The book, The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results; by Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, Andrew Jefferson, and Richard Flanagan; is one of the most important books published in the training and development industry in a very long time.
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Book Review by Will Thalheimer
President of Work-Learning Research, Inc.
Book: The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results
Authors: Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, Andrew Jefferson, and Richard Flanagan
Publication Date: April 2006
The learning-and-performance field—of which I am a devoted member—hasn’t had a really big idea since the performance-improvement crusade began gathering momentum in the 1980’s. But now, thanks to the work of Cal Wick, Roy Pollock, Andrew Jefferson, Richard Flanagan and their colleagues at the Fort Hill Company, we finally have a new innovation—a systematic method for training follow-through.
It’s not a surprise that training can only be effective if learners put what they learn into practice. What Wick and company have done is demonstrate the feasibility of driving training transfer into the flow of work. Their book is really a culmination of years of exploration as they bravely embraced the exhausting and dangerous work of pioneers.
They’ve taken an evidence-based approach to learning design—grappling with real-world clients, making careful observations, gathering data, utilizing research findings, and fine-tuning their practices. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve created a breakthrough technology that enables training-and-development leaders to push learning results into the actual workplace.
E-learning pundits haven’t recognized it yet, but Fort Hill’s Friday5s training-follow-through software (along with competitive products like ZengerFolkman’s ActionPlan Mapper) may be the most disruptive e-learning technology yet devised. While web-meeting platforms, LMS’s, rapid authoring tools, and even Google may seem potent, they don’t change training effectiveness as much as a good training follow-through system.
Wick, Pollock, Jefferson, and Flanagan may enjoy promoting Fort Hill products, but they go out of their way to craft a broader message in their brilliant new book, The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results. The authors lay out a devastating analysis of the current state of training practice—not by being negative—but by illustrating with cases, examples, and research how to do training right.
The book is nothing short of revolutionary. Unfortunately, in our dysfunctional field not everyone will take up arms against their own ineffective practices, but the book provides solid guidance to the enlightened soldiers in our midst. If you want to improve on-the-job performance and business results, this book is a guiding light.
Changing the Paradigm and Technology of Learning
In the flow of our everyday lives, the world as we know it follows predictable patterns. Things change, but they change predictably. Every once in while, however, something new appears—an innovation or idea so strange and yet so perfectly in tune with the cravings, resources, and zeitgeist of the time that it changes everything.
Disruptive technologies like electricity, phones, computers, and the internet have produced powerful ripples through the human fabric. Automobiles not only displaced the horse, they enabled the rise of the middle class, the building of suburbs, and intellectual and social freedom for young adults. Paradigm shifts and scientific discoveries create the same effects, changing the way we see the world—changing the possibilities. If not for the ideas of Jesus, Darwin, Gandhi, Confucius, Freud, Einstein, Watson and Crick, Kuhn, and others, we would live in a different world.
The last great disruptive innovation to arise within the learning-and-performance field was the move away from “training” and toward “performance improvement.” Unfortunately, that movement is not yet complete. The hard truth is that we talk more about on-the-job results than we achieve them.
In the move from training to performance improvement, something got lost. Performance gurus often badmouth training as inadequate, but they give short shrift to its strengths, and are blind about how to design the complete training experience to make training work. This kind of blindness is endemic in our field for two reasons, (1) because we have so little understanding of the basics of human learning, and (2) because we rarely evaluate our performance.
Thankfully, Cal Wick and his team (as well as a few others) have tired of training’s big lie. They know that training can be powerful—if only the right processes and procedures are put into place. Because they understand learning, they can envision a systematic set of guidelines that work. Because they measured the performance of their learners, they have been able to fine-tune their recommendations.
The Six Disciplines is poised to become one of the most important books in the learning-and-performance field. Not since the publication of Dana Gaines Robinson and James C. Robinson’s book on performance consulting or the seminal work of Bob Mager on performance-based instructional design, has our field been offered a new system of thinking—a new way to do our jobs as learning-and-performance professionals.
