Why Do Dysfunctional Approaches Still Exist in the Learning Profession?

In the first edition of The Chief Learning Officer, Tamar Elkeles and Jack Phillips close their first chapter by discussing how learning professionals need to learn from disappointment and failure. Allow me to quote:

…there are many issues that cause a lack of success with learning programs and the function overall. These issues have confronted the field for decades and leave an important question: “Why do dysfunctional approaches still exist in learning?” We don’t seem to have these repeated mistakes and dysfunctional processes for other areas in manufacturing, production, distribution, marketing, research and development, and so on.


I think what the learning profession is looking for is to become similar to a High Reliability Organization, or HRO, but applied to performance interventions that work and, where expected, provide a Return On Investment (ROI). The medical profession is striving to become, as a whole, a system of HROs similar to that expected by the commercial aviation and nuclear power industries. These organizations “operate under hazardous conditions while maintaining safety levels that are far better than those of health care.”

In other words, to put this in perspective, currently you are far more likely to die from your doctor leaving his forceps in you than you are from dying in a plane crash.

In comparison, how likely is someone, during his or her lifetime, to suffer an ineffectual or unmemorable “learning” experience prepared, curated, facilitated, and/or designed for them by a learning professional?


If you work with people who are required to take mandatory training, you sometimes hear them talk about a course as a “click to win”. The faster you get through the course content by clicking “NEXT”, the faster you get to take/retake the quiz and “win” by moving on or going home. The sad truth is, you are far more likely to suffer a required-but-boring, mandatory-but-uninforming kind of “learning” experience than you are to be treated with a world-class meaningful, memorable, and motivational learning experience. In fact, it seems to me as though the “easier” it is to create interactive learning experiences, the more these kinds of poor, PowerPoint-like, page-turning presentations seem to proliferate.

In fact, the dreary kinds of experiences I’m talking about comprise the vast majority of e-Learning content available on the market today, and the odds are extremely high that most of my readers have suffered through them.

And I’m just talking about eLearning. What about poor classroom instruction? Or poorly considered training interventions – when all the client needed was a job aid or the air conditioner turned to comfortable levels?


When discussing possible answers to this question, The Chief Learning Officer’s authors offer the following (I’ve added some bullets and questions along the way):

  1. Learning is not always perceived as a legitimate function of the organization.
    • In the past, only larger organizations even considered addressing training and onboarding in a logical, methodical manner.
    • Many places still wonder if we really need to have systematic methods to designing and delivering learning solutions.
  2. Learning is a small part of the total cost of operating a business – it is not a priority.
    • While the number spent on learning and performance interventions continue to grow, it is a very small part of the corporate budget.
    • Many executives are not concerned with the learning and performance portion of their business.
  3. The learning profession as we know it today is still a young field.
    • Only recently have there been many formal degree programs preparing individuals for the learning profession.
    • Many in the learning profession simply repeat the mistakes of their predecessors (i.e., “It was good enough for me when I went through this.”).
  4. There is a high degree of turnover in the learning profession.
    • People in the learning profession are often tasked with a wide array of projects and interventions. Often, this leads to cases where kinds of projects are touched so infrequently that there is little need to produce methods and procedures for them.
    • Allow me (EJ) to add this here: It’s a well-known secret that learning professionals are paid far less than their counterparts in other industries (i.e., eLearning Developer vs User Experience Designer; Performance Analyst vs Consultant).
  5. The learning profession struggles with standards.
    • Only in 2006 did ASTD (now ATD, the world’s largest learning and performance professional association) begin offering a certification process (the Certified Professional in Learning and Performance, or CPLP).
    • I would add that while there are now a host of standards, which of them should be applied? ATD’s? ISPI’s? IBSTPI’s? TIFPI’s? Do you remember SABA’s Accomplishment Based Curriculum Design (ABCD) method?*
    • Related, so I’ll also add this here: How do learning professionals get those they work with to understand the value of what is provided by the learning profession as a whole? Individually, we have to figure out how we let people know what we are all about by showing how we provide value.

Tamar and Jack close the chapter on a bright note, saying that “things are changing in all these areas.” However, I wonder if that is the case en masse. The field is still saturated with terrible examples of presentations and learning experiences and ineffective performance interventions.

Of course, because we’re human, all disciplines will always be dysfunctional in one form or another. The point is to address this chaos as much as we are able, and to learn the lessons learned.

I’m looking forward to the second edition of The Chief Learning Officer (available for preorder here), and I wonder what its authors will write on how we have progressed as a profession since 2007.

*I link to here because I’m also a fan of Guy Wallace and his EPICC process; Guy just retired but he is still making an impact on me.

This post was inspired by the fact I’m a part of the first cohort of the Executive Chief Learning Officer graduate certificate program at George Mason University. Go check out this great program today!