heliotrope learning

better skills, brighter future

Training versus learning

Daniel Finkelstein wrote recently in The Times “My sister found herself in an awkward conversation with her broadband services supplier to whom she was making a complaint. After a sticky exchange she finally interjected: ‘If you don’t mind me saying so, you aren’t dealing with this complaint awfully well.’ To which the woman on the other end replied: ‘Actually, I’ve just been on a course on how to deal with difficult customers.’

“When my sister gently suggested that her training hadn’t been altogether successful, she replied: ‘On the contrary, I got a distinction.’”

How sad and yet how true! People seem to think that simply going on a course will resolve their issues or teach them new skills and yet there is a world of difference between training and learning – the latter, for me, being the consistent application of that training in relevant situations.

Over the years, I’ve had many participants on business writing courses that have clearly been sent on the course without consideration of what they actually need. Notably, I’ve had non-native English speakers who have been told they need to brush up their English. When I meet them, it is clear that their knowledge of English is good and, in many cases, excellent. This is often because they have been taught the grammatical rules, more so than the native speakers in the room (but that’s another story). Sometimes, I find myself in potentially protracted conversations with them about parts of speech because they are trying to fit what I’m covering in to their theoretical understanding. Where they struggle is in using idiom, colloquialism or, often, a suitable tone of voice. And it’s not the kind of thing that’s easy to cover on a generic course because it’s so situation-specific; you pick this kind of thing up from reading, listening and, most importantly in a corporate environment, being coached on what makes the difference between what they’ve written and what is appropriate to send to a client, write on a website etc. And that difference may be very subtle. But the manager of the participant simply doesn’t have the awareness of the approach required or, indeed, the time to devote to the situation. So they tick the box, send the member of staff on a course and abdicate responsibility for developing that individual.

Now, this may sound like I’m trying to talk myself out of a job. I’m not. I’d just like participants to appreciate the purpose and constraints of a training course and line managers to work harder at helping participants to apply what they have learnt when they return to the workplace. The call centre advisor in Daniel’s example is clearly in need of this support. When we are told ‘this call is being recorded for training purposes’, let’s hope it really is.