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The 21st Century learning professional: Training isn’t learning


SheepPaul Kearns has had enough of the sheep dip attitude to training. He makes an impassioned plea for a more enlightened approach to real learning – and the true professionals that make it happen.

At the last count, there had been 2,000+ reads of my suggestion that learning professionals take an Oath yet only four of us have declared our commitment to it, thus far. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, therefore, why an article entitled 'The 21st Century learning professional' attracted such a small proportion of potential readers and, even worse, failed to convince 99.9% of them to take up the oath? Obviously my influencing skills and powers of persuasion have failed miserably. But don't think for one nanosecond that a 21st Century learning professional gives up that easily!

Photo of Paul Kearns"One conclusion I have reached is that true learning professionals are as rare as the fillings in hens' teeth."

You see, as a learning professional, one key skill I have had to develop is an ability to analyse causes of failure: after all, the best learning often comes from acknowledging our own mistakes. So here is my analysis of what is actually happening out there in 'trainerland'. Yes, I say 'trainerland' because one conclusion I have reached is that true learning professionals are as rare as the fillings in hens' teeth and I will try to support this contention by making some clear distinctions between the remit of the learning professional and the mindset of a mere trainer. Trainers are the learning professional's poorer, distant cousins: they are the 'pharmacists' to the learning professionals' 'consultant neuro-surgeons', so to speak. Trainers (and that includes training designers) are only as good as the prescriptions that are handed in.

Now, before anyone rushes to accuse me of 'having a go' at trainers, let me hastily add that I am a trainer myself; still doing a great deal of stand-up training after many years at it. So, if I am having a go at anyone I must include myself, although it is the learning professional inside me that makes me so self-critical. In fact, I would go further in admitting, as much as it pains me to do so, that I am neither the best nor the most professional trainer in the world (although if any of my former 'trainees' should feel inclined to rush to my defence please don't let me stop you). Happy sheets tell us nothing about training effectiveness but they are certainly one indicator of ineffectiveness. If someone says the day was not useful to them who am I to argue? I could say more but that is quite enough self-flagellation for one day.

So, if I am this critical, why do I not agonise about how good I am as a trainer? Well, first, because I have just demonstrated that 'training' is a meaningless concept. The blinding flash of the obvious that finally dawned on us at the end of the last century was that the key concept is learning (output), not training (input). Second, training activity is often a very small and insignificant step in the overall learning process. The individual who sits in a training room, in front of an elearning screen or reading a book for eight hours can only be said to be 'trained' when they have demonstrated that they have applied what they learned (remember the last time you used a quadratic equation?). The key, distinguishing characteristic of the 21st Century learning professional is their oath based on the principle of applied learning.

Conversely, mere training departments can be identified by their focus on input measures such as training days or happy customers. They do not delve too deeply into any wider organisational issues that can help or hinder learning and they sheep dip employees rather than treat everyone as a unique, learning challenge. This, of course, is often the easier route to take, organisational politics being what they are – but it isn't the most effective.

"Trainers are the learning professional's poorer, distant cousins: they are the 'pharmacists' to the learning professionals' 'consultant neuro-surgeons', so to speak. Trainers (and that includes training designers) are only as good as the prescriptions that are handed in."

The principle of applied learning is incredibly simple to understand but it imposes a very strict discipline and dictates everything that a learning professional does. For example, if only I were allowed to, I would always contact the organisations that employ the people who come on my workshops before they attend, and ask them why they are coming? If the person who sent them could not tell me clearly what the organisation's purpose was then I would suggest that they do not attend. I would go much, much further though. I would ask them how well this person was already performing and how they would measure the application of their learning in the future? I would also ask their boss what their role in all of this was? I would even ask how confident they were in their diagnosis of the original problem and whether my particular workshop was correctly identified as an integral part of the proposed solution? Then I would ask what might stop this person putting their learning into practice? And then I would also ask... well, you get my drift.

Many stand-up trainers believe trainees have to like their presenters (why else do they hand out happy sheets?) so they don't want to ask the obvious but awkward, and sometimes downright embarrassing, questions. They just get on with delivering the agreed hours of training and they put up with delegates who don't want to be there, usually because the finance department are monitoring the average cost of training per head (accountants have yet to accept the applied learning principle). Such trainers do not attempt to get too involved in how the organisation is run. They take much less responsibility and are less accountable for the potential outcomes of their work. When the training is over, so is their commitment. Maybe that's why 99.9% of them don't want to take the oath?

Being a learning professional is not the easy option and I can come across as a pain in the ass by asking 'too many' questions, but then who said this was a popularity contest? What a learning professional might jeopardise in the popularity stakes they certainly more than make up for in the league table of respect.

Read Paul Kearns previous feature in his series: The 21st Century learning professional:Putting evidence in the dock

Paul Kearns specialises in measuring the value of the human contribution to organisational success and teaches real evaluation around the world. He is the author of the CIPD's best selling 'Evaluating the ROI from Learning' and has campaigned for many years to raise professional standards.

This feature first appeared on in June 2008


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