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How Perspective Shapes Workplace Learning

Look in the mirror. What do you see?

Most of us instinctively say, “me.” However, that answer isn’t accurate. We’re actually looking at a reverse version of the image others see. Our experience with mirrors skews our visual perception of ourselves. In fact, we’re so conditioned to looking at ourselves this way, we tend to think photographs of us are somehow “off” or unflattering. It may be wrong, but this is our perspective.

The word perspective is derived from Middle English perspectyf and Medieval Latin perspectivum — meaning “to look through.” describes it this way:

  • a visible scene, especially one extending to a distance;
  • the state of existing in space before the eye

Yet, as Beau Lotto brilliantly illustrates in this TEDTalk, looks can be deceiving:

See the video here

A Closer Look at Perspective

From our location here on Earth, the heavens appear to revolve around us. Only through scientific observation and analysis have we learned otherwise. So, perspective is about more than physically observing objects. It involves multiple factors that influence our understanding of all that surrounds us. Here’s another definition of perspective:

  • the state of one’s ideas, the facts known to one, etc., in having a meaningful interrelationship;
  • a mental view

In short, it includes how we see things in the world — including others — and how we make sense of it all. It also explains why other people see us differently. Each of us has our own unique perspective through which we perceive ourselves and our environment. This is influenced by the context of our lives — our culture, our community, our knowledge, our past experiences, and much more.

In the workplace, our perspective is also highly dependent our role in an organization — our responsibilities, goals, expectations, and what we believe others expect of us.

Why Perspective Matters in Training

Although every organization is different, there are three common types of training constituents:

  • A population of workers who use training products and services,
  • A smaller population of managers who rely upon training to address performance and knowledge gaps, and
  • Sponsors who fund training programs.

This means learning and development professionals (L&D) must understand not one — not two — but three significantly different perspectives when addressing training needs:

Three Perspectives on Workplace Learning

1) The Business Leader/Sponsor Perspective
As performance improvement advisor Ajay Pangarkar says, leaders look for accountability:

Business leaders place learning practitioners under tremendous pressure to demonstrate that their learning efforts and initiatives are worth the budget they allocate to it. This is probably one of the biggest challenges facing those involved with any aspect of workplace learning.

I think most of us in the L&D field appreciate the business leader perspective, and agree that there is increasing pressure to demonstrate the value of learning initiatives. But all too often, we respond with any metrics we think might help — even when we know they have little to do with training effectiveness.

Learning, development and performance thought leader, Charles Jennings, seems to agree. For example, in What Does the Training Department Do When Training Doesn’t Work? he notes that many organizations try — and fail — to justify programs using return-on-investment measures.

Ultimately, leaders/sponsors recognize that training is an essential business function, but they regard the training organization as a cost center. Under-skilled workers don’t help an organization succeed. On the other hand, training investments must create value.

2) The Manager Perspective
  Typically in organizations, accountability for carrying out strategic plans flows down to individual business units through the management hierarchy. Managers are responsible for achieving tactical objectives, carrying out day-to-day operations that make the business run, and implementing programs that align with organizational strategy.

Within business units, workers need a sufficient set of skills and knowledge to perform their jobs, so the organization can succeed. Managers may identify compliance or performance gaps that require training intervention. Or employees may request approval for training that expands their skills and competency. Managers must decide which training priorities to authorize within a finite budget.

This perspective focuses on operational issues. Managers must consider the trade-offs of every training expense. They approve training for specific reasons, and they expect results through improved individual and organizational performance. Although this point-of-view may seem straightforward, it seldom is. Managers approve employee training for many different reasons — some are more valid and actionable than others.

Ultimately, managers depend on workers to perform their jobs well now and in the future. From this perspective, training is viewed an investment — not in the usual sense of the word, but as an investment in people that not only enhances near-term job performance, but also increases their engagement, commitment and value to the organization, over time.

3) The Participant Perspective
This perspective is most divergent. To illustrate, consider this example of an instructor-led course with two very different audience profiles. In Session A, all participants self-enrolled. In Session B, participants had been assigned to the course by their managers.

There were clear behavioral differences between Session A and Session B. As a whole, the self-enrolled group was much more engaged with activities, more active in conversations, and generally participated more than the assigned group. And back on the job, self-enrolled participants were excited to apply their newly learned skills — while the assigned group left silently, and demonstrated little on-the-job progress.

This underscores how important even one factor can be in influencing training participation. Our learning-related behavior is influenced by many factors — including past experiences with training — all of which can affect our desire or ability to learn.

The participant perspective is individual, idiosyncratic and often situation-dependent. Training may be welcomed or feared. It may be embraced or resisted. Under some circumstances, we may be eager to pursue training as an opportunity to learn. Or we may believe we know enough already.

Honoring Training Perspectives: Creating an Informed Action Plan

Perhaps ironically, training departments know best how to address the most diverse and unpredictable perspective — the individual. Our design processes center on effectiveness, and we are always looking for ways to make our content and programs more engaging.

Learning  Increasingly, we are focusing on employee performance, which directly addresses the manager’s perspective. The more we influence performance improvement — even when we recommend a response other than training — the more responsive we are to managerial interests.

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