What are we actually selling in Learning and Development?

Working at PA has challenged me to think about what ‘learning’ is. Every week I’m supporting a new bid and have to articulate our offer to prospective clients. Sometimes it’s a learning proposal but the majority are including learning as a ‘bolt on’ to a bigger programme.

When clients buy ‘learning’ what are they actually buying? Perhaps they don’t even know the answer to that question and want us to tell them. That would be straightforward if there wasn’t invariably a procurement hurdle first. Procurement teams are marking against a checklist of requirements before you earn the right to speak to the actual client. You have to fit in the boxes to get to the pitch stage, even if it’s wrong or makes no sense.

The problem is further exasperated by the fact that most people don’t understand ‘learning’. Most use the analogy of the brain as a computer, an ‘error’ articulated succinctly by Robert Epstein’s ‘The Empty Brain’ .

Forgive me for this introduction to computing, but I need to be clear: computers really do operate on  symbolic representations of the world. They really  store and  retrieve. They really  process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.

Humans, on the other hand, do not – never did, never will. Given this reality, why do so many scientists talk about our mental life as if we were computers?

The third and final issue is that what we’re trying to sell is not ‘learning’ at all, it’s performance improvement and ‘Organisational Usability’. Learning is a way into the conversation rather than an output which can leave people confused once we actually start the work. An absence of ‘learning objectives’ and ‘knowledge transfer’ doesn’t chime well with a client’s request for ‘training’.

I don’t have an answer to this quandary; we’ve had to strike a compromise. Right now we’re saying, ‘yes we can absolutely do traditional training, but what you should actually be doing is this…’. I can’t help thinking it’s easier for clients to do the safe thing rather than the right thing, and wondering therefore, whether it’s costing us work.

I’m inclined to agree with Nick S-J on this. Adding our offer to requests for proposals from other parts of PA who haven’t the foggiest what we’re selling, is a less effective approach than drawing clients directly to us through marketing. The challenge therefore is how to market ourselves effectively in the great wide world, without diluting the key messages of the overall PA brand. To be continued…

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