Learning and Development Buzzwords – Help or Hindrance?
23 Aug 2016

Learning and Development Buzzwords – Help or Hindrance?

categories: Business Simulations, Experiential Learning, Learning methodology

It is one of the curses of the age that in whatever walk of life and of business we find ourselves, it will have developed a particular jargon, often in terms of obscure acronyms, but also in its choice of observations and clichés. The difficulty lies in separating the wheat from the chaff (to adopt a farming cliché) – the useful from the frankly unhelpful and even downright annoying.

Here then is my brief alphabetical guide to some of the most well-used (or badly used) buzzwords in the Learning and Development sphere, with some comments on their usefulness. Please treat it as a buffet, dipping in where you are most interested.

Application of Learning

Learning has value for the business if, and only if, it is actually used to produce new behaviour and improved results. The great majority of today’s learning misses this point, and focuses on getting people to learn, rather than getting people to apply what they learnt. By focusing the programme design on application from the start, and seeing learning as a process (see Learning Journey below) over months, it is possible to get levels of application far above the norm.

Blended Learning

The mixing of online or computer-based work with a live course. At ProfitAbility we are increasingly using this approach as a way of informing and warming up the participants so they start the live experiential learning programme better prepared. We also know more about their attitudes and abilities and can then carry out post-course evaluations to generate quantitative and qualitative measurements of the course’s results. (See ROI and Flipping the Classroom below.) So this is a Good Buzzword.

Business Simulation

I have to declare my personal interest in this one as well – it’s at the core of what we do, when we create simulated business environments that enable learners to gain understanding and skills in a safe environment through structured trial and error, learning from personal experience. Some simulations are closely modelled on the learner’s own business, so the relevance of the learning is obvious; and others create a context in which to learn specific skills and behaviours which the learners need to use back at work, but which are easier to learn in a simplified environment.

The key is designing for the application of specific new behaviours at work, which results from many interviews with the commissioning directors and managers. ‘Off the shelf’ business simulations are not to be compared with this approach, and cannot be relied upon for long-term results on business performance.

Employee Engagement

This is such a key concept that I was sad to see it listed in the ‘top 20 most annoying clichés’ by HR managers in a recent survey. There is hard evidence that (1) engaged employees are far more productive, (2) most employees are not actively engaged, and (3) companies with higher employee engagement out-perform the others financially. There is also clear evidence of which management behaviours create (or destroy) engagement, and one of our favourite challenges is helping organisations embed those behaviours throughout the management workforce.

Experiential Learning

Even today this technique is often thought of as outdoor climbing and raft building. In fact, the type that we specialise in – using indoor locations to carry out tailored business simulations – has a lot more to do with real world business challenges and it is simply put as ‘learning by doing’. People can fail in safety, and learn by their mistakes: and that is the most memorable learning of all.

Flipping the Classroom

With the advent of the internet, it is possible to give people 24/7 access to knowledge which they can absorb at their own pace; and by putting the “teaching content” of a course into video, pdf or other format for individual consumption, we can free up valuable classroom time for discussion of how to use the knowledge at work, and crucially, practising using it. The classroom is no longer used for ineffective, rushed and burdensome knowledge transmission, but for discovery and skill building.


The video game industry is now bigger than the film industry worldwide, simply because those games are highly addictive. Gamification means taking the elements that make games addictive, and putting them into other contexts, often (but not always) by building serious games around important content. That gets people to engage completely with the material, to learn ravenously, and to assimilate far more than if the same content had been offered to them as lectures, PowerPoint, or discussion exercises. Importantly, this can really change behaviour, and get business results.

It may seem as though I have loaded these particular early dice towards what ProfitAbility does, but honestly it is just the way the alphabetical buzzwords fall…)

Intellectual Capital

The sum of ideas and know-how possessed by workers in a business. To maximise its usefulness requires Knowledge Sharing (see next entry) and Talent Management to bring it together, improving processes and products, reducing costs and lowering staff turnover.

Knowledge Sharing

Imparting know-how to others, which can be stimulated by means such as open forums, cross training, special events and exercises, and adopting new habits such as Working Out Loud. Much of the knowledge in organisations is Tacit i.e. unconsciously held. Getting those with tacit knowledge to make it Explicit, and share it with others, is a major challenge of Knowledge Management, and often happens during the construction of experiential learning exercises in collaboration with true subject matter experts.

