Business Learning Practicalities

For experienced business tutors this page is redundant. But for newcomers to training, business people and management speakers it may be enlightening.











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Teaching adult business people is very different from educating university students and here I describe key issues and practicalities associated with ensuring good business learning rather than theoretical issues that are described on the adult (andragogic) learning page.

Why do I do this - simply because I believe that learning is like our experience at university where we sat inserried ranks being lectured two - it is not (as illustrated in the cartoon below). I remember well at a recent (academic conference) raising the idea of learner centered teaching - one professor said that "is the difference between education and training". My response was "no it is the difference between education and learning" - much to my delight this got a round of applause!

Business Learning Purpose

Before looking at the practicalities it is important to look at why business people learn. Simply, they learn to enable them to do a better job and make the right decisions so as to ensure their and their organisation's success. They do not wish to build factual, examinable knowledge. Everything they learn must be relevant and transferable to their job.

Business Learning is not the same as University Education!

The focus on learning to do and improve capabilities and performance is very different from academic education. As illustrated (in the cartoon below) the position of the professor/trainer and the diversity of knowledge and experience of the learners are different. As are the expectations and authority of the learners. The cartoon (from my book Corporate Cartooning: the art, science and craft of business simulation design) illustrates this with the Dean of Games lecturing to a group of fluffy students just out or the egg and the same professor being about to be eaten alive by the business people on a course because he tried lecturing them and tell them he knows better than they do!

The Role of the Business Trainer

The Tutor Managed Learning Model details the tutor's role relative to business simulations but here the concern is with the general issue of the trainer relative to the learners. The business teachers role is unlike university education where, commonly, the lecturer's role is to provide a brain-dump of knowledge and the professor is seen as the fount of and ultimate arbiter of knowledge - a reasonable stance where the learners have limited knowledge and experience.

In contrast, business people have a wide range of experience and knowledge that they expect to be recognised and that is a resource. Therefore, even if the trainer is very knowledgeable, it does not help if this is used without concern for the business learners' knowledge and experience. Rather, the business trainer needs to ensure that the learners' knowledge and experience is drawn out, focused and shared. Only where there is an apparent lack of relevant knowledge does the business trainer need to provide his or her knowledge and experience. In a sense, the business trainer and the learners should work as a team.

The Role of the Learners

Adult, business learning needs to be student or learner centered. So the learner's role is not to sit passively soaking-up knowledge (or sleeping). Rather the learner should actively share and challenge knowledge. The slide below (from the Prospector Simulation briefing) summarises this. Although the slide relates to simulation, all the content applies equally to interactive activities (like Case Studies, Role-Plays and games) and most apply to adult learning in general (small and large group discussion, interactive presentations, etc.) The importance of the strap line "You are in charge of the learning process" is the key sentiment.

Ensuring the right learning environment

Commonly, some business learners have been conditioned by their educational experience where their role has been to passively listen rather than actively learn and so it is helpful at the start of a course in a way that ensure that they are ready to take part in the learning process.

Introductions: It is helpful for each member of the group (both trainer and learners) to introduce themselves. An introduction that covers their job, their company (if from several companies or divisions) and what they wish to get from the course. In order to have time to think about what they want to say it is helpful if information about them making a short introduction is provided as part of the joining instructions or written on a flip chart for the learners to read as they assemble. The introduction serves several purposes. It gives the trainer an idea of the probable knowledge and experience of individual learners. It allows the trainer to relate learning to learners' jobs and company. It give the trainer an understanding of expectations. And, once learners have made a short presentation they are much more willing to interact.

Learning: It can be useful to explain to the learners the style of the course in that they bring knowledge and experience to share and interaction is desired and encouraged.

Ice Breaker: Finally, beyond the introductions, it is often helpful to have an ice breaker to get the learners comfortable with being active learners and to interact with the trainer and their fellow learners. Also, as mentioned on the page on Ice Breaker simulations, a suitable Ice Breaker allows the trainer to better understand learner capabilities and needs.

Physical Environment: Again confusion between academic education and business learning often shows itself in the layout of the learning room and this consists of serried ranks of chairs - a layout designed to shut down discussion and ensure that the learners are reverently focused on the lecturer! The importance of this aspect is illustrated by the fact that there is a separate web page - the Learning Room - that discusses the matter in detail.

Professionalism: It may seem obvious, but it is sensible for the trainer to arrive in good time and check that equipment (laptop, projector, etc.) is working properly. (I say it seems obvious, but regularly when attending conferences or courses, I have seen the trainer/speaker arrive at the last minute and discover there is a problem - making him or her look like a foolish amateur!) Also after ensuring that everything works then the trainer is there to greet the course members.


Business Courses for practicing business people are very different from classic education and this leads to several problems that need to be addressed.

Preconceived Ideas about Learning: There are two sides to this problem - preconceptions of learners and preconceptions of (guest) speakers. It is unlikely that at school or university you have been taught about learning and so learners can be uncomfortable with and mistrust active, learner centered learning. In my experience this is a particular problem with recent graduates and, possibly, engineers and scientists (as a graduate engineer I feel that can comment!) Likewise, guest speakers often feel that a formal lecture is appropriate - generally it is not! (See formal presentations later).

Differing Expectations: The range of knowledge and experience is both a strength and a threat. Coupled with need for the learning to be relevant and transferable it means that each learner has their own set of learning requirements that they expect to be fulfilled. And the diversity of these across the group these can be wide at times very wide. However, where the learner's learn from each other

Authority and Respect: There are behavioural aspects to the relationship between the trainer and the learners. Learners rightly expect that their knowledge and experience to be valued.

Large Group Discussion: Personally I find it difficult to get a group of more than twenty to interact with each other and discuss. However, I have worked with brilliant trainers who can get groups of fifty discussing. Overcoming this problem involves ensuring the right learning environment (introductions, ice breaker and the physical environment).

Formal Presentations; I am in two minds about formal presentations. On one hand, they provide a structure and visuals to backup the presentation. But on the other hand, they tend to shut down discussion, can easily overload people with information and do not allow time for discussion. As a result, I try to restrict formal presentations to introducing a simulation and where the learning is focused on building knowledge rather than creating wisdom. Even so these presentations are short (both in terms of duration and the number of slides). In the days of the Overhead Projector, I worked with a trainer who would use three sides for a two hour presentation - where most of the time consisted of discussion rather than presentation.

Environment: As discussed earlier, the physical environment is crucial. I remember an academic conference where I was first speaker. Arriving early I rearranged the chairs into a U shape. None of the later presenters changed the room layout back to parallel rows and instead of a series of formal paper presentations (lectures) there was considerable interaction and questioning during their presentations. However, one academic found this unsettling and was annoyed that we interrupted him and did not deferentially hold our questions till the end!


Please if you have thoughts about this page that you would like to share please contact me.

2010 Jeremy J. S. B. Hall

Most recent update: 01/01/15
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