How Perspective Shapes Workplace Learning

By guest author, Tom Spiglanin Ph.D., learning practitioner, advocate and blogger

Look in the mirror. What do you see?

Most of us instinctively say, “me.” However, that answer isn’t accurate. We’re actually looking at a reverse version of the image others see. Our experience with mirrors skews our visual perception of ourselves. In fact, we’re so conditioned to looking at ourselves this way, we tend to think photographs of us are somehow “off” or unflattering. It may be wrong, but this is our perspective.

The word perspective is derived from Middle English perspectyf and Medieval Latin perspectivum — meaning “to look through.” Dictionary.com describes it this way:

  • a visible scene, especially one extending to a distance;
  • the state of existing in space before the eye

Yet, as Beau Lotto brilliantly illustrates in this TEDTalk, looks can be deceiving:

More on perspective:
A Closer Look at Perspective

From our location here on Earth, the heavens appear to revolve around us. Only through scientific observation and analysis have we learned otherwise. So, perspective is about more than physically observing objects. It involves multiple factors that influence our understanding of all that surrounds us. Here’s another definition of perspective:

  • the state of one’s ideas, the facts known to one, etc., in having a meaningful interrelationship;
  • a mental view

In short, it includes how we see things in the world — including others — and how we make sense of it all. It also explains why other people see us differently. Each of us has our own unique perspective through which we perceive ourselves and our environment. This is influenced by the context of our lives — our culture, our community, our knowledge, our past experiences, and much more.

In the workplace, our perspective is also highly dependent our role in an organization — our responsibilities, goals, expectations, and what we believe others expect of us.

Why Perspective Matters in Training

Although every organization is different, there are three common types of training constituents:

  • A population of workers who use training products and services,
  • A smaller population of managers who rely upon training to address performance and knowledge gaps, and
  • Sponsors who fund training programs.

This means learning and development professionals (L&D) must understand not one — not two — but three significantly different perspectives when addressing training needs:

Three Perspectives on Workplace Learning

1) The Business Leader/Sponsor Perspective
As performance improvement advisor Ajay Pangarkar says, leaders look for accountability:

Business leaders place learning practitioners under tremendous pressure to demonstrate that their learning efforts and initiatives are worth the budget they allocate to it. This is probably one of the biggest challenges facing those involved with any aspect of workplace learning.

I think most of us in the L&D field appreciate the business leader perspective, and agree that there is increasing pressure to demonstrate the value of learning initiatives. But all too often, we respond with any metrics we think might help — even when we know they have little to do with training effectiveness.

Learning, development and performance thought leader, Charles Jennings, seems to agree. For example, in What Does the Training Department Do When Training Doesn’t Work? he notes that many organizations try — and fail — to justify programs using return-on-investment measures.

Ultimately, leaders/sponsors recognize that training is an essential business function, but they regard the training organization as a cost center. Under-skilled workers don’t help an organization succeed. On the other hand, training investments must create value.

2) The Manager Perspective
Training perspectives
Typically in organizations, accountability for carrying out strategic plans flows down to individual business units through the management hierarchy. Managers are responsible for achieving tactical objectives, carrying out day-to-day operations that make the business run, and implementing programs that align with organizational strategy.

Within business units, workers need a sufficient set of skills and knowledge to perform their jobs, so the organization can succeed. Managers may identify compliance or performance gaps that require training intervention. Or employees may request approval for training that expands their skills and competency. Managers must decide which training priorities to authorize within a finite budget.

This perspective focuses on operational issues. Managers must consider the trade-offs of every training expense. They approve training for specific reasons, and they expect results through improved individual and organizational performance. Although this point-of-view may seem straightforward, it seldom is. Managers approve employee training for many different reasons — some are more valid and actionable than others.

Ultimately, managers depend on workers to perform their jobs well now and in the future. From this perspective, training is viewed an investment — not in the usual sense of the word, but as an investment in people that not only enhances near-term job performance, but also increases their engagement, commitment and value to the organization, over time.

