Divided by a common language: matching expectations about training and development

What’s the difference between ‘training’ and ‘development’? Is there a difference or is it just down to the language we use? And if we interchange them, does it lead to confusion and frustration for both learning & development teams and employees?

Mark Twain once said ‘Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language’. And we’re finding the same to be true when L&D communicates with its customers – the rest of the business and, importantly, learners. How can we make sure we’re all speaking the same language?

Lost in translation

Research conducted by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) showed that a disconnect has opened up between what employers think they are offering in terms of skills training and what members of staff believe they are receiving. Over 80% of businesses surveyed claimed that they had provided some form of development activity for staff in the last year. Yet more than a third of the workers surveyed said they did not receive this support.

So what’s going on here? Employees say they are keen for more career development, and we know that ongoing development can help to boost productivity. But perhaps the language mismatch is causing their dissatisfaction in what they receive. It’s easy to count how many training courses you’ve attended over the year – the traditional day-long, classroom-based sessions with an external facilitator and a folder of tools and hand-outs at the end.

But that’s just one type of training. What about all the other ways we learn and develop? How do you quantify the structured mentoring you’ve received from your manager or ad hoc from other colleagues? What about the opportunities your manager has given you to attend a particular meeting or be involved in a project that’ll stretch you and teach you something new?

By not recognising the other types of training, employee engagement and satisfaction scores around development may be lower than expected, despite the L&D team’s best intentions to provide plenty of opportunities.

Of course, it isn’t entirely the learners’ fault: businesses only used to be able to measure training activities based on things like employee attendance on courses, hours of training (both inputs) satisfaction and engagement (both outcomes). What we need to get better at is measuring the impact of development – how it improves both individual and business performance.

Make on the job learning work

The more we look into this language gap, the more we find. Research by the City & Guilds Group shows that only 23% of respondents identify formal training sessions as their preferred method of learning. In comparison, 68% say they prefer learning on the job. That doesn’t mean that training courses aren’t effective, but they aren’t the only answer. To boost satisfaction we have to raise awareness about what constitutes on the job learning. It’s about making sure employees are encouraged to record, report on and apply learning from all types of development.

What we’re talking about here is 70:20:10 – although there’s no need to get hung up on the name or percentages. The 70:20:10 model was developed to define the most effective way of learning. It suggests that individuals obtain 70% of their knowledge from on the job experience, 20% from social interactions (learning from peers, managers, mentors) and 10% from formal training events. That certainly ties in with how employees say they want to learn – and resonates with how we learn in real life too. L&D teams need to make sure they’re keeping pace with this – not fighting against it – so put in place the mechanisms for employees to develop through the 70 and 20 as well as the 10.

L&D professionals can also investigate what their learners are doing naturally – and capitalise on it. If the company intranet is a popular place to share information, publicise it rather than building a new system for content sharing. Or if there’s a culture of inviting junior employees to shadow big projects, look for ways to match-make learners with mentors. That may mean up-skilling line managers to make sure they have the right coaching skills, providing mentoring and shadowing schemes and allowing staff sufficient time to learn. 

Evaluating all learning

So that’s great - we are now starting to talk the same language. But if that’s the case we need to be better at measuring its success. We need a way to make sure we’re measuring impact, not just ticking boxes about training sessions. This can be achieved with smarter evaluation – consider, for instance, evaluating skills at two points in time and asking learners to keep a diary of development opportunities in between.

And we need a way to make development feel more structured for learners and to give them evidence of their achievement. Open Badges, for instance, could be a good way to award on the job learning.  Open Badges are a way to reward and verify a level of skill or achievement, and for the learner to display that achievement online – on a social media profile or online CV. Employees are likely to feel more positive about the development they’ve received if they have a way to capture and verify it.

On the job development is popular – both with L&D teams and with the learners themselves. And L&D teams should continue to provide opportunities for it, and to make changes in how we evaluate it.

There’s no need to be lost in translation when it comes to learning and development. If we get our language right, we’ll get employees on board and be able to demonstrate real value to the business.

Catch Matt Johnson's keynote 'The Language of Learning' at LearnX on 18th October at Melbourne Convention Centre. 

This article is based on an interview with HR Grapevine magazine, published in September 2016.