You teach swimming or prevent drowning?

Okay, I realize that's a fairly aggressive title! But a fairly stark realization that has become apparent to us, as of late, both in our travels and when working with many senior learning leaders. We simply aren't tasked to deliver the same outcomes we once were. We've all heard the demands from our organizations around better aligning with business outcomes and performance measures. Yet, we continue to see the same old deliverables, often packaged in a new wrapper. In our business it's not about the deliverable; it is about the intent and outcome. As Einstein is quoted to have said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome". In our case, doing that same thing is defined as training. The format has changed from classroom to e-learning to virtual. Even with new modalities the deliverable are still the same. The problem is that today's learner is needing to survive in a very different world. One where change is a constant and the shelf-life of learning content is minimal, at best.

This circumstance harkens me back to a life experience I had in high school. I was a swimming instructor at a summer camp. It was early one Monday morning and we were about to start a week’s worth of lessons with “minnows”, or better known as little kids that couldn’t swim. I had all my lessons in my head. I was going to do my best to instruct these little guys on the fundamentals of “rotary breathing” and the other required strokes. My colleague had other plans. Within minutes of starting he had one of the kids in the water flailing away desperately trying to get back to the side while he supported him under the water. Once the child arrived at the side spitting and coughing, my colleague praised him and proceeded to try again. I stopped him and said, “Aren’t we here to teach these kids to swim?” He responded by saying, “We only have a week! My goal is to teach them not to drown!” Sound familiar?

Each week we’re asked to evaluate thorough development plans aimed at teaching employees how to swim when many are drowning in the real world of churn and change. It’s time we took a serious look at our charter and the realities of today. Now, we’re NOT saying that some degree of training is still not required. What we are saying is that what we’re hearing from the learners is that the methods and tools we arm them with to survive in the workflow are often dated, confusing, and not contextualized in a way that’s consumable at their moment of need. Arriving at some measureable level of understanding is no longer the goal. Surviving and keeping one’s head above water is! The question is simple – Do you teach swimming or prevent drowning?

Let’s run with this metaphor a bit more. There are some powerful ideas to be considered here. When preventing drowning, the first thing you’d do is search frantically for some form of life-support that will help the individual stay afloat no matter what their ability is to actually swim. Much of this is due to the fact that, depending on the circumstance, swimming may not be an option! The individual may be hurt, or in waters too rough to navigate. They may be in unfamiliar waters, or need to be there for a length of time which would tire, and eventually overtake, even the strongest of swimmers. In other words, a life-preserver is KEY beyond all else. It is a fundamental “must have”! The environmental circumstances described above are not uncommon, if not NORMAL, in today’s volatile workplace. Our designs and programs need to lead with survival first, and sustainment second. Every learning leader we speak with is challenged in supporting a turbulent work landscape. The “waters” are changing constantly, as are the learners that attempt to navigate them. Our role is shifting from one of preparing learners to survive, to one of keeping them afloat while trying to perform effectively each day.

This involves a fundamental shift in design and delivery. We need to design from supporting the performance back. We need to first consider the systems, or life preservers, we can design and help maintain, and then add any training that might be needed to prepare our learners for using, maintaining, and adapting those systems. This is a significant change in how many of us are schooled in instruction and design. It challenges us to look at the formal side of learning in a very different way. Here are a few realizations you may come to when adopting this approach.

When you start from the workflow and work back, you may find little need for any formal instruction in the first place. The classroom, eLearning, and virtual instruction will become something very different. They will shift from a place of sequential lessons and teaching toward mastery, to a place where only the key tasks and concepts are taught with the majority of time spent in process, role, or circumstance based scenarios where learners are taught to survive and continue their learning. Achieving a certain level of “certification”, or passing a test, is no longer the goal. Showing an ability to navigate and maintain these new workflow-specific tools is. Performance Support and its many layers of intervention is the “life preserver” of the millennium.

Like the classroom of the 90’s, performance support and harnessing the informal domain, is the charge of our times. This will involve an innovative redesign of our teams, deliverables, and the ways we evaluate our effectiveness. If you “only have a week” when you used to have months, what should you be doing differently to tame the insanity? What we need to do is stop teaching swimming and intentionally equip the enterprise to survive a turbulent and ever-changing work environment.

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