Why classrooms are like cans of baked beans

Classrooms are very much like cans of baked beans.

Baked beans are great, but a 415-gram standard tin is too much for one man alone to eat, and yet not quite enough to split with a friend and satisfy both.

Why do beans come in tins of 415 grams? Because that’s roughly one pound. Since its commercial origins in feeding the Victorian British Navy, the canning industry has long been set up to produce cans of this size and weight, meaning that the whole supply chain is standardized, with the humble tin can dictating arrangements for packaging, for forklift truck operations and for shelving. Inconvenient sizing or not, nothing can change all that, and so we get our beans in 415-gram cans.

Classroom training is the same. Classrooms are costly real estate. Justifying them means filling them, however inconvenient the size may be. In the early ‘90s a fill rate of six was acceptable in PC training. A decade later rising costs and falling profitability meant private training companies needed fill rates of double that number.

And if you’re pulling that many people together for a course, you have to justify their time away from the office and travelling. You can’t run a 12-person course for just 1 hour, so typically courses run for at least half a day, and usually one or more whole days. The result: content is regularly padded up or cut down to fit a teaching day, regardless of the impact on learning.

And that’s why classrooms are like cans of beans: they both beautiful illustrate how supply-side efficiency can trump demand-side effectiveness.

While it is now possible, in reaction to changing consumer habits, to buy plastic packs of beans just the right size for an individual, physical classroom delivery is not as flexible. You can’t shift the walls, transport people into the room faster, or easily reduce the cost per square foot. This is why the classroom, this legacy investment, continues as L&D’s default, regardless of its effectiveness, accounting for some 70% of workplace training activity.

Overturning the legacy will take time, but more flexible and more effective electronic alternatives are winning their place in workplace learning, and I believe that before the end of the decade we will see a shift. The classroom will only be used when it is the best – rather than the usual – place for learning.

Unlike bakes beans, learning is no commodity. It’s time it was done the best way for the learner, not the most efficient way for the L&D department.

This piece of whimsy was the introduction to the much more substantial Inside Learning Technology and Skills Magazine June 2014 (#49). Click to read the whole magazine.

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