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Training vs. Learning: Why It’s Important to Know the Difference for an Optimized Learning Space

This blog article was written prior to LEO Learning becoming part of GP Strategies.

All L&D professionals will recognize that learning and training are both integral to performance outcomes—for both the individual and the organization. At LEO Learning, we’ve devised and deployed many learning and training solutions, and the breadth and depth of our experience have informed our holistic approach to creating optimized learning spaces. These are environments that set people up to maximize their learning potential.

We believe that organizations need to do three things to optimize their learning space:

  1. Embed opportunities for both training and learning
  2. Recognize the subtle differences and symbiotic relationship between training and learning
  3. Identify the times where training will be more appropriate than learning and vice versa

Training vs. Learning: The Differences

Some people—inside or outside the L&D sector—use the terms “training” and “learning” interchangeably. Others, conversely, depict them as antithetical forces. We see them as distinct but symbiotic concepts.

Learning Is a Possible Result of Training

Learning should be the result of training—but to assume learning has happened just because some training has happened is a mistake. People can learn from training, and people can apply learning in training. Sometimes people learn something without doing any training. And other times people can complete some training without learning anything!

Training Is Delivered to Someone

We define training as an activity that can be done to or for someone, or completed independently. For example, most organizations will deliver information security training to their employees. An expert provides knowledge and delivers it to employees in the form of, for example, an eLearning course. Employees will probably also be asked to practice by, for instance, completing scenario questions to rehearse and repeat the skill or behaviors they need to develop. You’ll encounter training outside work, too: if you’re training for a marathon, you probably have a daily running regimen that you stick to.

Learning, on the other hand, is an internal, individual-led process. You can “train” someone, but you can’t “learn” them. The ability to learn is one of the quintessential characteristics of being human. It’s about developing broad, theoretical or conceptual knowledge and nurturing a sense of reasoning and critical thinking.

Training is one of the essential components that help to make learning happen, but it’s not enough by itself. If we want employees to form a deep understanding of something, we need to offer rich, varied educational experiences.

The “How” and the “Why” of Training and Learning

We know that for employees to develop new skills, improve their performance, or change behavior, they need to be engaged in the topic, know what they need to do, know how to do it, and be able to contextualize and apply that knowledge in unfamiliar situations.

Training—whether that’s a lecture, an eLearning course, a series of practice exercises, or a daily exercise regime—is great for the “how”. It works well for processes and procedures in specific and current contexts. Learning is the thing that happens when people make connections; if training is about the “how”, then learning is very much about the “why”.

Consider our example of marathon training. While you might need a personal trainer to practice some running drills with you initially, you may need to ask them deeper questions to glean useful insights about running to gain a competitive edge and perform better. Where we offer an intervention that is focused on the “why” and designed to stimulate learning, we may refer to this as learning rather than training.

Once you combine the how with the why (i.e. the training and the learning), your running ability is likely to be significantly better than someone who has just had personal training sessions or only learned about running techniques. And if you were to extrapolate this dual-pronged approach across a running team, for example, the performance of that team is likely to increase exponentially.

Applying the “How” and “Why” in a Business Context

At LEO, we extend the work of Professor Diana Laurillard to consider how we can optimize capacity development among an organization’s employees. Our logical progression of her original Conversational Framework defines 10 different learning modes (keep scrolling to see our additions in bold):

  • Engagement (raising awareness)
  • Acquisition (watch, listen to, or read instructions)
  • Inquiry (ask, search, compare, and analyze)
  • Collaboration (undertake group project work)
  • Discussion (share insights with peers)
  • Practice (apply exercises/simulations)
  • Production (produce some relevant work, e.g. reports, presentations)
  • Assessment (either self-led, peer-led, or accredited via formal examination)
  • Reflection (either on the self, on progress, on the team, or the organization)
  • Support (from workplace tools/templates, recaps/reminders, subscription learning)

But what about training in a business context, which isn’t referenced explicitly in either model? Based on our analysis, training comprises elements of both the Acquisition and Practice spaces. It’s about reading a guide, watching a video demonstration, or listening to some verbal instructions (Acquisition) and then practically applying that knowledge regularly (Practice). But acquiring and putting that knowledge into practice is not the same as learning.

In fact, for an employee in an organization to truly learn something in a way that ‘sticks’, we believe that an individual needs a solution comprising multiple learning modes and a diverse array of learning media/channels. This needs to happen in an optimized learning space that provides clear opportunities for training as well as learning.

Training and Learning Support Capacity Development

By now, we’ve established that the combined power of training and learning overrides any subtle differences between the two. So let’s focus on what they both do well: support employee capacity development. This is what an individual needs to know and do in order to do their job better. Consider, for example, how an organization may choose to educate its employees on fire safety. As an organization with an optimized learning space, its L&D team recognizes that:

  • Employees need to know how to follow the procedures that keep them safe (covered by training)
  • Employees need to know why those procedures are in place, so they understand the importance of fire safety and can extend their understanding beyond the detail of the procedures (covered by learning)

The organization decides to run some physical drills explicitly to train people on how to evacuate the building safely. But it realizes that, to maximize capacity development and embed real behavioral change, there needs to be a compelling learning intervention too. This means using multiple learning modes and diversifying learning media/channels as far as practical to increase learner engagement. These media/channels will naturally vary depending on the available budget, schedule, technology infrastructure, and the learning culture within an organization. So the capacity development intervention could look something like this:

Learning that grabs attention: A video from a fire expert describing the consequences of failing to follow procedure in the event of a fire (Engagement)

Learning that contextualizes and prepares the learner for training: An eLearning module explains how and why fire safety procedures differ across different settings and links to further sources of support (Acquisition)

Training that results in learning: Employees complete the fire drill as per building regulations and relevant legislation (Practice)

Further learning based on the training: Employees have a retrospective meeting to identify any issues that need to be addressed in current fire safety guidance (Discussion)

This example demonstrates how learning isn’t a substitute for or oppositional to formal training, but rather complements it. While training demonstrates how to complete certain tasks in specific ways, learning challenges an individual’s viewpoint and diversifies their knowledge base.

Someone may be trained at a foundational level to do something at work, but it’s only by asking probing questions, gleaning novel insights, absorbing that information, and practicing their craft regularly that they can begin to excel at work. And if we were to extrapolate excellent individual performance across an organization, future prospects start to look very bright.

A Final Word of Learning vs Training

An organization will incorporate both learning and training interventions throughout its learning space if it’s serious about improving performance outcomes. This holistic approach enables organizations to provide their employees with the tools to tackle current issues and equips them with the critical thinking skills to handle future challenges.

Organizations whose primary concern is capacity development are well placed to devise and deploy training and learning solutions that:

  • Help them hit their short-term objectives
  • Build their long-term strategic vision
  • Optimize their learning spaces
  • Center employee engagement
  • Improve organizational performance

Want to learn more about creating an optimized learning space for your learners? Get in touch with one of our experts.

About the Authors

Victor Verster

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