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Peter Freeth



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Training is Dead. Long Live Learning.


Ed Monk, CEO of the Learning and Performance Institute, of which I am a fellow, recently said, “Learning is now seen as important; its profile has been raised.”

Learning is adaptability to change, and as the perceived rate of change accelerates, of course learning is important.

The question that I have for you today is this: Learning is important, but is training still important?

Do we still need a grinning idiot, dancing about at the front of a meeting room, spouting second hand, misquoted truisms from leadership gurus?

Since March, training companies have rushed to take content 'online'. I've done it myself, producing videos instead of presenting live, training groups via Zoom in lieu of a classroom. I just can't help feeling that this is a stop-gap, an industry desperately clinging onto the remnants of what was, trying to recreate the 'classroom experience', virtually.

Here is a Victorian horse-drawn carriage:

And here is Gottlieb Daimler in the very first motor car:

What do you notice?

What the engineers did is remove the horse and replace it with an engine. That's it.

This guy even seems to be controlling his motor carriage using reins:

Back in the days of steam, the engineers couldn't imagine what the modern motor carriage would be, but what they could imagine is life without horses. No need for overnight rest stops. They could probably reduce the journey from London to Edinburgh to mere days.

How is this relevant to learning, or specifically to the training industry? Well, right now, the industry is trying to figure out how to make money out of its very expensive asset base - people, with knowledge in their heads, certifications, licenses, classrooms, boxes of toys and games, flipcharts, whiteboards, projectors, office buildings, training centres. We can't put people in front of other people because of COVID, so let's use technology to simulate a classroom. Let's simply take away the horse and replace it with an engine.

What came next with the motor carriage? Weather was a problem. Speed became a limitation. Roads improved. Highway rules changed. Journeys got longer. Driver comfort improved. Most critically - and I have to ask you to stop whatever else you're doing and concentrate because this is a very, very important point... people drove themselves.

Look at the images above. There is a driver and one or more passengers. A person who could afford a car would not drive it themselves. Driver comfort improved because people realised that they could drive their own cars.

Back in the 1980s, I started work in the IT industry. Factories and offices had huge rooms called 'typing pools'. Managers would dictate letters and memos, or hand write notes, and rows and rows of typists would produce neatly typed paper copies. I remember going into offices and factories in the 1980s and seeing these huge spaces and hearing the clackety-clack of electric typewriters. This is the kind of room that I'm talking about:

And I remember within the space of two to three years, those huge halls falling silent, dozens of jobs lost, or as the accountants would say, "money saved". By what? By putting the typewriter on the desk of the manager. The arrival of the desktop computer meant that managers typed their own letters and memos - known as "electronic mail".

Transport was revolutionised, not by the internal combustion engine, but by people who realised they could drive themselves. Office life was revolutionised, not by the Internet, but by people who realised they could type their own letters and draw their own diagrams and make their own presentations and edit their own videos. Self service, autonomy, has driven innovation.

I think you can see where this is going.

In the mid 1990s, the fashion for 'business process re-engineering' and 'downsizing' led to management consultants advising companies that having people sitting around all day, doing nothing but supervising other people, was terribly expensive. Get rid of managers, have everyone doing something useful and measurable and profitable. This was great at first. Everyone loved the removal of layers of bureaucracy. The long term problem that this created was that there was no-one to talk to about your problems. No-one to take an interest in your work. No-one to do your annual appraisal. No-one to ask if everything was OK at home. No-one to think about your future. Just get on with your job, do what you're paid to do and let a committee in another country set your next pay rise.

The solution was that companies began to buy in surrogate managers to take care of these 'employee maintenance' tasks. Consultants. Trainers. Coaches. Instead of checking in with people every day, let's get some consultants to do an annual staff satisfaction survey that we can use to show everyone that they should think themselves lucky and stop complaining.

The corporate trainer is a surrogate manager.

Instead of giving people ongoing, regular, performance related feedback that helps them to continually learn and develop, we just send them on a training course once a year.

If you are a corporate trainer then yes, you should be worried. You are the driver of that horseless carriage. You are the last typist in the pool. Learners don't need you any more.

How, then, do professional educators redefine their place in the world of work?

The managers who found desktop computers replacing their secretaries were sent on IT courses. 20 years ago, IT training was a cash cow. Today, who needs it? Microsoft killed the IT training industry with a talking paperclip. I don't want to go on a training course in 6 months time to learn how to format a table, I want to press F1 right now and find the answer myself.

One aspect of the COVID working-from-home revolution is that people have used time to try out new things. Where did they get the knowledge to make soda bread or get into yoga? They figured it out for themselves, and they watched videos, and they asked other people. No-one was watching over them, pointing out their mistakes. They could experiment, freely. This is what learning is - experimentation leading to adaptation.

How do we realign trainers and coaches to be better facilitators for this? That's something for you to think about.

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Peter Freeth


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