Idea Learning Group

When Training is Not the Solution

People talking around table

Just about anyone who designs learning experiences has asked for help with the following problems:

“We don’t have enough people to do all this work!”

“We don’t have the right tools and resources!”

“Our employees have low morale!”



And the assumed solution is usually, “Let’s make some training courses!”

Traditional training courses are the solution many organizations tend to default to when trying to solve these kinds of workplace problems. However, training is not always the best option. Without a needs analysis, a design that focuses on what people need to actively do on the job, or opportunities for authentic post-training practice, traditional training often falls flat.

The Association for Talent Development reports that US companies spent $1,200 per employee on training and development last year, amounting to about 30 hours each. The biggest mistakes that companies make when rolling out training programs is failing to evaluate how well employees have learned, assuming technology will solve all training problems, and not providing proper post-training support, according to Eduardo Salas, professor of organizational psychology at University of Central Florida.


Collaborative Learning Network Discussion

At our recent Collaborative Learning Network session, “When Training is Not the Solution,” our group of training and development professionals talked about reasons why traditional training sometimes fails:

  • The organization doesn’t offer post-training support.
  • Training is thought of as an “event” and not a “process.”
  • Needs were not properly assessed.
  • A box is being checked.
  • The business doesn’t support a culture of learning.
  • There’s too much content and not enough practice.
  • The delivery method doesn’t match the learners’ needs.

We discussed how to answer the question, “Is this a problem that training can solve?”

  • Clearly define the objectives.
  • Focus on what to do, not what to
  • Talk with stakeholders about the dynamics of the content.
  • Tie all ideas for learning to the business/performance needs.
  • Evaluate what’s already been done and what the results were.
  • Ask, “If there were no money for training, how else would you solve the problem?”

Our group reviewed Cathy Moore’s “Is Training Really the Answer?” flow chart—a great tool for deciding how to create learning materials that actually address workplace problems.

So what happens if you, as the training professional, discover that traditional training is not the best path? We talked about strategies for managing the conversation when it’s been assumed that a training course is the way to go:

  • Consciously avoid “training” as the default. Start with the problem at hand, and work backwards from there.
  • Compare cost with expected outcomes.
  • Tie possible solutions to the problem at hand; sometimes the solution is much simpler than you think.
  • Focus on behavior change and the stakeholder’s ultimate goals.
  • Categorize “wants” vs. “needs.”


Case Studies

We split into small groups and focused on six different case studies. In the example that follows, this group’s fictitious client was “Delilah’s Catering Company.” In this scenario, the client came to the design team with “We need training!” based on the following reasons:

  • Their current training program is way too long (two weeks) and expensive.
  • People say their training is boring.
  • Some less experienced staff are not showing progress after being trained in their food service class.
  • Their profits haven’t gone up in five years.

We asked the group to consider the following questions. Here’s how they answered them.

What can you ask to determine if training is the right solution?

What parts of your current training are “boring”?
What do your employees need to do after the training?
Why are the employees not doing this now?
What are their knowledge/skills/motivations?
What is there environment like?

Based just on what you know right now, what other possibilities come to mind besides standard classroom or online training?

Job aids
Training broken into manageable chunks

How would you go about digging deeper to make sure your recommendations are solid?

Focus groups
Job shadowing
Learner demographic analysis
Finding how they’re currently measuring success

In all six scenarios, the groups addressed the clients in similar ways: focusing on the actual problems, doing a thorough analysis through discovery, and keeping open minds when proposing solutions.

The CLN group walked away with new ideas and insights for approaching this common issue in our work.


We want to hear from you. Tell us about your experiences when you knew traditional training was not the right solution for your learners. What did you do? What was the result?

Designing For Bite-sized Learning

After identifying a training need, learning designers often think of the solution as a “program”—the classroom experience, the online courses, and the Learning Management System to organize it all. While robust programs might be best for certain projects, leaving out the in-between “snack times” could mean missed opportunities to engage and reinforce learning. Microlearning, also called “bite-sized learning,” is great strategy for helping learners solve real problems or keeping the them connected to the topic long-term.

Vintage retro candy machines










Bite-sized learning was the topic at our February 2015 Collaborative Learning Network session. As always, the versatile professionals from a mix of industries—healthcare, creative agencies, government programs, and education—helped the topic come alive. We spent 90 minutes defining microlearning, looking at examples, and sharing our own experiences with it as learners and designers.


The sessions aren’t meant to be presentations. I ask a series of questions around the topic, and we have a group discussion. We used a cool online tool called Padlet so participants could contribute insights in real time.

