Recently I worked with a client (as ever with this blog, anonymity is assured) and much of my time was taken up with discussing personal development – mainly because hardly anybody on the client side did.

Well, not strictly true, part of the organisation trained people and they frequently discussed development but it was usually professional development. And it was not really discussed internally. Whenever it was discussed whether regarding internal people or external client organisations, there was a mantra that tended to come through, and that mantra was:

development = course

Now I have been on quite a few courses in my time, and I haven’t learned how to do anything on any of them. Not one. Not to say that these courses weren’t any good, no, some of them were excellent – a couple actually life-changing. But I didn’t learn how to do a damn thing until I went away and applied the things the course had told me about in real life.

Take one example many of us will be familiar with – driving lessons – they gave me information I needed to know to pass my driving test, but I only learned to drive after going out practicing with someone who was really really good at driving and then trying to do what they told me. My family, who are on the receiving end of much of my driving will tell you that this is very much a work in progress to this day – but at least I passed my test first time.

Similarly, when I worked in Financial Services, I had to do an online course every year on Fraud and Money Laundering legislation. I passed every single course, never needed to do a single re-take, but I doubt I could tell you much now about money laundering that I didn’t learn from watching Richard Pryor in Superman 3

Now, I am aware that people learn in different ways, or at least have differing preferences for how they learn stuff, but in my experience most people actually learn to do by doing – what the folks in white coats might call experiential learning.

One person I worked with quite closely at the client was a perfect example. We had some diagnostic work to do to try and uncover some particularly thorny cultural issues within the organisation, and I suggested a critical incident review might be just the ticket. “Oh yes, I learned to do that on a course,” said my client-side chum.

“Splendid,” I said. “When do you want to do it?”

“Oh I can’t do one,” they replied. “I’ve never done one. I just did the course.”

They had been doing lots of courses over the years and had an impressive armoury or knowledge and a portfolio full of certificates, but they had very little experience of trying to apply that knowledge in the real world – and that is the very nub of the problem with the aforementioned organisational mantra: development = course is wrong.

Development actually = course + experience of using the knowledge imparted on the course in actual real life situations. In fact, you can simplify it further:

Development = doing stuff until you get good at it.

In a previous organisation I worked with, they promoted a 70/20/10 model of learning and development, with 70% done on the job while working every day, 20% through mentoring and coaching, usually by a peer or line manager, and 10% at most actual classroom learning. We found that when it was adopted not only was it more effective than the previous approach (development = course) it was also a lot, lot cheaper. And people liked learning that way – satisfaction levels with their learning and development improved as a result.

I went away and crunched some numbers for my chum client side to help them put together a business case for a new approach – unfortunately, they couldn’t make the meeting – they were away on a course.