Book Review: The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning

What if you were successful only 15% of the time? Would you continue  working in that line of work? Here is an example from the book The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results* by Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, and Andrew Jefferson, what if FedEx only got 15% of their packages to their destinations on time… would you consider FedEx successful? Probably not, yet, typical corporate training departments only have a 15% success rate for participants applying what they learned to the job.

I had the pleasure to see Wick and Jefferson speak at the 2011 ASTD conference. This is where I first heard about the dismal success rate in regards to training. Since I am an instructional technologist responsible for conducting training on various topics, what Wick and Jefferson spoke about certainly resonated with me. As a result, I purchased their book. The book goes in much more detail about what trainers can do about improving learning transfer, and it will be within my arms reach as I prepare upcoming courses.

The book is 360 pages with an introduction, a coda, and six chapters; each chapter focuses on a different discipline.

  • D1 – Define Business Outcomes
  • D2 – Design the Complete Experience
  • D3 – Deliver for Application
  • D4 – Drive Learning Transfer
  • D5 – Deploy Performance Support
  • D6 – Document Results
Typically, we do a good job when teaching courses; however, we need to do a better job before and after the course. We need to improve learning transfer.

The first chapter, Discipline 1 – Defining business outcomes,  highlights the difference of how we normally decide upon a training topic compared to using business objectives and outcomes to define training needs. Typical courses have learning objectives which indicate what a individual will do at the completion of the course. Business objectives indicate the improve performance desired on the job. If managers are not satisfied with the results or find training to be worthless, then there will be resistance to applying new skills. Having manager input and support is critical to success. This is a theme that was repeated often throughout the book.

Chapter 2 focuses on Discipline 2 -designing the complete experience. Wick et al. stress that all parts of a training event are important to include the pre-training, training, and post training segments. In the pre-training phase, we need to manage expectations. Participants want to know “What’s in it for me?” This is another recurring theme throughout the book. Participants come to a training event with expectations. These expectations may be shaped by previous participants. These expectations may also be shaped by their manager’s attitudes about the training. Participant expectations help determine if they will participate or not. We need to clearly explain what the benefit is to the participants as well as the managers. Wick et al. also stress that we need to move the finish line by at least three months. Participants should demonstrate mastery before being recognized as completing the course.

Discipline 3 – delivering for application. The selection of examples, simulations, exercises, instruction activities all help to bridge the gap between learning and doing. Poor presentations and passive listening does not help to close the gap of learning and doing. The brain wants hands on activities, typically we provide passive lecture activities. The most notable quote in the book is “Teaching skiing in the classroom with PowerPoint was never an option” (Wick et al., 2010, p.119). Additionally, participants should walk out of the course with concrete goals to achieve based on the training. These goals should be shared with their managers. Again, managers and instructors are key to learning transfer.

The next two sections really resonated with me: Discipline 4  -driving learning transfer and Discipline 5 – deploy performance support.

Discipline 4 –  driving learning transfer stresses the need to stay in contact with course participants after the course to help them apply what they have learned. Corporations spend $100 billion on training with a 10-15% transfer of learning. This means 85-90% is learning scrap… basically, a waste of time and effort for trainers and participants. I don’t know about you, but I do not like to have my time wasted. According to Wick et al. training typically fails post-training (75%). The greatest opportunity to improve learning transfer is after the training event. The authors recommend scheduling post training activities to assess learning transfer as well as provide regular feedback. Participants must also be aware of a hard finish line for the course.

Discipline 5 – deploy performance support focuses on supporting the learner once they are back in the work environment. As Wick et al. pointed out when you buy a refrigerator, you are provided with more support than when you typically complete a training course. If customers are satisfied, they will tend to continue with a product. However, people become frustrated and quit when they are not able to make something work, for example, when they can not remember what to do after training. People often struggle doing something on their own for the first time. Wick et al. recommend  making performance support easily accessible and available 24/7 with information necessary to succeed. Provide trainees with job aids to help them work through a task rather than require them to do it by memory. A job aid is a physical memory. Performance support can be materials, systems, or people. For example, participants want access to their instructors. They want continued contact. Instructors should have time and capability to interact with students even after courses. When instructors actively communicate with participants after the course, there is a greater chance of learning transfer.

Discipline 6 – Document results really focuses on answering the question: Has the program made a difference? An important part of this section is measuring the right things. Business results indicate a change in behavior, typical learning organization metrics do not. “The fact that the participants completed the course, or rated it highly, or even learned a lot, is irrelevant if the initiative did not improve performance in the target areas” (Wick et al., 2010, p. 264).  If you measure to see if the course is enjoyable, you will end up with an enjoyable course. We must measure to see if it made a difference in what we decided in Discipline 1 – Defining business outcomes.  As Wick et al. point out if you are spending $1 on training but not getting results, you are overspending. By documenting results, you can find areas to improve.

If you are involved in training or education, I would strongly recommend this book. It is important we make our instruction count.


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