How Learning is Like Surgery, Written by Sherwin Chen

As a learning professional, when do you say mission accomplished? Is it when the class ends and the learners turn in their class surveys? Or perhaps it is when that web-based program has been tested and is available on the learning management system? And why not? A great deal of planning and work has probably gone into getting you to that point.

How is our profession like health care?

Imagine someone who’s been in a serious accident which results in broken bones and requires surgery to repair. Here’s someone who has a physical problem and is in need of an intervention. But typically the surgery is only the beginning of the solution. There is likely going to be short- and long-term physical therapy as well as several follow-up visits before the surgeon is ready to declare mission accomplished. The patient would also benefit from support from his family and may also want to hear how others with similar injuries have recovered.

Our learners, whether they are individuals or groups, often come to our programs to address their business problems. Like a doctor, we diagnose their business problem and then design, develop and deliver a learning intervention that if administered correctly, is intended to “cure” them. However, many times we don’t build in any follow-up and do not check back with the patient to see if our treatment solved their problem.

Don’t forget the physical therapy

Although there is some disagreement on the specifics, there is a great deal written about how much (or how little) learners retain after training – regardless of the format. But no matter where you stand on training retention, the goal of our programs typically is not just retention but to enable a change that impacts a business problem.

This means that our work doesn’t always end when the class is over. If we truly believe that our training programs are tools of change, then we need to build in opportunities to reinforce and build upon the learning after the training is over. For example:

    • Involve the manager. Make sure the manager is involved to set expectations, provide support and offer opportunities to apply the learning
    • Create follow-on learning. This can come in periodic bursts using articles, videos, webinars, etc. to remind the learners of and reinforce key concepts
    • Provide stories and examples. Show how others who have gone through the program were able to apply what they’ve learned
    • Set-up communities. Connect the learner with peers and subject matter experts to share ideas, discuss challenges, and motivate one another

Was the patient cured?

With this level of reinforcement in place, the chances that your learning initiative will have a positive impact go up greatly. However, before you can close the book on your initiative, you should find out from the learners the degree to which you were successful.

Two possible outcomes from your asking your learners this are:

  • Problem solved. Your program was the round peg for the round hole. Job done. Make sure you are clear on what aspects of your initiative were particularly effective and what areas could be improved.
  • Problem still exists. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t any improvement and that the program was a failure. However to better understand, you may want to dig a little deeper. For example, are there other factors (e.g. processes, technology, culture, leadership, market forces, etc.) that are preventing the intended change from occurring?

If your objective was just to deliver a session or create a course, then I think it is altogether fair to declare “mission accomplished” once the training has been delivered or is ready to be taken. However, I would also say that could be seen as a short-sighted view of the value that we bring to our organizations.