Why bother learning?

OK - heretical title I know, but bear with me....

I was recently at Learning Technologies Show, London. I was invited to an after-show party, and while indulging in House wine and copious amounts of semi-warm snacks I got talking to someone who identified herself as a "millennial".

We were talking about her corporate training, and she said something that has been bothering me since, which was:

" My colleagues and I just do the learning we have to do, however well or poorly-designed it is, but I never really bother about remembering anything, BECAUSE WE KNOW IT'S ALWAYS THERE IF WE WANT TO GO BACK TO IT AND NEED IT".

I added bold and caps to that last bit, that's not how she said it; to her, it was just a "matter-of-fact" statement.

This bothers me, not because of her attitude, but because of the implications on us.

There is historical precedent for her viewpoint...

Henry Ford was once taken to court by other car makers who could not understand how he made cars so cheaply. In court they accused him of not being an expert, and making poor quality cars. He produced an electrical (WOW!) switchboard, and explained that "...if I want to contact the expert on tyres, I flip this switch, and he knows to come up to my office. If I need to contact the expert on engines, I flip....etc. etc."

He did not need to learn, just have access to knowledge.

If this is how people are REALLY now using online learning, and using our product(s), do all our clever animations, graphics, interactions and so on actually matter any more?

Let's just give out facts, because millennials know how to access it, and will go back when they need it.

Why do they need to bother learning?

Bearing in mind I did not make this up, and that it is a real-world example, what do you think? Have you ever come across this? If pervasive, how will this affect what we do?

I'd be interested in knowing your thoughts. Is all eLearning now "just in time" contextual learning?


19 Replies
Christy Tucker

I think plenty of things can just be looked up at the time of need. I don't need to memorize the recipes for most of the dishes I cook; I can just read the recipe to get the exact amounts and steps. For those sorts of tasks, we should probably be creating job aids (recipes and hints for work tasks) rather than courses. At a minimum, we should be creating training plus job aids, or training that helps people learn how to use performance support.

I'm storyboarding a course currently where one of the main goals is for people to know where to find and how to use the resources. We don't care if they can remember all 10 points and 50+ subpoints of this policy. We care that they're aware that the policy exists and that they can navigate the website to look up the policy when they need it. Therefore, the content delivery is very light, and the practice activities are questions like "look up in Table 1 what you need for this safety precaution" and "use this self-assessment to determine what components of the standard you're currently meeting or not."

Some tasks require a deeper expertise though. A musician can't stop in the middle of a song to look up a fingering. A salesperson can't ask a customer to "hold that thought" while he fires up the elearning on objection handling. A doctor can't ask a patient to wait while she pulls up the example audio of what a heart murmur sounds like for comparison. A line manager can't walk out in the middle of a meeting to review the online course about delegation. Those skills require internalizing knowledge deeply enough that you can use them at the time of need. You can't have everything be "just in time."

Steve Flowers

Agree with Christy's points above.

Facts are everywhere. If I had to stop to look everything up, it would take me soooo long to get anything done at all. 

The woman in your story has a point. We have unprecedented access to good and bad information. To perfectly valid facts and information that can help us get things done. To perfectly misleading and wrong information that can lead us down the wrong path. 

This is the core problem with the way many view training and learning. This conflation of movement of information with the efficiency of a training solution is flat wrong. It's not about storing information in our heads. It's about being able to adapt and adapt quickly to whatever challenges the task you've trained for presents. This rarely hinges on our ability to recall information. Doesn't mean information isn't important. But that's only one ingredient.

Cake != Flour. It's more than that.

Information != Knowledge != Behavior != Task Success != Results

Work is more complicated than, "Let me Google that" for many types of things that we do. Adept search skills are great. Helpful. But that domain expertise does not transfer to all other domains equally.

On the other side of that, why make people search for and curate their own information for some tasks where a guide or job aid would be helpful? 

