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Stephen Walker

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L&D: A titanic waste?


This month Stephen Walker analyses the term 'L&D', examining its constituent parts.

Learning by itself is worthless to the employer if it does not lead to greater capability. Developing capability is what delivers the return on the investment in learning. Each depends on the other. The private sector spent £49bn on training in 2011, but how much of that produced a return for the business?

Is L&D one concept? Or is there a difference between 'Learning' and 'Development'? 'Learning' sounds like something that is a process and an outcome perhaps, while 'Development' is more an outcome than a process. In 2012, John Longworth, Director-General of the British Chambers of Commerce, said that UK businesses alone are spending £49bn a year on training. Add in the public sector spend and that is a lot of money. Is the training industry delivering value for this money? Or is it the iceberg in another national disaster?

What is Learning?

The process of learning is something the training industry enables. We provide education and people attend our courses, interact with elearning, read, watch and listen. This part of learning is delivering information to the learner. But that doesn’t guarantee the outcome of learning. To say something has been learnt requires a test, an exam. I can be taught that three times two is six and repeat it when prompted. I can also be taught that five times two is ten. Am I repeating these answers like an automaton? Am I capable of judging that four times two is eight if I haven’t learnt that? How far does my learning illuminate areas I haven’t been taught?

What is Development?

Development is more about developing the person’s ability rather than training automatic responses. Coaching and mentoring aim to develop the individual rather than feed them answers to regurgitate when prompted. To be fair, learning is important: if you don’t know three times two is six the development process is going to be painfully slow! A good development outcome would be for the person to have the understanding to judge that four times two is eight. Development is about giving someone the breadth of knowledge, a model of how the world works and a process to build a hypothesis and test it. If you can deliver that development you have created a self-developing entity.

Knowledge and ability

I was one of the first two graduates in the department of the company in my first job. The boss, a delightful maverick, asked us to interview next year’s graduates. Our rankings of the candidates were contrary to the other department’s rankings. They were asking technical questions based on learning, eg what is the gain in this transistor circuit? We were asking questions based on understanding, eg if you put a working refrigerator in a thermally sealed room and open its door what happens to the temperature in the room? It was clear that the possession of knowledge is not sufficient to make it valuable. There is a further step needed to make that knowledge useable.

Why is that?

Later in my career I was recruiting and managing engineering graduates. They were productive and capable when working through established commissioning procedures. However, if a part of the procedure failed, they were unable to think through possible causes and fix it. They could not create a hypothesis of what was wrong and design an experiment to test it. The graduates’ value to me and my business was therefore much less than their paper qualification suggested. I designed a six-month part-time 'hypothesis course' that was run by a local college. It was not wildly successful. This suggests if you don’t have a wide appreciation of your world and a model of reality in your head then all the real-life experience you have is meaningless – you cannot learn from experience if you don’t have a basic understanding of the world to develop.

A maze may be a good analogy. You have learnt the path through the maze and can demonstrate you know how to get from start to end. But you have no idea of what lies on adjacent paths. If you were taken to another maze you would be lost.


Simulators provide synthetic experience to develop that wider understanding which leads to true ability. We are all born with curiosity and a desire to find out what is out there. That seems to be squeezed out of most of us as we go through childhood. The purpose of a simulator is to provide an unexpected event for you to manage. This steadily extends your understanding of the world, the world model in your head. There is no better definition than from the German term 'Weltanschauung', meaning 'your worldview'.

My behaviour consultancy takes executives and managers with all the qualifications you could imagine, and puts them through a series of simulations to develop more successful behaviours. They develop their worldviews and see how to drive their organisation forward. This is behaviour change learning, so very few leave the workshop with this ability fully formed. Instead the workshops plant the seed that develops over the coming months.

Without the learning these executives and managers would not have the tools. But there is a second stage where they need to be developed to understand how to use those tools in their world.


There is a difference between knowing something and being able to apply it to the real world. Knowledge and capability are the Yin and Yang of the training industry. A certificate does not mean you can apply that learning. No amount of 'natural' capability can overcome a lack of learning in the end. How do people expand their capability, their Weltanschauung, if they are discouraged from experimenting in their jobs? Learning by trial and error is growing capability as you discover how the world works. But this requires organisations to be more tolerant of failure than they are.

Despite the £49bn spend on training, productivity is seemingly declining in the UK. Employment is rising yet GDP is static. Are we training people to pass exams who are then unable to do anything with this learning? Is this a disaster of Titanic proportions? The Titanic sank through poor design and inadequate implementation.

Is our industry heading for the same disaster?

Stephen is a co-founder of Motivation Matters, set up in 2004 to develop organisation behaviour to drive greater performance. He has worked for notable organisations such as Corning, De La Rue and Buhler and has been hired to help Philips, Lloyds TSB and a raft of others. A published author of articles and Conference speaker, Stephen delivers workshops across the country. It is all about “making people more effective” he says. You can follow Stephen on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Blog.


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