Wednesday, 31 March 2010


Those who’ve read my published work will know I’m a great admirer of John Kay, the Edinburgh-born economist, business strategist and Financial Times columnist. I especially enjoyed his two eminently readable short books collected from his FT columns, Everlasting Lightbulbs (on economics) and The Hare and the Tortoise (great case study material on business strategy). Kay is one of the best exponents of the ‘distinctive capabilities’ view of strategy, and has been further endeared to me by his habit of writing while walking in Provence, one of my favourite parts of the world.So I’m approaching his latest book with great interest. I confess I have yet to read Obliquity: why our goals are best pursued indirectly, but I’ve read his introductory article on the subject in Management Today, and I’ve warmed to his themes of maintaining a flexible approach, thinking laterally, always looking out for new knowledge, and taking a roundabout route to success.

These themes ought to resonate with anyone who has ever tried to facilitate learning, as simply reciting a litany of facts and figures is rarely the best way to help people absorb and apply new ideas. People learn better by tackling subjects in different ways, via discussions, reflection and activities, and by interchanging ideas with the facilitators of their learning. It makes sense that the same approach should work in pursuing business goals. Perhaps learning and development professionals have been pioneers in the new science of obliquity?

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Why e-learning DOES work

A response to Mark Walsh

Among the headline-grabbing claims made by Mark Walsh in his trainingzone article published on 19 February are that e-learning “isn’t really learning” and “it doesn’t really work”. Absurd? I think so. Extreme? Certainly, but it soon transpires that that’s what Mark was setting out to do.

Later in the article, he modifies the red-top sensationalism of his headlines and makes the caveat that “much of what I have said is also not fair to all e-learning providers”, and even concludes “perhaps blended learning solutions are the future - bringing together the best of e-learning and traditional training?”

What Mark (or his editor) has done is single out some of the worst practice in e-learning and use it to attack all e-learning. As he concedes himself, he could have done a similar hatchet job on classroom-based training (or any other approach to learning, for that matter).

Mark claims that e-learning can’t train people to do things. He correctly spots that e-learning is good at helping people acquire knowledge, but its limitations in transferring that to behavioural change at work are equally true of every kind of off-the-job learning. I would argue (and did so in my book Delivering E-Learning) that e-learning is one of the best of such approaches when it comes to transfer of learning.

The problem with Mark’s sort of critique of e-learning is that it sets out to attack, rather than to understand. In its rush to dismiss, it ignores the interactivity of cleverly-designed e-learning, it’s huge advantages over old-style open and distance learning, the speed of delivery and unprecedented scalability of e-learning; ignores its capacity to be carried into the workplace via smartphones or handhelds, ignores the power of digital simulations to practice real work scenarios safely and securely, ignores the new approaches to learning digital technology has opened up, and much more; worst of all, it ignores the countless success stories from e-learning implementations all over the world. In short, it ignores the fact that e-learning demonstrably does work.

Mark needs to set aside his prejudice and attention-seeking, and look again at what’s to be learned from e-learning.