 Padlet screenshot


Click the links to see all our collective responses:

What is “bite-sized learning”?

Some of the benefits we talked about:

  • It’s how we naturally learn.
  • Makes sense for modern learning—fragmented experiences with smartphones, Internet, etc.
  • Small pieces of information are easy to consume.
  • It helps fight cognitive burnout.
  • It’s great for short attention spans.
  • Microlearning is easily accessible—may not require specific software or platforms.
  • It gets right to the point without all the exposition.
  • It’s solution-oriented.

The main theme that came from our discussion was that even when we’re learning unintentionally, we tend to naturally learn in bits and pieces instead of large systems. Instructional designers are trained in terms of chunking. Think of bite-sized learning more in terms of morsels. Microlearning is not just the latest trend—it’s smart design that aligns with the vast discoveries brain scientists have been making over the past several years about what Art Kohn refers to as “the ergonomics of the brain” and how we really learn. (Read about his thoughts on the changing attention span of the adult learner here.)

During our session we always work on a case study in small groups. In keeping with the spirit of the topic, I created four mini scenarios. Here’s an example:

A hotel has a two-day training class to teach new employees customer service skills.  Most employees are between ages 18 – 30. The current training is expensive, and it hasn’t improved customer relations much at the hotel. The hotel management is desperate to appeal to its younger workforce. They want to reduce turnover and build a culture that employees feel proud of. They want creative ideas for engaging employees with this training.

 Could bite-sized learning work well? Why or why not? If so, describe how you’d pitch it to the stakeholders.

 Each group reported back their thoughts and strategies. We came up with a lot of different ideas for how microlearning could work in these scenarios:

  • Single-concept videos
  • Brief (less than 5 minutes) online tutorials
  • Podcasts
  • Games
  • Infographics
  • Job aids
  • One-on-one challenges or discussions with colleagues about the topic

Our next Collaborative Learning Network takes place on Wednesday, April 1 (no joke) at 9 a.m. in the Montgomery Park building in Portland. Contact us if you want to add your name to the invitation list. It’s free to attend, but reservations are required. In the meantime, jump into the discussion on our LinkedIn page.

Learning Through Play as Adults

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than
in a year of conversation.” – Plato

Learning through play is a given for children. Why do we have a hard time accepting “play” as an effective means of learning as adults? It’s often dismissed as a waste of time. Research into the brains of animals with higher orders of intelligence reveals that many species continue to play beyond their youth. Play is one way to spread discoveries through social learning. In fact, some animals like rats and grizzly bears fail to properly develop socially without a healthy amount of play.

In a recent article in Chief Learning Officer, Andrea Park looks at problem solving through the lens of play, particularly gamification. She cites research by The Wharton School at the University of Philadelphia indicating there are eight steps to promote business success in workplace gamification: “Problem solving, exploration, teamwork, recognition, success, surprise and novelty, creativity and knowledge sharing.” She continues: “Interactive learning programs at millennial-friendly companies often provide examples of several, if not all, of these qualities.” Forbes has a list of helpful tips about how to use gaming at work as an effective strategy for motivating employees and changing behavior.

Play is one of nature’s resources for generating new neural networks and reconciling cognitive difficulties, according to an article in US News. It’s not only a useful way to solve problems, but it also helps us build our creativity and social relationships, according to the National Institute for Play.

Playfulness is part of our culture at Idea Learning Group. We developed Cafeteria Learning as a way to engage participants in play and interactive collaboration, while maintaining a focus on behavior change. Last year we facilitated a session called “Play to Learn: The Cafeteria Learning Model” at the North American Simulation and Gaming Association annual conference. We’ve designed programs with this method to train learners on topics such as diversity and inclusion, internal corporate processes, health and wellness, performance management, and other topics related to leadership development.

We create these programs with the belief you can add levity and fun without compromising instructional goals. In the end, people report that they love having “permission” to play at work, and that it’s an unexpected but welcome way to learn.

Check out our co-founder Jillian Douglas’ interview with Justin Foster of Foster Thinking in his 6th episode of the Bacon Coterie series.

“Jillian is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Idea Learning Group in Portland, OR.  With the growing emphasis on customized learning in the workplace, Jillian and her team are true innovators on creating memorable learning experiences for companies. Jillian is an interesting, funny, smart and driven person who I could visit with for hours!” – Justin Foster

Thanks Justin!

NEW BUSINESS Contact us with business inquiries or to discuss your project needs and vision.
CAREERS We always enjoy connecting with talented professionals in the learning and development field.
CONNECT 503.208.3256
LOCATION 2701 NW Vaughn St #103
Portland, OR 97210

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