Richard Watson

You guys both make excellent points. According to a recent report I read, by 2025, millennials will be 75% of the global workforce, 68% prefer mobile device over laptops/desktops, they don't need to be taught technology, shorter attention spans, accustomed to consuming information in small chunks, and prefer NOT to memorize things; just look them up on Google when they need it.

Another interesting question is do we design for millennials and provide separate training for everyone else? Or, don't most people today, who are busy and pulled in lots of different directions, need the same approach?  Does everything need to have a "level up" option?  From some articles, that appears to be the mantra out there.  


David Goodman

For me, this is a wake-up call and a positive challenge for everyone in the learning industry. There are too many people designing and developing training who are concerned about things that are not relevant to learners. We think that spinning globes and animated items are cute and valuable. We all need to get beyond Powerpoint, Level 1 courses, clip art and motion paths. Bruce's conversation shines light on a "learner's need" - we may not think of this as learning but for that specific learner, she knows where data and information lives, can retrieve it but then her work begins. She needs to be confident to make sense of this data and properly understand it, retrieve it, apply it, evaluate it and then in some manner her performance must be evaluated. The learning process may not necessarily have changed but the perceived value in the deliverable and its use has changed. I just read some research last week that stated people spend .6 hours in corporate supplied learning per week vs 1.6 hours in self taught (internet) learning. We need to embrace this change, modify our thinking and processes so as to become better in assisting people to teach themselves whenever possible and practical for each situation. If we think about it, our roles are more important now than before. It would be interesting to hear how we might redesign ourselves for this new environment.

Christy Tucker

Richard, most of the research on millennial supposedly learning differently is actually garbage. The "digital native" idea is mostly a myth. Yes, they prefer mobile, but they still need to be taught technology and effective search strategies. They also have the same needs for practice with feedback to gain skills as everyone else.

Everyone needs both performance support and training, depending on the task and prior skill. What we really need is a good system for figuring out what can be looked up and what needs to be internalized.

Steve Flowers

I think there is something to what Richard is saying. There are other sources. From all generations, some people use them heavily. Others (no matter the generation) use them less often or not at all. We should leverage those sources and cultivate the flow to those sources. 

But I'll repeat what I said above with fewer words:) Training is not about information delivery. It's about helping people be prepared to do stuff. To accomplish things. It always has been. 

There are many ways to combine available resources, curated sources, structured and unstructured challenges, and provide opportunities to demonstrate proficiency. 

Zsolt Olah

I read this study a while ago about how we less likely remember things if we know the information is available after. 


I don't blame them not to "learn" things because we've been producing ton of content in elearning that nobody will remember. We've conditioned our users to ignore stuff by mixing up "awareness" information, knowledge that they should really recall, knowledge that is actually about using external resources (you never had to do something like what tab does X in an application???), motivation (such as doing time entry), and compensation for bad design (how often you had to explain a bad UI? or worse, fix it in Photoshop?). 

Joanne Chen

You guys all make great points. For me, training is to help people gain ability to accomplish things or enhance ability to do a better job (including attitude and behavior change).

However, there are too many training provide knowledge base courses. Knowledge isn't equal to ability, no need to mention knowledge will be forgotten. For millennial, a lot of things changes very fast, so why bother to "learn" if I can access it when I need it? I won't say knowledge isn't important but I believe people in this industry need to more focus on how to help learners gain ability rather than how to overcoming forgotten curve.  

Phil Mayor

I am not sure this is about millennials as the way we learn remains the same the biology has not changed. The way the search for and consume information has not changed, but we produce training, learning and education which are different. The difference with millennials they have grown up online and therefore consume information differently to the way over 35s might not, but as Steve points out this is information and not training. Millennials are not a homogenous group though they will act and behave differently.

The research and theories apply to  millennials the same as they do to us, they may be more tech savvy than most but the approach will/should always be the same. 

I have taught myself a few things over the years using youtube, such as laying an underfloor heating system, repairing a Dyson vacuum cleaner, but their are many things I cannot learn from YouTube such as martial arts.

