Home > Best Practices > The Biggest Myths in Learning and Development

The Biggest Myths in Learning and Development


Richard Nantel, Vice President, Enterprise Learning Solutions, Blatant Media | Absorb LMSIn the early 1960s, philosopher Abraham Kaplan and psychologist Abraham Maslow independently described the idea that being in possession of  an instrument affects our perception. The idea, now commonly called the Law of the Instrument, is illustrated in the phrase  “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” 

It’s important to be aware of this law because it gives us a glimpse into how our perception of the world is shaped by our experiences and environments.

So what does all this have to do with learning and development?

My introduction to using computers for learning stems back 25 years to a course I took in university titled “Computers in Music.” I was immediately hooked and began creating simple computer programs to teach music theory. This led to a lifelong career in learning technology as a content developer, entrepreneur, consultant, analyst, and now technology provider. Having worked in the area of learning technology for so long has created certain assumptions. These are the learning and development myths to which I’ve subscribed that are currently being debunked from speaking with organizations daily.

If you’re reading this blog, you may be a learning professional with interests in online learning. You too, may believe the following learning and development myths:

  • MYTH ONE: Most organizations provide some type of training to their workforce

False. A large percentage of organizations I speak with provide no formal training. People join the firm and figure out what needs to be done by shadowing people and asking a lot of questions—likely by e-mail—CC-ing as many people as possible. Consequently, the number one learning tool for new employees is the company staff directory. “I see there’s a guy in the IT department named Mitch. He may know how I should do this task.”

Often, organizations I speak with are trying to address the challenges associated with this approach. It isn’t that they’re anti social or informal learning, it’s just that they’re trying to make the process easier for everyone. They also want to make sure people learn the right stuff instead of old bad habits that have been passed on over the years though we’ve-always-done-it-this-way mentoring.

  • MYTH TWO: Organizations that do provide training have embraced online learning

False. Of the organizations that do provide training to their workforce, a huge number—large and small—are still tackle learning and development the way organizations did decades ago: exclusively by having learners physically participate in face-to-face, classroom-based sessions, either on site or in another location.

If your organization has no formal learning and development initiatives, or if training still takes place exclusively in a classroom with an instructor, you should feel no shame. You’re not alone. Gurus and pundits may have us believing that the biggest challenges facing organizations today is how to migrate online learning to new devices or software platforms. The reality is that most organizations are just looking at how to get started in online learning in a way that produces good outcomes, painlessly.

  1. December 22, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    It’s funny, people always focus on the striking end of the hammer and the nail. My way of expressing my own learning theory is that a hammer looks the way it does because of the human hand. To get hundreds of nails into a board well and easily every day, that human holding the instrument is what shapes the instrument, not really the nail at all.

  2. C. Liknes
    December 23, 2011 at 2:11 am

    I think many organizations have transcended a lot of these myths. In major implementations of ERP software or SaaS solutions most projects plans do have a considerable space set aside for change management and training. I think part of the problem though is that many organizations while recognizing the need for training in times of change, don’t recognize it as an ongoing activity and part of succession planning. However, there are a few shifts happening that I think are positive, and are bringing more recognition to the importance of change management and ongoing training development activities.

    (1) Generational shift: A lot of people in the workforce are at or near retirement age. Companies are starting to recognize the need to transfer job knowledge to the next generation of workers. Anecdotally, one my first contracts was to develop technical training for ‘waterworks’ employees in a North American municipality. The workforce consisted of about 75% 50+ guys, and the rest young 20-somethings. They municipality had never developed any training plan. In 2002 they started to realize that they were badly in need of knowledge transfer and began to implement documentation, essential skills profiles, elearning and ‘tailgate’ meetings to try to meet that. Of course, they wanted to hire people who knew what they were doing and had a ‘ticket’, but they also began to recognize the real need for on-the-job training, and part of that included training in a broad and blended context.

    (2) Old code: Major business software, especially in the banking and financial industry is reaching the end of it’s lifespan. Most of that code was written in the 80’s or early 90’s. And over the years it’s been patched and upgraded, and held together with twine and duct-tape. And it works great, and everyone is comfortable using it. But, it’s starting to show its age, and it literally cannot accommodate things like Unix servers and cloud storage. So, the transition is being made and it’s uncomfortable at many levels, including corporate IT departments (i.e. privacy concerns, etc.). The training need though is well recognized, and change activities typically do take into account not only end users, but system administrators and support personnel (who often are outsourced). Most large organizations plan for the upheaval.

    My experience may be atypical, but it seems clear from my anecdotal experience in North American telecommunications companies, public utilities and institutions, smaller engineering firms and global energy companies that training has become a priority, and that elearning presents a fairly major solution (for large, dispersed audiences) as part of the general corporate succession and employee-development plan, and in change-management activities.

    The challenge for anyone involved in the corporate training world will be to bring training to the fore–to bring it to the front of any project plan–instead of a checkbox to be filled at go-live time. But, slowly this is taking place in the industries noted above.

  3. December 23, 2011 at 4:26 am

    You are correct, however, it is sad reality given that we have so many tools to make the learning easier. A good EPSS could do wonders for efficiency and substitute the company directory as a learning source.

    And in regards to e-learning, the problem resides in x areas. 1. There is a lot of lousy “stuff on the screen” that is passed for e-learning and it has had a detrimental effect as to how people perceive e-learning. 2. There is perception that e-learning is costly because it take time to produce the first instance of it. 3. Many learners are still not used to that modality.
    These things are unfortunate because they are easy to overcome and appropriate use of e-learning can bring great efficiency.

