues. We all love to get our teeth into a nice, shiny new product that we can show the boss. But never let that be an excuse for failing to explore the underlying culture, the context in which the learning takes place and the hard lessons from developing learning that works. If you bury myth one, you focus on the right things and that will include the quality of the materials. But that is one factor in a learning ecosystem and the best learning leaders know that.

Myth #2: Learning gets harder as you get older

There is no evidence that older people find learning difficult. They might find what you offer hard or off-putting but the idea that we make excuses for older employees or even cut them out of the development process because of age is dangerous nonsense. If you build the sharing of experience and knowledge into the equation, your older staff can be your most effective ambassadors for learning.

Myth #3: Generation Y need a totally new kind of learning

Age is a dangerous area to fixate upon. Someone of 45 can demonstrate all the characteristics of a generation Y persona, and someone of 25 won’t! It depends on multiple personality factors. Myers Briggs' 'personality type indicator' (mbti) is a far more reliable indicator of learning characteristics and attitude that someone's date of birth. Fixating on one group is naive and divisive and simply will not work. Read the research if you do not believe me.

Myth #4: Learning does not make an immediate impact

We know that the return on learning is a slow burn with impact sometimes years away. That is, of course, undeniable as learning changes behaviour, that slowly impacts on the organisation. But it can also have an immediate effect on individuals and the organisation they work for. Culturally, that investment says something about the attitude to staff, the kind of organisation you are working for. This, in turn, can make an almost instant difference in morale or sense of optimism. Just as withdrawal of funding for learning can have a much bigger impact around the place than on the immediate group whose learning has been terminated.
It is also possible that simple changes in the way things are done, can have a fast return on the bottom line. Doing something more efficiently makes you feel better and more effective. So when the conversation turns tactical and the focus is on immediate survival, there is a role for learning and you are the person to articulate that.

Myth #5: Avoid all discussions on return on investment

The final myth is that it is best to avoid all discussions on return on investment because it is a complex, reductive area that never seems to come up with the right model or answers. The opposite is true. Start that conversation but don’t let it get into a reductive argument where learning is isolated and has to prove, in itself the ability to deliver a business return. As part of the whole business model it will make its contribution. You would never expect a marketing discussion that did not look at return in some way. And we need to get into the habit of talking about learning as contributor to business metrics and we need to get better at defining what we should measure and how we should measure it. Just ask the simple question: 'If this is successful, what changes would we see that we can measure in some way'.
This area will be the most debated and defined over 2010. As learning investment will require more justification and more clear indicators of success. You should be leading this debate not following it.
So start the New Year with a spring in your step, and a strong feeling that you are in the right place at the right time and with the right mission. Good luck!    
Nigel Paine is a coach, mentor, writer, broadcaster and keynote speaker of international acclaim. He is currently working in Europe, Brazil,  the US and Australia on a variety of assignments, that hinge around making work more creative, innovative and aspirational and making workplaces more conversational, team-based and knowledge sharing. You can read his blog at or follow him on Twitter.

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