Some of the problem is in the content we produce, a lot of the time I am asked to produce courses that are not learning, but are transferring information for compliance purposes. 

I think the comment was said to you genuinely and perhaps innocently, however at the same time it was disingenuous, she has ignored here own education, school, college and university where she would have been taught rather than been given information (although to this day I would argue my immunology lecturer passed on information rather than taught). 

That doesn't mean we shouldn't look at what we produce,  millennials will have a certain expectation because they are used to great UI and UX, and as a whole I find this is missing form most of the elearning we produce. We shouldnt have to create on boarding for our elearning. We can look at ways of making it more relevant and also produce just in time job aids but the still need to learn.

Are millennials special, maybe, probably not.

David Tait

I think the safest way to create effective learning materials, regardless of the medium, is to know who the target audience is. 

For example, if we're talking about onboarding, we're probably aiming at younger learners (currently late Millennials and early Gen Z). The material should be tailored appropriately. 

If we're talking about senior leaders, my guess is that we're currently talking about predominantly Gen Xers. Again, we should be aiming the material towards the typical learner from this group to maximise effectiveness.

By 2020 some predictions have the global workforce looking like this:

Global Workforce 2020

This is of course an evolving picture.

It's clear that one size doesn't fit all when it comes to learning. The question is, does it need to? I don't think it does.

Phil Mayor

Do millennials learn differently? I am not sure they do, the biology of their brain is the same as anyone else.Has their brain adapted differently because of their experiences, possibly.

Is there any compelling research to support that they are different? I have not seen any and a lot of the research that has been carried out end s up talking about information rather than learning/training. 

I think millennials want to believe that the internet has 'rewired' their brain because it then makes them different. But this really flies in the face of evolution.

I hate to quote people but my favourite quote about this is by Steven Pinker

'The most interesting trend in the development of the Internet is not how it is changing people's ways of thinking but how it is adapting to the way that people think.'

I believe the internet is adapting to the way people think to become more effective, in my mind that is what our training needs to do to become effective.

David Tait
Phil Mayor

I believe the internet is adapting to the way people think to become more effective, in my mind that is what our training needs to do to become effective.

I agree, for me the starting point is understanding who makes up the cohort and the typical learning preferences of this group (regardless of generational name tags). Only then can we begin to tailor our solutions to their needs.


Joseph Francis


Sadly, 45 hours of mandatory online training is on the low end for some organizations.

It has become far too easy to shovel everything into eLearning without giving it a second thought (or a first Needs Analysis).  I just had a conversation in a similar vein yesterday with a friend who is a highly-trained and skilled healthcare professional, who is dealing with a staff member who has not performed satisfactorily, even though said-staff member has been exposed to the education 3 times. My friend is smart enough to realize that the problem is no longer educational, it is behavioral, and won't be solved with more of the same education. A different tack will be needed.

Clark Quinn lays out the Needs Analysis process beautifully in his blog Before the Course, opening with, "It appears that, too often, people are building courses when they don’t need to (or, more importantly, shouldn’t)." When a client believes training is the only solution, they aren't fully engaging with the problem.

Educators (both electronic and traditional) need to be able to discern which problems are truly solved with education, and which are not. Those who say "I never really bother about remembering anything because I know it's always there if I need to go back and get it," have figured out the difference between knowledge and skill. If it's something they need to know, they've learned where to locate the nugget of information if they need it. It's the things they need to be able to DO where we should be focusing our energies on.

Steven Goodwin (retired learning professional)

Great question and discussion.

Some things I learned before I retired last year aged sixty-one, although I have no idea what a Baby Boomer is.  I know I like to learn because it makes me feel good (and sometimes valued); I don't like to be 'taught' because it does neither.

I like to learn changes in what I want to do, how to behave or sometimes what I believe - when and where I want - or need - to learn, through directly-linked learning activities. Now that I'm retired, it's nearly always what I want to learn! 

