Improving Remote Corporate Learning by Distinguishing Between Training & Coaching

Since the coronavirus crisis began, the buzz in HR & People Development has been about resilience, remote work response, new models in leadership and adjusting to the “new normal”. Most executives and leaders are thinking about some form of remote corporate learning as they coordinate their response.

The new normal is going to require a significant and sustained investment in internal skill development.

But what to learn? There is an immense amount of content out there. Demand for crisis management, wellbeing, and mental health programs has exploded. Productivity and work-life balance are now the #1 issues on employees’ minds. Then there are the practical needs, like communications, resilience, storytelling and virtual presentation training.

I think the question isn’t what to learn, but how to learn.

In this article, I’ll talk about the difference in mindset between Training & Coaching and how it applies to remote corporate learning during crisis.

What’s the Difference Between Training & Coaching and Why Does it Matter?

I’m abundantly aware of the regional differences in language, as a Canadian who has run plenty of storytelling workshops around the world. In Vancouver, I say pr-oh-cess. In San Francisco, I say pr-aw-cess.

Potato, po-taw-to.

I know that there is a whole vocabulary of words about learning that will mean different things in different contexts. For example, in the US, a soccer team would practice, but in the UK, a football team would train.

In that context, those two words refer to more or less the same types of athletic drills.

Again, potato, po-taw-to.

So to be clear: I’m not talking about what word to use. I’m talking about what approach to take for learning. And in my experience, there tend to be two major approaches to remote corporate learning.

For simplicity, I’m going to call them training and coaching. (Feel free to translate the terms into a language that works better for you.)

Training is about learning-as-understanding.

The goal of a training is to teach people things. In organizations, we might train an employee on our new inventory management system. We might train them to understand the latest HR policies.

Want to know what features are part of our latest product redesign? Training.

Want to learn how to code? Training.

Want to understand what’s happening in the competitive landscape? Training.

A new language, a new video conferencing technology, a new job function?

Training, training, training.

Coaching is about learning-as-insight.

Let’s look at this in an athletic context first, as an instructive example. Say you’re a soccer player and you want to work on your throw-ins. There’s a component of your learning that requires understanding. How do the best players in the world do it? What are the physics of throwing a ball? Which exercises will help you build your core muscles?

All of these topics can be delivered through training.

But now you’re out on the field with a ball in your hands. How do you take all that information and integrate it into your specific body? What subtle adjustments do you need to make to how you move your weight? What old habits do you need to unlearn? What emotional and psychological attachments are related to those old habits?

Say, for example, that you learned to throw-in from your beloved late father and remain attached to moving your body the way he taught you. All the information in the world won’t overcome your internal emotional and psychological attachment.

This is where learning-as-integration becomes the fundamental piece of the puzzle, along with integration’s cousin, insight.

Coaching is about creating learning-as-insight. A coach’s job is to translate a piece of understanding into a form that can be integrated into a learner.

This is a much harder proposition than simply providing information, as in a training.

Coaching is required whenever we want to create a change that requires insight. Want someone to be more innovative? You can’t train them to be innovative. You could train them on a process that other people have used to be innovative, but that won’t necessarily make them more innovative, in the same way that reading about Cristiano Ronaldo’s footwork won’t turn me into Cristiano Ronaldo.

Resilience. Empathy. Psychological safety. Leadership. Diversity & Inclusion.

These are coaching approach topics. Training simply will not work.

Leaders Need to Know the Difference Between Coaching & Training So They Can Make Remote Corporate Learning Effective

Training has been the dominant approach to Learning & Development for a long, long time. But now — especially in the wake of the coronavirus — organizations everywhere are seeing the clear need to develop “next gen” skills in their employees: communication, resilience, collaboration, storytelling and so on.

The problem is that most organizations fall back on the wrong metaphor and resort to training.

It ain’t going to work.

One of the silver linings of COVID is that it gives us space to re-evaluate learning. We’ve all seen first hand how limiting Zoom calls can be. No one wants to sit there and listen to a talking head blab for an hour. It was boring in person. It’s much, much more boring on a screen. So the challenge of teaching folks about resilience or remote work is that we have to do it in a way that focuses on their experience of the content.

The content itself isn’t enough.