The Book’s Overarching Message
The book proposes six disciplines and offers scores of recommendations, but it’s central message is that what happens after training is just as important—and probably more important—than the training itself.
The six disciplines are:
1. Define Outcomes in Business Terms
2. Design the Complete Experience
3. Deliver for Application
4. Drive Follow-Through
5. Deploy Active Support
6. Document Results
Wick, Pollock, Jefferson, and Flanagan suggest that training ought to be conceptualized with a new finish line.
The “finish line” for learning and development has been redefined. It is no longer enough to deliver highly rated and well-attended programs; learning and development’s job is not complete until learning has been converted into results that matter to the business. (p. 13)
This new finish line enables us to see possibilities beyond the completion of smile sheets. A learner’s job—indeed an organization’s job—is not done when the classroom door swings shut.
The authors also emphasize the importance of visualizing training as something that occurs within an expanded timeline. Before-training efforts and after-training efforts are just as critical as the training efforts themselves. Particularly important are the after-training efforts because they focus learner attention on implementing the learning, reinforce fading memories, and transform the process of learning from an individual pursuit to an organizational responsibility. Learning changes from a love-it-and-leave-it experience to a system of reciprocal reinforcement where the results are measured in on-the-job performance.
The Book’s Evidence
The authors cite lots of organizational research to back up their claims, from thinkers and researchers like Broad, Brinkerhoff, and Newstrom. And, the notion of a new finish line is entirely consistent with the research on fundamental learning factors—the kind of research I’ve been working with for almost a decade. For example, we know learners forget most of what they learn—unless that information is reinforced in the workplace. Each one of the six disciplines push us to design an expanded learning experience, one that focuses on workplace implementation, not training per se.
Other forms of evidence are equally important. In addition to research from refereed journals, the book details dozens of real-world learning executives describing their successes in broadening the conception of training and implementing the six disciplines. Wisdom from learning leaders was relayed from these and other organizations: Sony, Gap, 3M, Humana, BBC, Center for Creative Leadership, General Mills, Corning, Forum, University of Notre Dame, Honeywell, AstraZeneca, Pfizer.
Evidence of the effectiveness of technology-based training follow-through is described using data from the powerful methodology of control-group designs. Graphs and text clearly illustrate the results. For example, page 128 conveys how “Use of a Follow-Through Management System Increased Managers’ Awareness of Their Direct Reports’ Development Goals from 40 Percent to 100 Percent.”
While the majority of books in our field fail to convey more than a few breadcrumbs of credible evidence, The Six Disciplines hits for the triple crown, utilizing refereed research, experience of real-world learning leaders, and data from control-group studies. In our field, it simply doesn’t get any better than this.
The Book’s Design
The book is well organized, with an introductory chapter, a summary chapter, and one chapter for each of the six disciplines described in the title. Each chapter ends with a nice twist—two lists of action points; one for “learning leaders” and one for “line leaders.” There are many design examples such as this that demonstrate that the authors are really serious about on-the-job performance. The book utilizes some valuable repetitions of key points. The text design makes reading a pleasure. Quotations are pithy and relevant. Examples are illustrative of the main points in the text.
I read every page of the book, so I can tell you with confidence that it is well written. There are hundreds of specific recommendations throughout the book. I found many insights that I hadn’t thought of—ideas that I will use in my work as a consultant, instructional-design strategist, and creator of training. The graphs and charts are clear and there are some very useful templates. For example, the first chapter concludes with the “Learning Transfer and Application Scorecard,” a 10-item questionnaire. It’s a powerful tool because—and this is my opinion not the authors’—most current training programs will fail miserably when measured by these questions. I’d bet that most training programs will have low scores on ALL 10 items of the scorecard.
I have two almost insignificant complaints about the book. First, the cover is uninspired. The book deserves better. Second, the six disciplines are shoehorned into starting with the letter “D,” in a way that is more misleading than it should be. For example, the second “D” stands for Design the Complete Experience. The author’s emphasis is on the complete experience, but the shorthand version “Design” connotes the traditional instructional-design notion of design—a notion completely inadequate; as the authors argue persuasively in the actual text.
