Elephants can do considerable damage whether you are a farmer or a learning and development professional. As a learning and development professional, you plant seeds of learning. If you do it right and nurture them, the seeds will grow into performance that your organisation can harvest for many years to come. So, what are these learning and development elephants that might be threatening your crop? What stops your crop from growing? And what ruins your crop before it can be harvested?

The ‘Performance Diagnostics’ elephant

I am sure you know the old biblical story about sowing seeds on stony ground. They won’t even germinate, let alone grow. If you put people through a learning initiative that is not relevant to the needs of the learner, your learning is falling on stony ground. If the delegate in your training room doesn’t want or need the learning on offer, they won’t absorb it or do anything with it. Sadly, this happens all too frequently when people are put onto a training course because they are not performing on the job, or just because ‘everyone has to do it’. Why are they not performing? Is it a lack of skills or knowledge? Or is it the more likely culprit which is the stage on which they are performing that is limiting their performance? Or some combination of the two that will never be solved by training alone?

Effectively managing the Performance Diagnostics elephant will make sure you have the right people in the right room at the right time with the right content. And make sure you also focus on non-learning interventions when those are appropriate to solve performance issues.

The ‘Informal Learning’ elephant

We know from our own experience, and research, that most of what people know to do their job, they learn on the job through activities and other informal channels. Think of the 70:20:10 concept. If we continue our analogy of seeds, this is more like self-seeded wildflowers than seeds you have intentionally sowed. We know an ecosystem is more than just the crops sown by the farmers. It includes all the other plants and insects around the field and in the hedgerows. Whenever farming has moved towards mono-culture, it requires more and more ‘forced’ support from fertilizer and insecticides. A vibrant and effective ecosystem includes variety, and this is no different to a learning ecosystem.

Effectively managing the Informal Learning elephant will make sure you have the requisite variety of learning available. And you are harnessing the power of informal learning. After all, that is how we have been learning for thousands of years. As a species, we got pretty good at it, so let’s proactively use the learning skill that is our birthright as homo sapiens.

The ‘Learning Transfer’ elephant

You have done enough performance consultancy to ensure your training course is at least part of a viable solution.  The delegates are surrounded by resources and a culture that provides for their informal learning.  So how do you nurture your planted learning seeds? A growing seedling needs to be protected from the elements and watered. I might also need scaffolding in some cases to grow tall and strong. These are all excellent analogies for the kind of things that need to be done to encourage a delegate to practice their newfound skills. They need to experiment to find out what works and how it works for them. They need ongoing care and attention, and yes, even a scaffolded growth and development pathway.

Effectively managing the Learning Transfer elephant will make sure that your spending on formal learning initiatives like training won’t be wasted. We can do much better than the average training courses which achieve so little in terms of sustained behaviour change. Let’s pull the right levers to make sure learning transfer happens and the harvest is guaranteed and bountiful.

By the way, if you don’t get control of those first three elephants, a sneaky fourth elephant will join in. It will try to destroy your ability to even sow your learning seeds. Let’s call the fourth elephant the ‘Brand of L&D’ elephant, but that’s an elephant story for another day…

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Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, learning transfer, performance consultancy, and how Learning & Development can help achieve business targets. He is the author of the Learning at Work Trilogy: “Learning Transfer at Work: How to Ensure Training >> Performance”, “Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times” and “Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle”.