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"The Law of the Hammer" in Training

By Pete Weaver

Part One

In 1996, Abraham Maslow quipped that “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” What does this have to do with business and training? Recently, I have become concerned that the “hammer du jour” in our metaphoric trunk is high technology.

First, let me say that this post is not a Luddite rant against technology per se. This new millennium has brought to our training tool boxes a host of promising, wonderful technologies like web-based training, virtual instructor-led classrooms, simulations, gaming, and social media, to name a few. These technology-based tools make it easier to deliver training to more learners, less expensively, more consistently, and across broader geographies and time zones.

However, there is a tendency for people to use these technologies like the proverbial hammer. Some organizations have pushed forms of e-learning into cultures with little online learning interest and/or infrastructure. Others have insisted on taking an exclusively “high tech” approach to teaching “high touch” skills like coaching and conflict resolution.

More recently, the universal technology panacea in some quarters seems to be the application of new social media technologies to learning (a.k.a. “Learning 2.0”). The notion that most people learn better and enjoy it more in a social environment is inarguable. For that matter, the traditional classroom (when led by an interactive teacher or facilitator) can be a very social milieu within which to learn, particularly if the learning objectives are focused on human skills, such as leadership skills.

The Downside to Harnessing New Training Tools

The social media buzz, meanwhile, is about technology-based interactive experiences like blogs, chat rooms, and discussion forums, not to mention the wildly successful commercial social platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Yammer. Clearly, these new tools could be harnessed within our organizations to make learning more interactive, involving, and spontaneous, while also spanning geography and generations and capitalizing on the collective wisdom of groups.

But, some of these platforms can be risky for organizations in terms of security and legal liability. Technology can sometimes be surprisingly difficult and inconsistent. Corporate firewalls can be fussy about what they let through. And technology is always changing, which is good for progress but frustrating for infrastructure investments.

In addition, corporate cultures differ, just like people do, and what is easily adopted in one organization may be ineffective in another. And finally, there are regional and international variances in uptake, technology, and governing laws and institutions. Thus, the promise of social media is tempered by the complexities and uncertainties experienced by organizations to varying degrees.

Force-fitting Social Learning Tools

Unfortunately, some learning and development professionals have tried to force-fit social learning tools and platforms into topics and cultures whether or not they are necessarily well-suited. And regardless of the tools in our tool box, a few maxims about effective learning systems haven’t changed:

  • What is the desired and necessary learning outcome? Is it awareness, knowledge, basic skill, or skill mastery?
  • What is the nature of the content? Is the learning conceptual and/or kinetic in nature? Is the content sensitive or proprietary?
  • What is the nature of the learner population? How do they best learn the type of content needed? What is their prior learning and technology experience? Are their learning styles homogeneous, or do learners come from different backgrounds, experiences, and generations?
  • Is the environment around the learner conducive to the learning delivery modality being considered? Will the learners be able to be available, focused, and responsive?
  • Will the learner’s managers and colleagues support the investment of time and money? Do they know how to reinforce—and do they value—learning in the workplace?

These tenets of learning system design apply regardless of the tools and technologies being used. In fact, the thoughtful application of these considerations can help any modality or approach shine when used in the situations for which they are best suited.

On the flip side, new technologies can suffer guilt by association when imposed improperly into circumstances ill-suited to their strengths. Let’s not kill promising young technologies with ill-conceived overuse and misuse.

Read Part II in this series.

Patterson S. (Pete) Weaver is the former senior vice president of DDI's Leadership Solutions Group.

Posted: 10 Jan, 2013,
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