I have worked on many learning and development (L&D) projects representing significant investments in time and money; most times, participants and facilitators were flown across the world and put up in nice hotels. But as a learning professional with some 30 years’ lecturing, training and writing experience, I have a confession to make: I don’t believe the learning itself was the most important element of those projects. In fact, and my fellow learning professionals may want to put a picture of me on their dartboard at this moment, it was probably the least important element.

The Most Important Element of a Learning Program

It’s not that learning isn’t important. Training professionals spend days, sometimes weeks, identifying desired outcomes, designing content, choosing the delivery methodology, writing scripts, preparing slides and designing business impact measurement tools. It’s also not for lack of effort or expertise, as there are many highly experienced facilitators in the industry.

However, what many participants say they gain most from training has little to do with the content or quality of the learning itself. There are other, more important factors, such as the feeling of being valued enough to be invested in, the opportunity to network and the chance to have some face time with a senior leader. These extraneous experiences would rarely be consciously considered part of the program itself. They are more akin to what economists call “positive externalities” — partly or wholly unintended consequences. But they are crucial to making a training program successful.

In summary, at least half of the positive effect of a development program comes from actually running a development program.

Making the Other 50% as Good as We Can

I suspect that those heady days of week-long residential courses are behind us. While digital technologies offer an alternative and efficient delivery method, it rarely compares favorably with a face-to-face experience. Does it make the participants feel valued, recognized and invested in; give them access to senior leaders; and provide them an opportunity to network?

In fact, much digital learning seems bent on stripping out anything that is not strictly about learning. Too often, the result is a joyless transaction in which the digital presentation of information, mistakenly called “learning,” is foisted upon a busy professional who is presumptuously referred to as a learner.

This experience is often comprised of a series of clicks and the opportunity to read some text or watch a video. This “learning” is “tested” in a series of knowledge checks that make sure learners can remember what they read or saw 45 seconds ago.

I am exaggerating — but only a little.

The Medium Is the Message

The most successful learning programs are marketed internally — which doesn’t mean sending a few emails and making sure everyone knows which room to go to. Rather, they use marketing as a way to conduct a target audience analysis, set objectives, create a budget, make messaging and media decisions, and focus on execution and evaluation.

Branding is another key element: using the program as an exercise in brand experience and communicating what the organization stands for, internally and externally. Learning, in its broadest sense, is a powerful vehicle to create a brand experience. Don’t pass up on the opportunity it offers.

Does the Boss Care?

Organizational culture expert Edgar Schein says that what leaders pay the most attention to, what they measure and what they become involved are the keys to shaping the culture of a business. Yet leaders are often invisible where learning is concerned. This invisibility matters — their visible and vocal advocacy would make for greater engagement and commitment on behalf of the participants. Corporate learning is part of an individual’s career development. To imagine that participants are learning for learning’s sake is, at best, naïve.

Use senior leaders and other influencers in the organization like an advertising agency would use well-known figures in a campaign. Plan who would be most effective in engaging specific audiences, how they should be presented and what message they need to send.

What About the Learning?

Learning matters, but which aspects make the most impact? Whether we are talking about using a digital platform or running face-to-face sessions, the same principles should apply. We leverage those aspects of learning that make the greatest impact, which means focusing on three things:

1. Learning as Experience

The most well-received elements of those residential training programs incorporated role-playing scenarios and decision-making simulations in teams or with a coach.

In the digital environment, experiences can be more challenging to create. We can explore using virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) and gamification tools, but there is an opportunity to think beyond the platform. Using the digital methods available to us, we can choreograph on-the-job projects, enable line manager engagement and, perhaps most impactfully, offer online coaching that provides the visceral engagement that is so powerful — providing the “how” to support the “what.” By coordinating these experiences around the learning, we create an environment of experimentation, application and reflection.

We can also use the ability digital technology gives us to connect people to provide both the networking and the face time with senior leaders that can be so helpful in making a learning project work.

2. Learning as a Catalyst

As my colleague Dr. Ian Stewart wrote, “Being placed in an unfamiliar and challenging situation forces us to reorganize how we think about our role, our relationships with colleagues and the organization we belong to.” This statement is the essence of development and should be the motto of anyone working in this industry. Learning content can play an important role by presenting new and challenging ideas and insights. The learning content we present must offer “uncommon sense,” be well-informed but provocative, and — dare I say — playful. Learning should not be a chore but a challenging, rewarding experience.

3. Learning as a Resource

A little learning can go a long way. The busy professionals who seek or are pointed to digital learning do not need a treatise or hours of lectures. Usually, a single powerful insight or set of tools is all they need for now, but, too often, it’s not what they receive. They have to wade through mountains of content to find the nugget they were after.

The problem is a lack of contextualization; the learning was produced with a generic rather than a specific context in mind. What seems useful to the idealized manager is of little use to the real-life manager who needs to know how to navigate his or her organization’s unique and somewhat Kafkaesque procurement process.

Learning that supports performance means contextualization at the level of the specific practical problems that people encounter. In this model, learning is a resource with job aids — decision trees, flow charts and so on that support and guide — as much as it is an educational vehicle.

Learn. Develop. Perform.

I believe that corporate training is on a journey from learning to development to performance. But it has always been a challenge to coordinate the most effective elements of learning in the most efficient way — until now, when we have the digital means to coordinate and choreograph learning experiences as never before.

I suggest that we build those experiences around a performance model: highly contextualized problem-solving, supported by coaches, mentors or subject matter experts acting as “development partners” enabling the application of learning in the workplace — where learning matters.

We need to make learning work.