Fredrick Taylor (1856-1915) was an American mechanical engineer who found that he could increase efficiency by breaking down large tasks into individual actions, studying the movements necessary to complete each action and then resequencing actions and using other means to increase production with the same amount of work. Over the decades, his approach grew into a movement called scientific management, or Taylorism.

Scientific management is credited with reshaping the manufacturing industry and created a path to innovations such as the movable assembly line, mass production and modern materials handling (and, likewise, repetitive motion injuries). Scientific management lost its popularity in the mid-1960s when computer technology emerged as a dominant driver of efficiency and thinking skills became more important to organizational success. Organizations focused on effectiveness more than efficiency through cellular manufacturing and agile manufacturing, among other approaches.

Talent Development’s Focus on Efficiency

It you look at the advances in workforce development over the past 20 to 30 years, you will quickly recognize that almost all of them have been in the name of advancing efficiency, not effectiveness. Let’s look at some of the most prominent examples.

1. E-Learning

Driven by a desire to take the costs of travel and facilities out of training, e-learning fueled the rapid increase in the amount of learning that is delivered by both synchronous and asynchronous electronic tools. The justification was couched in terms of ROI calculations that tended to begin with the assumption that e-learning delivers the same or better learning outcomes (which is rarely true) as classroom learning, but at a lower cost. Thus, a majority of the e-learning investment over the past 20 or more years has been made for the sake of efficiency with a dubious claim of effectiveness.

2. The Learning Management System (LMS)

One of the largest infrastructure investments in talent development is learning management systems. LMSs organize learning courses; track use, student activity and test results; and include other capabilities that make learning management easier. Their primary selling point is the decrease in administrative costs. An LMS can replace the large number of people required to schedule and track learners’ activities. However, it does not increase the effectiveness of talent development – just the efficiency.

3. The Learning Content Management System (LCMS)

The other big technology investment organizations often make is the learning content management system. LCMSs allow organizations to manage learning assets so they can combine them in different ways and reuse them in different formats (electronic, paper, mobile, etc.). In the Association for Talent Development’s “State of the Industry” report, one of the primary metrics used is cost per learning hour used, a measure of the efficiencies created by platforms like LCMSs. Over the past several years, the LCMS has made a great impact on efficiency.

4. Massive Open Online Courses

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) – a term first coined in 2008 – are courses that are open to anyone and delivered over the internet. While MOOCs started with college lectures, they quickly spread to corporate use as well. The goal is to make it more efficient for learners to access existing course content. Here, again, is a focus on efficiency; data show that MOOCs are less effective than other forms of learning, with typical completion rates of less than five percent.

5. Learning Evaluation

While not a measure of efficiency, it is noteworthy that, by far, the most common measure of learning evaluation is participants’ reactions, not effectiveness or outcomes. Even within the most popular model, the Kirkpatrick model, three of the four evaluation levels do not measure the business impact of talent development.

Refocusing on Effectiveness

When computer technology was first gaining broad use, it was positioned as a way to improve efficiency. Rather than have teams of clerks tracking sales, purchases, invoices, etc., the computer can do those tasks. The people who managed the computer technology did not then have a seat at the table. Today, information technology has transformed itself into an engine of effectiveness, and chief information officers (CIOs) are guiding organizations on how to use information technology to be more effective in areas like sales, marketing and finance. They now have their seat at the table.

When will talent development leave the efficiency engine behind and start focusing on the effectiveness engine? Only time will tell, but we are beginning to see the glimmer of that movement. Here are two examples.

1. Learning Transfer

The research on learning transfer by scientists such as Ed Holton, Reid Bates, Jane Maringka and me is one example. Through this research, we see that traditional approaches to learning are ineffective, but by focusing on day-to-day use of learning content and measuring performance outcomes, we have increased the effectiveness of workforce development. Technology has an important role in this process, but that role is different from the role of the LMSs, LCMSs and MOOCs that have been the focus until now.

2. Multi-Modal Learning

Another area where we see improvement is the focus on multimodal or blended learning approaches. While blended learning was first introduced as a way to address ineffectiveness of e-learning, this approach recognizes that different types of learning and performance outcomes are more effectively delivered by different modes.

One or two approaches are not enough, though. We need our industry to move away from the efficacy mantra and toward an effectiveness mandate. When we begin implementing a new initiative or new technology, we need to stop asking ourselves how it will make learning faster, cheaper or more efficient. Instead, we need to ask how it will increase profitability, improve strategy implementation or lead to a more effective organization. At that point, we will have earned a seat at the table.