Learning Journey

The paradigm that short courses are built on is “a short concentrated burst of learning that is hoped to change long term capability and behaviour”. Sadly, that seldom works. Knowing and being able to do are very different, and after a short course even the knowing tends to fade in a few weeks, while the doing has never got off the ground. The Learning Journey approach is to recognise that the goal for most people (and organisations) is not “basic awareness” of something useful, but “Mastery” of it. That takes time, practice, and support as well as the initial learning. So a well-constructed learning journey is a planned series of resources, interventions, challenges and support that will take the learner from where they are now, over a period of months, to mastery and habitual application of the new learning at work.

Learning Management System (LMS)

Originally simple software that enabled training departments to enrol learners and dish out e-Learning, capturing the results so they could track compliance, the reach of the programmes, and their results. Many (such as Curatr) have now evolved to include gamification, encourage social learning, and support application of learning at work. Older versions use SCORM as a standard to ensure compatibility of data with their system, newer ones have moved to TinCan, aka xAPI (see below) which allows far greater flexibility in getting software to work together, and can allow exciting innovation in learning design.

Learning Organisation

Described as being a firm “where each person is a learner and a teacher”. If the test of a buzzword is whether it actually describes something meaningful and insightful, then for me this qualifies. A company that genuinely seeks to learn will be more attractive to new hires, will reduce staff loss, will nurture talent and will be more efficient overall.

Learning Outcomes

Probably the main reason training has a poor status in many companies is that the designers have not sat down with business leaders to establish what tangible business outcomes they want learning to achieve for them. If you have no destination, any road will do, and far too much training is not directed to practical application on the job, specified and observable changes in behaviour, or measurable business results. Once clear learning outcomes are established, their value can be assessed, and measured.

Learning Record Store (LRS)

An LRS allows an organisation to store, sort, and analyse data on learning from many sources; LMSs, mobile apps, and many others. It gives the individual the opportunity to record every learning activity they complete, from reading a book to completing a degree, following a MOOC, working through e-Learning, or being mentored at work. They can present a portfolio of accomplishments that is much wider and more complete than a normal CV would entail.

Learning Styles

Included here because it is the source of some controversy. Many believe that we differ in our ability to absorb visual and auditory data and that learning needs to be tailored to that end. Hattie and Yates, in ‘Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn’ (2013) concluded that this is a myth, and that we all are capable of processing both types of input if we are taught correctly. Teaching correctly entails both providing teacher/facilitators with appropriate skills and mindset, and structuring learning experiences that generate learning for all.

We aim to provide those to our clients, which explains the success of our simulation-based courses. We also widen the sensory inputs to include social, spatial and the (often overlooked) sense of touch – participants who get to move the physical money around a simulated business never forget their learning.

Lifelong Learning

Nothing new, but seldom encouraged for the wider population in most companies. This could include active citizenship and social inclusion, mindset development and social competences as well as professional courses and skills development.


Adapting courses for different cultures and languages. An essential component of what we do for multinationals such as Nestlé to ensure the correct delivery of training worldwide.


Also known as Mobile Learning, this is simply any form of learning delivered at the learner’s location, not at a fixed site. Often now carried out on mobile devices; companies that make training material available on phones typically see a huge increase in consumption.


Easily confused with the last entry, this means delivering knowledge in bite-size chunks – often using video (as short as 3 minutes, or even 20 seconds!). The main ideas behind micro-learning are the need to make learning available at the moment of need, and the brain’s preference for small chunks of information at a time, which are easily understood and remembered. Compare this with learning a ton of stuff on a course, and hoping that the relevant portion will spring to mind 3 months later when the need arises.


The basic concept of a “Growth mindset” or “Fixed mindset” stems from brilliant work by Carol Dweck on how the way we think influences our approach to learning (hence our results), and how ‘the way people talk to me influences the way I think’. It opens vast possibilities for anyone in the field of learning, to improve learner benefits through simple changes in language used around the learning experience.