  4. December 24, 2011 at 1:14 am

    I see a slowly increasing concern with making sure there is learning transfer when training is conducted, which I consider a positive trend. This may help with Myth 1. I think there is a perception about Myth 2 that keeps the online training industry in business, namely that “everybody” is doing it, and so should we so we don’t look behind the times. My prediction is that to the extent that online training methods are present in organizations, these ultimately will prove dissatisfying. The efficiency of delivery via eLearning will be overshadowed by the awareness of the inefficiency of learning transfer via eLearning, and either eLearning will die or it will be held to a higher standard. My bias has now been revealed, of course…

    • C. Liknes
      December 24, 2011 at 8:18 am

      I can vouch for the truth of your (@RichardPSwanson) 2nd point. Many companies see e-learning as ‘sexy’ and PM’s feel obligated to put it on the project plan, even if it is not the ‘best’ way to deliver the requisite training. It’s up to skilled instructional designers though to put forward holistic learning plans that blend cognitive knowledge with practical skills — and sometimes this may not include online training (even if the business ‘wants’ it).

      Advanced development tools and LMS’s allow for considerable flexibility in providing training solutions to satisfy many business needs (i.e.: regulatory, H&S, technical, soft-skills). Some forward-thinking organizations are now beginning to advance on-demand, e-learning applications on mobile devices for people in the trenches so-to-speak. However, the cost-to-benefit rationalization is not yet clear to decision-makers. Can an online training implementation solve some, or most, organizational learning needs? I think the jury may still be out on that question.

      Corollary to that, many companies are sucked in to expensive contracts with sub-standard tools, and consequently produce predictably ‘sub-standard’ and ineffective deliverables that frankly fail to meet organizational goals. Likewise, many companies are locked in to learning management systems that simply cannot accommodate the kinds of programs corporate instructional designers desire to produce. Thus, the programs rolled out will “ultimately prove dissatisfying” and the “efficiency of delivery via elearning” will be perceived as rather ineffectual.

      Solution? Corporations can benefit by having passionate and intelligent change-management, and/or employee learning-and-development professionals (or consultants) at the front end of projects/initiatives — instead of “10-days-before-go-live.” Most professionals in this field can see the objective at the same time as a business analyst is charting the requirements documentation. If you want results, move documentation, learning and CM to the front, instead of at stage ‘4 of 5’ in the project plan.

      Learning personnel have to get out of the HR sphere and insert themselves at the project management level. The challenge is to get a right mix of the technology that accommodates the best-practices (OP can comment here), and having the right people to convince executives of the centrality of learning and acceptance of any project’s objectives. It’s ongoing, but it’s no longer a technology or delivery problem in my view — it’s a sales job.

      Have a very happy Christmas everyone. 🙂

  5. Tim Kisner
    December 24, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    Some good myth choices indeed! I am sure that other myths “just as good” could be added. Any assumption which causes us to invert our priorities would qualify. Witness the common theme in the previous comments illustrating that there is much work to do before we “pick up the hammer”.

    Too often I witness technology evaluation teams far too concerned with listing every conceivable LMS feature on their RFP as their means of attempting to ensure that their training and development will be successful. I wish I had a dollar (okay 10 bucks) for every time I was told, “Oh we just cut and pasted those requirements in there”.

    I am encouraged by these comments that their is a growing number of organizations who are waking up to the importance of understanding the big picture. The most effective techniques for their organization, the CM, researching what is so and what is myth, etc.

  6. Hannah Teh P.H.
    December 27, 2011 at 12:17 am

    “train for knowledge, coach for performance” I’ve heard of this statement, would this be a myth as well?

  7. December 29, 2011 at 9:32 am

    In my experience, your observations re the workplace are correct, especially with regard to smaller organisations. Even with larger organisations, I have found that, especially induction training, provision is, more often than not, poorly focused and one finds oneself working on areas which are not what one needs to know, right now (as a newbie).

    I believe the problem has been exacerbated in more recent times by ‘targets’ and compliance issues. I.e. the training is formulated solely with the needs of the organisation in mind, at the expense of the needs of the new employee.

    The problem is yet further excited by out-of-date learning materials, even minor changes to ‘official’ practice, can result in significant problems for the new employee. And further so by appointed mentors who actually do not have the time to do the job, and have been forced to ‘fit-it-in’ with already demanding requirements.

    With regard to the ‘hammer/nail’ analogy. There is certainly some validity in this, however, in my experience people do not necessarily see everything as a nail, but they do become very creative at using a ‘hammer’ to perform tasks for which it was not designed. This of course is commendable, but, it does result in the ‘on-the-face-of-it’ assessment that everything is being viewed as a nail, with the obvious limitations and inefficiencies such will impose on those wielding hammers.

    In e-Learning one often finds oneself needing to be able to work on ‘many projects at once’. This often involves various writing standards which, to the ‘new employee’ may appear to vary rather subtly and often results in colleagues being confused as to why these variances are not obvious, and the ‘new employee’ frustrated as to why no one understands their confusion.

    Again the ‘psycho-babblers’ are blinded by learning theory, pedagogy, Bloom’s Taxonomy (why does e-learning still cite Bloom? it was 52 years ago for goodness sake, things have moved on?), and so-on, and fail to consider the obvious. How do you train someone in what is new to them? KISS, Keep It Simple, Stupid. Keep it structured, keep it focused, and DO NOT ADD VARIATION UNTIL KNOWLEDGE IS ESTABLISHED.

    “Oh, but we don’t have time to do that” I hear some complain. But you will make the time to deal with the problems that do arise, will you not?

  1. January 30, 2012 at 6:16 pm
  2. March 28, 2012 at 12:49 pm

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