Forward Thinking

Are You Producing ‘Learning Scrap’?

The professional learning field is changing drastically, disrupting conference- and association-value propositions. Your education programs should be keeping pace.

Elliott Masie, a progressive leader in organizational and workforce learning, recently addressed a “crisis in the learning field” in his Learning TRENDS newsletter. “Many major organizations are reporting that as much as 70 percent of learning time and expenditures are being spent on programs mandated by compliance and regulatory requirements,” he wrote. “Sadly, many of these programs do not really move the ‘performance needle,’ nor do they account for what employees already know.”

Several data points from the Association for Talent Development’s (ATD) 2013 State of the Industry report put Masie’s comments into context: The average direct expense per employee annually for professional development is $1,195 (down from $1,600 in 2005); 61 percent of learning is spent internally, while 11 percent is on tuition reimbursement. According to my calculations, that leaves 28 percent (or about $335 per employee) for conferences/external investment.

When you layer those stats with the fact that CEUs are rapidly being commoditized, it’s pretty much a race to the bottom. Just Google “discount CEUs” and add your profession. You’ll probably find options as low as $2.50 per clock hour, if not for free, even for your dentist.

The challenge with many certifications is that employers no longer believe that memorization questions lead to better on-the-job performance — passing a test or attending a workshop only leads to quasi-certification.

Both association leaders and meeting organizers have to prove a greater return on attendees’ investment in their conference or education offerings than they have in the past. In many corporations, learning is a business function. It is a means to an end — improved performance — and not the end itself. The more associations and conferences shift their focus of learning opportunities to performance improvement and direct on-the-job application, the more they will be valued. Unfortunately, most association and conference education programming is based on delivery of just-in-case information, not just-in-need active learning.

The authors of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning coined the term “learning scrap” to describe the wasted time, effort, and opportunity represented by education programming that is delivered but never used. The analogy is to manufacturing scrap — materials, labor, capital, and opportunity costs wasted in producing products that fail to meet customers’ expectations.

Learning scrap is expensive and adversely affects your competitive advantage. If you’re providing education that doesn’t produce a business benefit, it’s scrap. Making these disruptive forces part of your long-term strategy is no easy feat. If this isn’t being discussed as a challenge — and an opportunity — at the highest levels of your organization, start now.

Dave Lutz, CMP

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.