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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Food for Thought


Next week is the World of Learning Conference and as I’m chairing the event this year, I thought I’d better update myself on current innovations in the industry.  I signed up for – and am enjoying enormously - a new MOOC called Innovating Your Training Business with Technology

This experience is raising all sorts of interesting questions about what we mean by innovation and where innovation may be happening in the world of capability development.

One of the things I immediately liked about the positioning of this programme was that it’s about ‘training businesses’ rather than the more ubiquitous ‘learning business’ or – saints preserve us – ‘learning solutions businesses’.  As the focus is on technology, there is a bias towards innovating in the area of creating products or resources which deliver content.  The MOOC’s focus on training is both appropriate and welcome.

It would have been too easy to reframe the programme around learning or – more reductive still – around eLearning. Too often, training, it would appear, is neither a sexy enough term nor sufficiently zeitgieist-y.  Most of the time when discussing actions to improve capability or build skills, the default word used is learning.  I think this is inaccurate.  As I've argued in the most recent edition of Learning Magazine   (oh, the irony) trainers train and learners learn.  

An analogy may be found in food.  When we watch Bake Off or MasterChef we are constantly watching examples of innovative cooking.  Some of them are more successful than others. Some of them are more or less appetising. But it is the cooking which is the focus of innovation, not the eating.

If, like me, you read restaurant reviews in your weekend papers, you’ll know there is lots of innovation in pursuit of Michelin stars. There are concepts and principles.  Some sound, some silly. Some welcomed, many condemned for our Sunday morning entertainment. The chefs innovate, the diners consume - whether they are eating Mille Feuilles or McMuffin.

Nowhere is there talk of innovation in eating.  When we get into the latest processed food fads, we might find the words innovation and eating combined, but usually this produces something no sane person would want to put in their mouth.  Have you ever eaten a cheese string?  Then you get my point. Alternatively, the focus is not on eating but nutrition, where the objective is to take on calories of the right type as quickly and easily as possible.  Taste and pleasure is not an issue.  Food is fuel.

The eating of food for pleasure as well as sustenance - provides relatively little opportunity for innovation. Whatever new food combination that is invented involving foam, jus, air or varieties of porridge, we still need to put the stuff in our mouth.  We chew, drink and swallow calories which enable our bodies to function in much the same way as we have done for hundreds of thousands of years.

Learning is similarly limited in its innovative scope.  We may have understood the principles of how we learn less well than we understand diet, but we know that it involves memory, practice, beliefs and experiences. 

The innovation comes in the mechanisms which are used to enable these activities to happen.  We can change the ways in which content is delivered in the same way that Heston Blumenthal can change our understanding of what was once considered either savoury or sweet. We can increase or decrease the sense of theatre in the same way as a high end Maitre D’ can create a memorable environment for our meal.

But learning is a little more complicated than simple nutrition.  We can package up calories any way we like and the body will still use them.  We can’t package up training interventions with the same level of certainty.  While we can create a superb menu for our learners, a smorgasbord of flavours and textures, we can’t guarantee that they will change behaviour as we would want.  This is the fascination and the challenge of being involved in training, education and development.

There may be people out there who talk about the failsafe, guaranteed approach.  They may say they have the silver bullet, the one size which really does fit all.  But there really isn’t the learning equivalent of the protein shake.  And while there may be one or two training equivalents of cheese strings, there are also experiences which rival gastronomy for inventiveness, experience and memorability. They are created by innovative trainers.

Robin Hoyle is the Chair of the World of Learning Conference starting at the NEC, Birmingham on 30th September.  He is also senior consultant with Learnworks Ltd and a writer.  His book Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement  is published by Kogan Page.

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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