‘Massive Open Online Courses’ are free (open) and may attract thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of attendees. A big growth area and one that provides cheap learning to large numbers. It is finding use in big corporations. MOOCs provide video instruction, often (but not always) of a very high standard, and may use self-tests, online quizzes, and peer-reviewed essay questions to validate the learner’s understanding. They are easy to create using software such as Curatr, and can be integrated with on the job application to provide a path to mastery over longer periods, i.e. a true Learning Journey (see above).


Where the learner determines the pace and timing, and even what he or she will work on. With software such as Red Panda, it is possible to create a learning experience parallel to the Amazon shopping experience, where the software learns what your interests are, asks you what your goals are, and suggests a range of learning resources and activities that will move you towards your goal.


Return on Investment (ROI) is a measure of whether the cost and effort in training has been worthwhile, yet amazingly few companies even attempt to make this measurement.

The main barriers to establishing a clear ROI for training efforts are (1) designers’ inability to think through to the actual on the job application of training to see how it creates value for the company, and how that can be measured; and (2) companies’ unwillingness to spend additional time and money to establish and track ROI, beyond the cost of providing training. Just as traditional marketing spent a fortune, and was unable to measure its results until the arrival of internet solutions, I expect that measured ROI will become common in future through technology enabled approaches.


The better e-Learning today has moved on from telling facts to putting the learner into a situation where they have to make a decision, and will get context-rich feedback; e.g. rather than tell a nurse the consequences of dealing with an infected needle prick, paint a word picture of one having happened, offer them 4 ways to respond, and once they choose, give graphic feedback on the consequences. This is the Scenario approach. The richest scenarios blend into full Business Simulations, where each decision sets the scene for subsequent activities, as in real life.

Serious Games

A posh word for creating games with a purpose. Good business games differ from those you buy at Christmas – there is no dice, no chance element to your actions. The simulated environment will throw you a number of challenges – but it will be up to you and your team to work your way towards the best solution. Reflecting on your decisions, with good feedback on what impact they had, catalyses learning from both successes and failures along the way.

Social Learning

People are inherently social animals, and learning in a social context (e.g. as a member of a small team working through a simulation) provides multiple benefits. Team members can challenge each other’s thinking, offer new solutions, point out problems and opportunities that one person would not have recognised, and support the development of weak ideas through to workable solutions by building on them. In the process, each member of the team receives many stimuli to broaden their thinking, and adopt new criteria for future behaviour. This can be done online through social learning platforms such as Curatr, as well as in face-to-face contexts.

Social learning also supports behaviour change. If I try something new in a team where experimentation and learning from failure are encouraged, I may get corrective feedback and try again; or reinforcing feedback from peers that encourages me to make this a regular part of my repertoire. When learning alone, I am less likely to try it at all, and if I get anything but resounding applause, unlikely to try it a second time. Since so much training is intended to change behaviour, it makes sense to put it into a social context.

Tacit Knowledge

Much of the expertise in the workplace is built up through experience on the job, and the expert may be unable to explain their thinking easily to a novice. We have found one of the best ways to unlock Tacit Knowledge is to build a simulation of the working context in which this knowledge is applied, and put novices through it, using SMEs to give them feedback on their decisions, and answer questions as they arise.

Thin Slicing

Teaching only one concept per session or course. Said to be an answer to increasingly short attention spans – but it is also a way to get knowledge available at “the point of need”. The downside is that a person who has consumed just a few slices may still be unaware of the bigger picture which forms only once a greater breadth of learning has occurred; and worse yet, they may be unaware of this. A little knowledge…

TinCan or xAPI

This is a brand new specification for learning technology that makes it possible to collect data about the whole range of experiences a person has (online and offline). It captures data in a consistent format from many technologies. You can record mentoring sessions, courses taken, conferences, books read, videos watched, projects completed, and put them in a Learning Record Store (LRS) or Learning Management System (LMS) where they can be grouped, analysed, presented, and used to track individual or GP progress. xAPI is taking over from SCORM as a standard, but there is still a large legacy of SCORM systems out there.

As you will have gathered, ProfitAbility specialises in experiential learning – and to dispel any myths around that buzzword and get a personal experience of what the courses feel like, join us for a free day at the IoD in London on September 14th. You can register here while places are still available.

Brian Helweg-Larsen is co-founder of ProfitAbility




0 0 0 0