The Right Tool for the Right Job

March 16, 2010

The other week, I ran right up against the familiar old truth:
“Context Matters.”

Specifically I learned how much context matters when you don’t have clearly defined terms in a discussion where the participants have vastly different filters.

There was some truly valuable dialogue going on among #lrnchat participants about training versus learning.  The thing that struck me was the profoundly visceral reaction the word “training” generated in some of the participants.   And then I realized that we were looking at the same word from very different perspectives.

When you’ve spent time working in fields where “training” means learning critical skills like how to use a full face respirator and then practicing until one can get it on and sealed within the critical time frame, training is viewed as, perhaps, dull but necessary, because when you really need those skills you won’t have time to “google” them.

So it’s easy for me to forget that for some training means eight or 40 or 100 hours of classroom time with tedious lectures on the “mandate of the month”, with most information forgotten before you leave the classroom.  In a context like that, I can see where the word training would be viewed with a high level of disdain.

The trick is not to throw the baby out with the bath water.  Training has its place, but that place is finite (and limited) in scope, at least when the goal is learning.   Training is an optimal medium for those essential foundational skills that should be instinctive so you can think about the big-picture, non-automatic details.  A first-responder will often say quite simply “my training kicked in”.  This is true; training is for the things you need to be able to do on instinct so no time is lost, no mental energy wasted on mechanics when it is needed for decision making.  Just ask Captain Sully.

Even in less dramatic contexts, I think that the real beef with “training” is when it is training without learning, without application, without context.  Skills become natural and efficient from practice.  And a limited amount of training, done right, can lead to not only better productivity, but better job satisfaction .    If someone struggles with some of the basic functions of manipulating a spreadsheet, they have less time and attention available for the higher level analytical activities: forming insights and identifying opportunities.

The key is to bypass the temptation to apply one-size-fits-all formal training for all learning needs.  Providing learning opportunities for those who need them, when they need them allows an organization to meet the needs of both the business and the individual employees in a form that provides immediate relevance and application. Training builds skills; learning builds understanding.  Both have their place.

It’s all about context; about “the right tool for the right job”.  Sometimes you do need specific universal training.   Employees in a chemical plant need to know what to do in a fire; many business have mandatory compliance training.   In those cases you do the training, but make it real, relevant and time-effective.   What is key is assessing when you need specific training and when your organization is better served by providing opportunities for learning.

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