So I learned to ask myself how other learners felt in my classes, my coaching sessions, my short online learning courses and fifteen or thirty-second videos (maximum two minutes), my online classrooms of up to six, or my webinars of up to eighteen/twenty. I learned new ways of designing learning activities, and that the tools, books and so on I used did not matter. Only what I put into them - and not to put anything in that learners did not need to know.  I wanted to know how to empower them, and which ones of them would feel empowered if I adopted - or adapted - a different way of learning to their preferences.

As for clients that approached by saying 'I want to achieve a,b,c..' , I learned that my first question should be 'How will you know when you get there?'.  If they could not answer - usually the case -  then I'd ask them to come back when they knew. Might have given them a few metrics and ideas to think about. Makes a so-called Needs Analysis (horrid term, along with 'training' and 'eLearning')  easier to start, although I gave these up in favour of Learning and Skills mapping, backwards from the changes if they knew them.

Oh well, I need to learn how to fillet a plaice (flatfish) now. I wonder how people learned that a thousand years ago?

Ulises Musseb

Every time that I hear something about this topic, I always notice that people seem to forget about the real world. Yes, absolutely, that "millennial" is right that the learning that she needs for the purposes that she needs it seems that is and will be available at any time.

First, that isn't new. What has changed is the media and availability of information that we have today as opposed as it used to be accessed. What they do today is the same thing we have done since information was invented, minus the trip to the library. So, please stop looking at millennials as if they are a mutation from normal human beings.

Second and most importantly, that doesn't and cannot, and will never apply to every aspect of learning or every single area of the learning experience. That cannot be done when a Doctor is going to perform a safe laparoscopic entry. A Doctor cannot just look for a YouTube video to just-in-time, micro learn how to do that. Same thing for a Structural Engineer at the time of applying structural design theory when designing a building. They cannot just open a less-than-5-minute tutorial to learn how to calculate stresses in beams.

Just because some information is easily available at any time, that doesn't mean that learning is over. Some things have to be learned. In order to perform certain tasks, people have to sit down and formally learn something, and many specialized skills are required for such tasks.

People love to fantasize about "the future of learning", painting it as something that we can just access at any time to do anything. That's true for SOME things, never true for things that require specialized knowledge, and/or certification that you meet the requirements to apply such knowledge.

Melanie Sobie

What an interesting discussion! 

I wasn’t exposed to any online training in the workplace until I was around 30 years old, and it was a mandatory course on sexual harassment with an cartoonish female character, complete with inappropriate cartoon cleavage, narrating the course as the business professional.  After that maybe once a year I’d be subjected to another bad online course on another mandatory topic, like ethics. 

Think what millennials have had to endure. Perhaps hours of bad online training every single year of their working life? 

One thing I learned early on about good training was in my first government job which had a 6 week training program.  The trainer told us after the 2nd week - You can’t know all of this, but my goal is you will learn all the concepts and principles your job is based on and you will also know the manual well enough to know where to look things up to be able to do the job accurately. I think good, worthwhile online training should be the same  



Bob S

Thanks for starting the discussion, Bruce.

When we step back from the generational labels and techno coolness, it feels pretty familiar...

  • Today = "Why bother, I'm busy and can just look on the Net "
  • 20 Years Ago = "Why bother, I'm busy and can just look at the CD Rom"
  • 50 Years Ago = Why bother, I'm busy and can just look in the Binder"
  • 100 Years Ago = "Why bother, I'm busy and can just.... (you get the idea!)"

Relevance, Balancing truly required vs just-in-time material, and Learner Motivation have , and will continue to be, key areas learning/training professionals need to focus on.

And lest we think this is unique to the business workplace... My wife is a math interventionist brought in to help a struggling school. She expected to face challenges with the students, but what surprised her most is how the teachers were actually manifesting these same issues. When she was able to show the teachers why the new math program they had bought was important, provide JIT support materials for them to use, and create a motivating atmosphere for them to embrace the program.....  success followed rapidly and scores improved dramatically.