Formal Learning is (or should be) Expensive!

It’s becoming clear to me that we’re making a big mistake in our thinking. We seem to think that formal learning is relatively cost-effective, and may even think that performance support and social are more costly.   Yet we need to realize that formal learning is likely our most costly approach!

To start with, we should be doing sufficient analysis to ensure that the need is indeed a skill shift. If it’s an information problem, it should be solved with a job aid. Courses are more expensive.  And we need to take the time that the skill shift really is needed; it’s not a motivation problem or some other problem. In other words, we need to take the time to identify what business problem this is solving that a course will affect, and the associated metric.  That takes time.

Then we need to design an intervention that will address that skill shift: we need to determine what the change in the workplace behavior needs to be to impact that metric, and then design an objective that reflects that needed behavior change.  This is not trivial: a poorly formed objective about knowledge, not behavior, isn’t going to have an impact on the business.

Then, to do formal learning well, you need appropriate and sufficient practice.   That takes time to design properly, ideally with scenarios or simulation-driven interactions.  And the practice needs to be aligned with the learner; it has to be meaningful to them.  Enough of them. This takes time.

Then we need to create an appropriate model to guide their behavior, and introduce it appropriately. And find meaningful examples that illustrate the concept being applied in context, across sufficient contexts.  This takes time, though no more time (once you determine a course is the answer) than other learning design once you get experienced in this more advanced way of designing.  And it takes development resources.

And, of course, if you’re not doing the above, why are you bothering? It’s not going to hit the mark. We don’t, frankly, and to the extent we don’t, we undermine the likelihood that our interventions will have the desired impact.  The point being that courses should not be our first line of defense!

Rapid elearning is cheap and fast, but it’s not going to have any impact.  Most of what we do doesn’t have any impact. If we want to have impact, we have to do it right, and that’s not a cheap proposition.  We need to worry about measuring more than cost/bum, and worry about hitting the business goal.  Then we can truly determine whether we should go this route, rather than another.  But, seriously, you shouldn’t be throwing formal learning at a problem unless you’re willing to do it right. There are times it will be the right answer, but right now we’re throwing too much money away.  Let’s stop, and do it right when it’s right.  And that will be both expensive and worth it.


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