Tag Archives: training and development

Consider the Spandrels

15 Jan

SpandrelFiguresLibrary of congress

People used to think that computers were going to make instructor-led training (ILT) obsolete, which of course they didn’t. People used to wear Bluetooth headsets, now they don’t. The problem is reductionism. We tend reduce the overall value of something by evaluating it according to a particular element. For example, just think of candles. Ask yourself, why do we still have candles? The light bulb has been around for a long time, so why do we still buy millions of candles each year? If we reduce the value of candles only to their “light-giving” properties, then we completely miss its other uses.

In evolutionary biology they call these unintended uses, “spandrels,” (a word they borrowed from architecture) which often evolve to become far more important than the original intended use. It’s the error that occurs when we make statements like, “Research shows that empathetic leaders generate up to 15% more revenue.” In essence, this reduces the value of empathy to a function of revenue. “You should be good because you’ll make more money.” Or, the example I gave the other day in our book club; imagine if a man said, “Women are valuable because they give birth to more men.” It’s absurd and yet I see it all the time in the learning context. Reductionism to learning, reductionism to measurement and data, reductionism to practical solutions, etc. However, if we simply stop and take a sober look around, we’ll realize that considering the spandrels actually makes us a lot more intelligent than almost everyone else out there. Training and development interventions are actually doing more than just improving learning. For example, we’ll know that….

  • ILTs aren’t going away because they serve MORE than just an individual learning function: 1) they provide an opportunity for people to get together and build trust and rapport, gain new information, and focus on the relationships so important to leadership; 2) it is easy for HR to demonstrate and measure that learning happened; 3) people are familiar with the modality from our schooling and therefore meta-learning is low (learning how to learn in this environment). Mobile learning (mlearning) isn’t going to replace desktop-based elearning because: 1) people actually have an increasing need for structure in our environment (self-discipline is weak); 2) form factors allow for more dynamic interactions on the desktop.
  • Beware gamification. “Just because something has a learning benefit doesn’t mean that people should do it to learn.” So, think about it this way…a Snickers bar has protein and vitamins. It has some nutritional value, but it would be a mistake to think that people eat Snickers bars, or should eat them, because they are nutritious. I think learning games face this same challenge. Just because people learn from playing games doesn’t mean that they play games to learn. We play games because they are intrinsically rewarding. We play games because play is fun. Play is an end to itself, but gamification is quick to reduce “play” to “performance” or “learning.” Now, you can start to engineer taste and nutrition and create some really good tasting protein bars, but again, you’ll need to balance the competing reasons why people eat protein bars versus why people eat a candy bar (they approach the purchase of these somewhat similar foods from completely different angles). Most of the conversations out there about learning games are doing this in the wrong way.
  • People stopped wearing Bluetooth headsets, not because they didn’t need a way to conduct hands-free phone calls, but because they make you look like a douche bag. This is the same reason why I didn’t by a Google Glass. In theory, they are really cool. In reality, you look like a dork…and therefore I would never actually wear it. If you judge a tool, a process, or a technology only upon its “logical usefulness” then you’ll have to explain why my mother buys scented candles. A “logical use” is often just a disguised reduction.


  • We can also find learning benefits where others haven’t. For example, most of the conversation about virtual leadership or virtual leadership development theory is largely about trying to maintain the learning while reducing costs (in the name of efficiency), without considering that virtual training and leading may actually have some ADVANTAGES over traditional approaches. Some non-learning things have learning benefits; some learning things have non-learning benefits. That means that we could offer a portfolio of services with some real knowledge of what each modality does well.

Without reducing one to the other, we can take a look at the learning benefits and the spandrels and ensure that we are addressing each in the most effective way possible. Without this understanding, we conflate things, reduce them, and often end up right back where we started. In the end, you can talk all day about the learning aspect of something, but in terms of the vibrant reality of an organizational social system, there are a lot of other important things going on in any given “training,”  “program,” or “intervention.”

If we consider those spandrels, then we can develop better products and services that leverage multiple values and multiple perspectives. E-Learning can do what e-learning does best (compliance, technical training, etc.). ILTs can be even more interactive and social among participants. Mobile can focus on access to secure databases rather than simply delivering elearning on a phone. Considering the spandrels ensures that we can help clients maximize their training. They can avoid pitfalls and maximize opportunities. Employees will be happy that we aren’t wasting their time. We don’t feel like we are doing the same old thing. Everyone wins.