3) The Participant Perspective
This perspective is most divergent. To illustrate, consider this example of an instructor-led course with two very different audience profiles. In Session A, all participants self-enrolled. In Session B, participants had been assigned to the course by their managers.

There were clear behavioral differences between Session A and Session B. As a whole, the self-enrolled group was much more engaged with activities, more active in conversations, and generally participated more than the assigned group. And back on the job, self-enrolled participants were excited to apply their newly learned skills — while the assigned group left silently, and demonstrated little on-the-job progress.

This underscores how important even one factor can be in influencing training participation. Our learning-related behavior is influenced by many factors — including past experiences with training — all of which can affect our desire or ability to learn.

The participant perspective is individual, idiosyncratic and often situation-dependent. Training may be welcomed or feared. It may be embraced or resisted. Under some circumstances, we may be eager to pursue training as an opportunity to learn. Or we may believe we know enough already.

Honoring Training Perspectives: Creating an Informed Action Plan

Perhaps ironically, training departments know best how to address the most diverse and unpredictable perspective — the individual. Our design processes center on effectiveness, and we are always looking for ways to make our content and programs more engaging.

Learning Organization ComplexityIncreasingly, we are focusing on employee performance, which directly addresses the manager’s perspective. The more we influence performance improvement — even when we recommend a response other than training — the more responsive we are to managerial interests.

Where we seem to fail is in addressing the leader/sponsor perspective. When we feel pressure to justify ourselves and our programs, talk of effectiveness falls short. Then we grasp for any measures to fill the gap — training hours completed, number of employees trained or certified, cost of training per employee, levels of compliance, return on investment or similar metrics. None of these really matter, unless business sponsors believe they are appropriate performance indicators. How will that happen?

Training departments need to become a more integral part of the business, rather than functioning apart from it. Here’s how:

  • Give leaders and managers the same attention we give our participants — working proactively to understand and address their interests.
  • Continue to emphasize the value of performance improvement, and develop better ways to measure program effectiveness at that level.
  • Be prepared to bring solutions other than training to the table.
  • As an integral part of the business, we must use our resources wisely, focusing on strategic needs that are best served by L&D. The 70/20/10 framework offers guidance, and can help us facilitate productive conversations with leaders.
  • Clearly and visibly align our programs with organizational strategy, and communicate this with stakeholders across the organization.

Our role in the modern workplace is complex, and this is certainly no time to be lazy in our approach. We can’t afford to be (or even perceived to be) only creators and providers of training. We must aim to integrate our traditional roles with performance support, social collaboration and continuous professional development.

We can no longer afford to focus solely on employee learning. Nor can we focus solely only on employee performance. To deliver the highest value, L&D must support both effectively, while working with leaders to adapt continuously, along with the dynamic organizations we serve.


Your Turn
What are your thoughts? Is your training organization addressing these three perspectives on training? What kind of impact are you seeing? Please share your comments!


Tom Spiglanin PhDAbout The Author: Thanks to our guest contributor, Tom Spiglanin, Ph.D. For nearly 20 years, Tom has developed learning strategies, educational products, and instructional designs for the Learning Systems Center of The Aerospace Institute — the educational division of The Aerospace Corporation. He also facilitates public speaking and communication skills development in the classroom and via social media.

An advocate of working and learning out loud, Tom regularly contributes to professional blogs, such as Workplace Insiders and ATD Science of Learning. This article is adapted from a post originally published on Tom’s blog, tom.spiglanin.com. All views expressed are Tom’s, and are not those of his employer. His commentary does not imply endorsement.

To connect with Tom, follow him on Twitter.


Editor’s Note: To learn how next-gen LMS technology supports the diverse perspectives of today’s learning organizations, visit ExpertusONE online or contact us anytime to schedule a personalized consultation and demo.

Photo credits: Pixabay

One thought on “How Perspective Shapes Workplace Learning

  1. Pingback: Learning Luminary Interview: Patti Shank, Learning Analyst and Author | Learning In The Cloud

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