Leadership Development Myths – Part 2

Aug 13, 2018

3 Myths of Leadership Development (Part Deux)

Some myths are harmless, like Santa Claus. Sure, he’s not real, but he brings joy to children and encourages generosity – at least enough to balance out the tacit endorsement of consumerism. As I mentioned in my last post, a lot of common ideas about learning and development are kind of like that.

Others are downright dangerous.

Today I want to talk about a common misconception that has crept into a lot of leadership development practices:

Content = Learning

Now most people would probably say they don’t believe that statement to be true. But, if you look at the language and habits of a lot of L&D folks, it’s sitting right beneath the surface.

To be fair, the training industry had a lot to do with it. In a brilliant stroke of marketing, they branded online content as “e-learning”. People started talking about “hours of learning” delivered, when they really meant hours of content consumed. Some people started to put hours of learning delivered over cost as a kind of ROI. Never mind that employee time is a cost, so that’s really cost over cost, which makes no sense…

I get that “learning” is sometimes just the current acceptable word for “training” and somebody could say I’m getting too hung up on the words. That might be, but let’s look at some of the logical implications of this belief. If we see evidence of it playing out in people’ behavior, then it’s a good bet that the idea is really there:

If Content = Learning, Then More Content = More Learning

Let’s face it, a lot of development programs try to cram a lot of content into a short space of time. The idea is that if you “cover” more content, you’ve delivered more learning. Anyone who has sat through a two-day program that tried to cover a dozen topics knows that isn’t necessarily true. Most of us have been there. More awareness? Maybe. More learning? Not really. Me drinking lots of coffee to stay awake? Definitely.

But it’s not just personal experience. There’s a lot of research about how people actually construct new skills, as well as human limits on working memory and information processing speed. The bottom line is people can only absorb so much at a time. And if you overload them, they actually learn less. Unfortunately, the implications of those ideas have a hard time taking hold in an environment dominated by the thinking that content = learning.

Does your learning organization get caught up in the push to cover lots of content?

If Content = Learning, Then Different Content = Different Learning

This is one of my favorites. After e-learning, we got things like m-learning, social learning, video learning, and microlearning. Every new delivery technology got touted, not just as a new tool, but as a fundamentally new way of learning. You’ve got to hand it to the marketing people; they are clever. They actually got everybody excited about the promise of delivering very tiny amounts of learning. And they’ll keep getting people excited about every new tool that promises to be the silver bullet.

Of course, it’s never true. Learning happens in the people who do it, not the content. The delivery methods are simply different tools to spark and enable that learning in people. Micro-learning is just micro-content. Mobile learning is just content you can get on your phone and social learning is something people do all the time, not an online expertise platform that nobody with real expertise actually wants to use.

Has your organization gotten on the bandwagon before, only to find yourself back in the same spot?

If Content = Learning, Then Content Consumption = Learning Completion

The learning industry also reflects this thinking into the way it talks. There’s an obsession with “completions” which really only mean that the content was accessed. Content comprehension tests count for impact in too many places.

One of the subtler ways this crops up is the idea of “learning transfer”. This implies that if someone consumes the content, they’ve “learned” it. Whether they can do anything with the content is cleverly shunted off as this separate problem of “transfer”. Now, in some cases, just giving people information may be the goal. That’s fine, but the organizations I know are almost always going for behavior change. They have this idea that investments in development should help people and the organization to do things – either new or better.

Harvard’s Chris Argyris used to say, “How do you know when you know something? When you can produce what it is you claim you know.” I tend to agree.

How well does support for learning in your organization extend beyond the delivery of content?

So, Content ≠ Learning

Don’t get me wrong. I love good content and good delivery tools. I’m not ashamed to say that I sold a lot of quality online content earlier in my career, and I’ve used a lot of different delivery tools. However, it always comes back to how we use these things to help people learn.

In my online content days, I spent tons of time helping organizations narrow down to the right stuff and weave it into broader context, programs, and experiences. Today, I spend a lot of my time designing and tailoring in-person workshops, because they are still a tremendous tool when people need to work on interpersonal skills, build connections with colleagues, and get teams unstuck. As I do that, I find myself cutting and simplifying at least as often as I add.

At the end of the day, it’s the learning that has to come first. If that means less content, I say so be it.

What do you think?