How To Turn Learning into Doing

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How To Turn Learning into Doing

At the point in training classes when it’s time to do a simulation or a role-play, you can almost hear the collective groan rumble through the classroom, “Oh, no! I’m going to have to get out of this nice, comfy chair and try something new. Can’t I just sit here and listen to the instructor?” In a recent blog post, Seth Godin reminds us that Watching is Not Doing. That’s an important reminder for learners and for training organizations: While learning is a good thing, the ultimate goal of training is the doing.

Seth points us to a Fast Company interview with Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, who offers “16 rules that explain why, despite so much knowing, there’s so little doing” in organizations. Pfeffer points out the seemingly obvious flaw of business schools that teach by analyzing case studies and talking about business. He asks: Would you undergo heart surgery with a surgeon who had merely “sat around in medical school discussing heart-surgery cases, watching heart-surgery videos, and listening to great heart surgeons talk about what they did”?

Granted, this interview occurred in 2000, and one hopes that in 13 years, things have changed. But the truth is that in many training classes, the emphasis is still on the learning and not on the doing. The result is an experience that stops short of doing—with lots of wasted dollars and effort.

So, how do you turn learning into doing? How do you transform learners who’d rather be spectators into actively engaged participants?

At C2, we believe that the focus should always be on the doing, with learning being one of the ways to get there. Here are three tips for how to do that:

  1. Begin with the doing in mind.
    You have to ask bigger questions than “What should be the objectives of this training program?” or “What do we want people to learn in this training program?” You have to step outside of the training program for a little while and ask questions like:
    -What is the ultimate goal of this organization?
    -What does this group of people have to do to help the organization achieve this goal?
    -How will we know that they’re doing those things?
    And, while the answers you get may lead you to develop some training, they will lead you to a whole lot more—and ultimately, they will lead you to the desired doing.
  2. Start the doing in the classroom through simulations, role-plays, and activities.
    This is where those groans may come in, but remind learners that they didn’t learn
    to ride a bike by reading or talking about it. They got up on that bike and
    they fell down, skinned their knees and got back up and kept trying until they
    were zooming along. In our culture of comfort, we think that learning should be
    comfortable. If it isn’t easy, then something’s wrong. But thinking back on
    those early bike lessons reminds us that learning is never comfortable. It
    requires taking risks, appearing foolish, and struggling.Participants need to know that the classroom is a laboratory—a safe place for
    them to try things out and practice and struggle as much as they need to. In
    our classrooms, we create a structure that guides participants systematically
    from learning to practicing to doing, with the friendly support of a
    facilitator who can offer feedback and suggestions for improvement, as well as
    the assistance of peers who are struggling and doing together. We move people
    fairly quickly from the key concepts to their application in situations as
    realistic as possible. And we continuously remind learners why the doing is so
    important—what it will mean for them and what it will mean for their
  3. Integrate support systems into the classroom.
    Technology offers many ways to support doing on the job—tools, communities, resources, coaching, mentoring. Typically, learning programs offer these support systems at the end of the learning experience—a lovely parting gift for learners as they head back to their jobs. But that’s too late to introduce support systems, because learners don’t know how to use them and haven’t integrated them with what they’ve learned.  So the likelihood that learners will use them is low. It’s important to introduce those support systems at the beginning of a training program and use them throughout. So, if community is an important aspect of your support system, start the community when you start the training. Have learners use the community tools to get to know each other and then to share what they’re learning as they progress through the training. Incorporate coaching and mentor feedback into practice activities. Give learners the tools and resources from the start, so that using them becomes part of the skill itself. Build in regular check-ins after training events to remind learners about those support systems and to reinforce their use.


It’s important for training organizations and learning professionals to remember that while learning is great, our ultimate goal is doing. How are you turning learning into doing in your organization?

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