The Book’s Recommendations
The book is jam-packed with recommendations, so I’ll only convey a few of the specific recommendation here. You really ought to buy The Six Disciplines and read it and share it with everyone you know who cares about doing training right. Here’s my short list:
- View training follow-up as part of every training intervention.
- Get learners’ managers involved before and after training.
- Evaluate your training programs to determine whether they’re working and to improve subsequent training.
- Before designing a training program, determine what learners will be doing better and differently after the program. Be clear about what evidence will be acceptable to determine success.
- Understand the business. Be proactive in suggesting training-and-development solutions. Check your understanding with line leaders.
- Utilize a technology-based training-follow-through system to drive learning application and accountability.
- Utilize evidence-based practices, including research-based instructional design and after-training evaluation.
- Avoid “dense-pack education—the tendency to cram every conceivable topic into a program of a few days.”
- Focus on creating transfer during all phases of training—while designing the training, while delivering it, and during follow-up.
- Consider using senior executives to teach leadership—it is one of the fastest- growing trends in executive education.
- During training, stop after each topic and ask participants questions that challenge them to think about applying what they know.
- Learners should develop “learning transfer objectives” and be prepared to work toward them while back on the job.
- Send learners’ objectives to the learners’ managers to increase follow-up application and accountability.
- Utilize Marshall Goldsmith’s “feedforward” techniques to help learners generate ideas for training application.
- Recognize that there are factors that decrease the likelihood that learners will put their learning into practice, and that the impact of these factors can be minimized only through a systematic follow-through process.
- Utilize reminders to facilitate memory and spur on-the-job application of training.
- Hold employees accountable for making effective use of the training they receive.
- Consider coaching as a complement to training, providing learners with coaches to increase the likelihood of energetic and appropriate application.
- Learning programs that “demonstrate sound, thorough, credible, and auditable evidence of results are able to garner additional investment; those that cannot are at risk.”
- Learning and development units within companies need to communicate their results to the organization using multiple communication attempts and various communication channels.
How do Your Learning Programs Rate?
As I mentioned earlier, the Fort Hill Company has developed a Learning Transfer and Application Scorecard (displayed on pages 10 and 11) that targets the most important and leveragable characteristics that make training effective. Every training program ought to be measured with this scorecard. To get an idea of how well your training stacks up, I’ve included three of the ten items. I changed the wording slightly to help you make sense of the items before you read the book. How well do your training programs do the following?
- After the program, participants are reminded periodically of their post-learning objectives and of opportunities to apply what they learned.
- Participants’ managers are actively engaged during the postprogram period. They review and agree on after-learning objectives, and expect and monitor the progress that learners are making in applying what they’ve learned.
- The design of the learning program covers the entire process from initial invitation to attend, through the learning sessions, and through on-the-job application and measurement of results.
The Six Disciplines is the most important book written in our field in quite some time. It provides a comprehensive system to make training effective. Its radical new nugget of truth is its insistence on training follow-through. The book’s ideas are evidence-based and are consistent with the human learning system. The messages in the book have been tested and refined in the real world. Tools are available (for example, Fort Hill’s Friday5s follow-through management system) that make the recommendations actionable.
Training Follow-Through Systems
I am aware of two training follow-through systems, Fort Hill’s Friday5s, and ZengerFolkman’s ActionPlan Mapper. I have formally reviewed the ZengerFolkman product, but have yet to put my review of Friday5s on paper. Both are powerful programs. Friday5s may have an edge given its longer tenure in the marketplace and its ability to provide learning reminders, not just reminders about learning transfer objectives. My recommendation is that you test them for yourself.
My contact information is as follows. Will Thalheimer, PhD, is a learning consultant and researcher. He can be reached at 617-718-0067, and firstname.lastname@example.org, and www.work-learning.com, and www.willatworklearning.com.
The Fort Hill Company is available at 302-651-9223, and email@example.com, and www.forthillcompany.com.