REALITY BITES - The best learning is not done in a Hilton meeting room. It's done at work. The best teachers are talented people doing the job you're learning.

by RICHARD REEVES, a consultant and business writer
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The best learning is not done in a Hilton meeting room. It's done at work. The best teachers are talented people doing the job you're learning.

Long before he conquered the English-reading world with The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen lamented the decline of the serious novel. It wasn't that novels weren't written, or published, or bought. It was simply that few of them were read. A seminal moment in his disenchantment came when he asked a friend, a graduate in literature, which book she had read most recently. 'You mean linear reading? Like when you read a book from start to finish?'

Franzen blames the tempo and temptations of modern life, the 'incompatibility of the slow work of reading and the hyperkinesis of modern life.' We're so busy that when we're not busy the best we can do is to click the TV remote.

And this is in the knowledge economy, the information age, the learning society. There is a Hebrew saying that a man with a book in his hands is a man embarking on a journey. But we are more likely to journey outwards from Gatwick than inwards to the adventure of a conversation with a great author.

And yet more people are sitting exams, entering higher education and, once they enter the workforce, going on 'training courses'. It was Churchill or Wilde who said they loved to learn but couldn't bear to be taught.

We seem to have the opposite problem. We are parcelling up learning into digestible chunks, ready for spoon-feeding by an underpaid university lecturer or an overpaid corporate trainer.

It has long been a complaint in the UK that our workers are under-trained.

Typically, the government (especially if Labour) blames companies, companies blame schools and colleges, and schools and colleges blame the government.

A dubious economic argument states that companies are disinclined to invest in training staff who might then up and off to a competitor, and that as a result of this, there is a collective lack of training.

This is rubbish. The UK corporate sector spends pounds 10.6 billion on training.

Three and a half million employees receive training every month. And firms that invest heavily in their staff's training do so in the knowledge that this will make people more likely to stay, rather than leave - and at a certain point, they require a commitment from the employee in return.

For example, firms that pay for an employee's MBA course may require a two-year commitment to work in the firm. Fiendish cunning, these capitalists, eh?

If anything, the problem now is that there's too much training, with much of it of limited value. Among white-collar workers in particular, training courses show the fastest growth in areas such as leadership, team-working, project management, assertiveness, coaching and personal effectiveness.

It is hard to measure the real value added by attendance on such courses, and few firms really try that hard. The truth is that many training courses are simply perks for managers. They get to spend two or three days in an agreeable hotel, looking at flipcharts during the day and propping up the bar at night. It's a chance for people to drink and flirt. For managers who are married with young children, the allure is all the greater: 'This really is a pain, honey, but I'm afraid I need to go to Gleneagles for three days to discover my inner entrepreneur. I feel bad leaving you with the kids like this. Bye!'

Anyone who knows the training market knows the importance of either having a London location, convenient for the West End and Oxford Street, or a hotel with plenty of leisure facilities. The success of a training event rests on factors such as the temperature of the whirlpool or the selection of highland malts in the bar, rather than the insights of the trainer.

There's nothing wrong with this. As perks go, 'training' courses aren't bad. If the organisers, participants and their funding companies need collectively to delude themselves that what happens between 9am and 5pm really justifies the investment, so be it.

There is, however, a deeper problem: the equation of learning with training.

The best learning is not done in a Hilton meeting room, it is done at work. The best teachers are not trainers, they are talented people doing the job that you're learning to do, with the time and inclination to help you along. The 'softer' skills, in particular, are best taught by example: if you want to be a great leader, go and work for one.

Rather than abdicating responsibility for learning to outsiders, firms need to build it into everyday life. Of course, it is much easier to write a cheque and send someone off for a few days than it is to structure an internal 'course' of learning, which might involve releasing the time of senior staff on a regular basis, building shared learning into reward systems and taking the time to find out what your staff already know.

You can still enjoy those mid-week hotel mini-breaks, but be honest and call them 'team-building' sessions and spend the money saved on stressed-out trainers and their coloured pens on book vouchers for your staff.

Real learning happens at 10.56am on a Tuesday morning, or 4.32pm on a Friday, right where you are sitting now. Like charity, learning begins at home.

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