I know this first hand, as a storytelling consultant. I get calls all the time from folks who want to “train” their people to be better storytellers. And yes, there are plenty of organizations who offer storytelling training. But no storyteller in history has ever learned to be a storyteller by being trained.

Storytellers learn to be storytellers the same way a soccer player learns a throw-in: practice.

So I spend a lot of time helping my prospects and clients recontextualize their own understanding about what they need. But still the language endures: we need to build our storytelling skill set.

No, you don’t. There’s no such thing.

Similar problems are emerging when it comes to these other, abstract skills. There can be no such thing as a resilience, collaboration, culture or innovation skillset. No one is actually “good” at these things. These characteristics emerge from coaching-style environments that emphasize application, integration, trial and error.

Everyone gets better at innovation when you take the time to try, fail and learn from your mistakes. Everyone.

The same is true with each of these high-demand skills. Want to be more resilient? Practice resilience. Want to be a better storyteller? Practice storytelling. Simple.

Yes, of course, there are moments in the learning process when a training is appropriate. We can say that one function of a coach is to understand when to deliver content and when to create a space for practice. It’s this bespoke attitude that will become table stakes in the remote corporate learning industry.

How The Difference Between Training & Coaching Affects the Future of Corporate Learning

If the future of work is resilience, remote work response, new models in leadership and adjusting to the “new normal”, then the future of corporate learning needs to be a bias towards coaching and not training. Here are some of the implications of that change:

  1. Leaders will increasingly see a shift in their responsibilities from management to coaching. Evaluations will be replaced by nurturing. The leaders who will rise to the top of organizations will be the the most compassionate, vulnerable and effective coaches.
  2. Learning will become a default responsibility in everyone’s job. Remember how Google used to ask everyone to spend 20% of their week working on other projects. Organizations will ask everyone to spend 20% of their week learning anything even if it has no bearing on their job. Yes, in the future, your employer will be paying you to learn a foreign language, even if it has no benefit to the bottom line. It will be more important that you are practicing and improving your ability to learn than what you will be learning.
  3. Teams will become re-organized as learning cohorts. Remember in college how we all had different class schedules? How the people in your women’s studies class were totally different from those in your chemistry lab? Workplaces will be organized the same way. Cross-functional learning teams will collaborate over Slack or Teams. Everyone’s job responsibilities will include both learning from and teaching others.
  4. Learning cohorts will include external resources. As companies realize that the key success factor to innovation is their employees’ ability to learn, demand will increase for learning experts. To be clear: Not teachers, trainers or subject matter experts. Polymaths. People who are excellent at the process of learning. Every organization will have a set of engaged, curious learners who participates in a learning cohort on a regular basis. Again, these resources aren’t there to teach. They will be there to ask the right questions, in a way that accelerates the organization’s learning as a whole.
  5. Learning will bleed into sales, marketing and product design. The rising demand of these higher order learning skills will expand learning outside the limits of the organization. An example: I’m a photographer, and I recently downloaded an Adobe photo management software to touch up my images. Ever since I downloaded the software, Adobe has been sending me tutorials. Some are tutorials are on how to use their product. Others are tutorials on how to be a better photographer, because Adobe presumes that the more seriously I take photography, the more use I’ll get from their product. Similarly, imagine you’re a company with an exemplary culture. You have the world’s most resilient people. Don’t you think outsiders will come to you to learn how you do it? Many culture first companies have already been taking this approach. Airbnb, Nike, Autodesk and Culture Amp are just four of many companies who have made educating their customers and marketplace core to their business model. Organizations with strong internal learning cultures will become learning leaders in ways that spill across culture and politics.
  6. Conferences will go the way of the dodo, as we all shift our attention to effective learning design. The conference model was outdated, even before COVID. Conferences work when one person has a piece of information and other people want to sit in the audience and listen. In a world of infinite information and perpetual change, it’s all about integration and application. I.e. coaching. If you’re an out of work conference organizer, shift your attention to effective learning design as quickly as you can.

It all comes back to the difference between coaching and training. This isn’t a difference in nomenclature. It’s a difference in attitude. Are you the type of organization that tells people how it should be? Or are you the type of organization that empowers others to become more than they currently are?

How your organization answers this question will be core to the type of organization you lead in the future.

You pays your money, you takes your choice.