Mind the Gap: Training vs Learning

When the doors open on a London Underground train, a computerized voice reminds you to “Mind the gap.” This polite British reminder is actually telling you, “Watch out! Danger!” as you cross the gap between train and platform.

There’s a less obvious but important danger in the gap between how we use the words “training” and “learning”. As someone who has devoted my career to designing effective learning solutions, I’ve learned that words matter. Like with most things, precision counts. I first entered learning by teaching commercial pilots, so I’m accustomed to industries where you have to be precise. Words have specific meanings, and within them they contain context, philosophy, and intention. In my book, there’s a dangerous gap between the words “training” and “learning”. The words may be synonyms but there are important, subtle distinctions in their meaning. “Training,” by definition, focuses on teaching a specific skill or type of behavior. “Learning,” by contrast, is about the acquisition of knowledge through experience, study, or being taught. Training focuses on the trainer. Learning focuses on the learner.

Training vs Learning: Why the difference matters

Most training facilitators are likely to be a subject matter experts (SMEs). SMEs are critical to the overall learning process, but that doesn’t mean that they understand HOW people learn. Nor does it mean that they understand the theory and methods associated with instructional design. In order to design innovative, highly effective learning solutions, one must understand that learning is a science, one built on approaches that ensure learners retain and can apply the knowledge they acquire.

There is very little value in employees who can simply memorize content. You need employees capable of problem solving and applying the knowledge you’ve taught them. It isn’t about scoring eighty percent on a multiple-choice test. Have you gained value with an employee who doesn’t know how to respond to a question that wasn’t in their training program? Which employee is more valuable when facing a customer, the one who can show them a brochure and highlight the products available for purchase and then properly enter their selection in some software or the employee who can distinguish between the products, help the customer tailor their choice to their needs, and understand how that product integrates with other business services they use within your company? That’s exactly the question we faced when we designed a learning solution for a large regional bank’s customer services representatives. Within months after our learning design was implemented, the bank saw their newly hired sales representatives dramatically increase sales performance. They booked fifty percent more sales, and they dramatically improved their cross-sell ratios.

Those are business results that provide a competitive advantage through innovative, highly effective learning solutions. They are not the results of “training”. These kinds of results are possible because of M-Pact Learning, an approach I developed at Ohio State (as part of the Fight Education Division program) and one we have continued to refine at S4 NetQuest. M-Pact Learning closes a different gap, one between money spent on “training” and earnings realized through “learning”.

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