Language Makes Culture: “Learning” or “Learner”

During my career, I’ve had the privilege to work with some great companies, but there were two companies that stick out in particular for their culture, Nike and Capital One. During one of my first meetings on the Nike campus, a long-time employee working on their onboarding program quickly bragged to me about the swoosh tattoo she had (though she couldn’t show it in the workplace).  That conversation was followed by the recitation of the 11 Nike maxims while everyone else in the room nodded their heads. I heard those maxims over and over again for the next years as if we were in a church quoting the 10 commandments. Nike uses language to call out that they don’t just have “employees” or “sales associates,” they have “athletes.” 

My first week onsite at Capital One, I went through the onboarding class and as with so many companies, heard the values and was given them on pens and slide decks.  I sat silently and expected I’d never see them again, only to find them regularly repeated in meetings over and over in the next few months. Even more than that, instead of meetings we had “pull ups” and instead of one on ones with managers, we had 10/10s (pronounced “ten-tens”) where managers were expected to talk for about ten minutes and the same was expected of their directs so that neither dominated the conversation. We regular cited values like “assume positive intent” that quickly became a part of relationships with friends and family, not just work.

In the same vein, our industry needs a bit of a culture shift and some of that needs to be solidified with our language. While I’m hoping that we continue to evolve in our thinking to the learner as a consumer rather than just focused on the business as our customer, inherent in this evolution is a continued progression from focusing on “learning” to focusing on the “learner.”

If you attend our industry conferences, webinars, and read our websites, you’ll see an infatuation with the act of learning itself – which modality is most impactful, how do we measure it, what’s the methodology for creating it, and who is the best at it. Sure, that focus on learning has been a great thing, and I think it has served us well. However, I think it’s time for a transition. A focus on “learning” won’t serve the consumer-minded learners we’re supporting today. We have learners who want us to focus on them and their needs.

It’s important to acknowledge that some of what I’m suggesting here is simply semantics, but language makes culture. If you still want to measure whether the learner got what they needed from the training, you’ll need some process for creating it (maybe ADDIE or SAM) and you’ll need some form of evaluation (yes, Kirkpatrick still matters). However, I’d love to walk into more sessions where we’re framing the entire conversation in the form of learner – how did they feel, did they stick around, how were they engaged and impacted. I think good design and good data are even more important, but it’s because we’re focused on the learner – the individual and their experience – not the “learning” – the resource, material, or modality – that we believe produced the output

"While I’m hoping that we continue to evolve in our thinking to the learner as a consumer rather than just focused on the business as our customer, inherent in this evolution is a continued progression from focusing on “learning” to focusing on the “learner.”

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