Are Learning Professionals on the Wrong Path?

Feb 01, 2016


As we were doing some reading and thinking about learning and its relationship to business strategy, we came across David Vance’s thoughts about the Fall 2015 CLO Symposium. He described two surprises in three presentations:

  • Statements by two speakers about their primary purpose. One’s stated purpose was to improve employee engagement. The other presenter’s purpose was to leverage technology.
  • The unchallenged direction of the profession toward a learner-centered or self-directed approach.

We are not surprised, but his descriptions raised a question for us. Will learning professionals ever join the business, or will they become increasingly irrelevant and eventually disappear? We begin to ask who is thinking about the needs of the enterprise.Are-Learning-Professionals-on-the-Wrong-Path.jpg

It’s Time to Retire “Employee Engagement”

Learning opportunities, Vance says, do contribute to employee engagement, but he questions whether employee engagement should be the primary purpose of a learning function.

So do we. It reminds us of a conversation with a psychologist who worked at a treatment center for young people with alcohol problems. He stated that if they could only raise their charges’ self-esteem, they would get better. An aged veteran who was in the conversation said, “You want self-esteem? Try acting estimably” (sic).

The old-timer succinctly made the point that self-esteem does not create better behavior. Better behavior builds self-esteem.

As we wrote in “Stop Trying to Fix Employee Engagement,” we think the same about the practice of treating employee engagement as a goal. Engagement does not create productivity. Culture, purpose, and productivity create engagement. People who are in a purposeful culture and who are contributing to business success, thinking creatively, and solving problems will be engaged. While employee engagement might be somewhat useful as a measure, it is not valuable as a purpose.

Technology Is Not a Goal

Vance makes the same kind of argument regarding technology, and we agree. “Leveraging technology” is an activity that will help the training organization meet its goals. It is not an end in itself.

It doesn’t matter whether you are using crayons or gamified e-learning; successful training in the enterprise is that which supports the needs of the business. Its purpose should be to impact business results.

The Purpose is Business

Vance’s third point is about the value of the learner-centered approach. While it may be attractive to people to know they can pursue knowledge for the sake of knowing, the primary purpose of learning in the enterprise is to further the objectives of the company. Business-centric learning should be the first consideration.

As life-long learners, we understand the strong and valid argument for the pursuit of knowledge. Everything we learn helps shape us. Learning about psychodynamics may, over time, make a customer service agent better at dealing with people. But if that customer service agent can’t articulate the value of the company’s products, what purpose does it serve?

Strategic or Not?

To us, the path is clear. Get involved in the business, and make your objectives reflect real business outcomes that matter to business leaders. Engaging activities, technology, and learner-centered training are tools, not objectives. Let’s get down to business.


Vance, David. “No Business-Centric Learning? I Object.” Chief Learning Officer. November 2, 2015. 

Pixentia is a full-service technology company dedicated to helping clients solve business problems, improve the capability of their people, and achieve better results.

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