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The Five Persistent Problems of Learning: An Introduction to Lessons from the Buying Process

by Todd Kasenberg

In life and in craft, there are many parallels that can surprise and delight and certainly create common ground.  And that’s such a good thing!

For a long time, I’ve been involved in selling.  It’s fair to say that, like most of the challenges I am given in life, I approached my ramp-up to sales from a slightly scholarly angle.  I remember, in fact, the fear and trepidation that came from trying to figure out if I could “master a methodology” so that I might be good at sales.  It was daunting.  In some ways, my early days in sales were the least confident of my professional career.

At the time, I had the good fortune of belonging to an amazing organization (Merck) that delivered an incredible training program.  Part direct coaching, part in-class training, part experiential – all added up to a confidence-building and knowledge-acquiring period that was exhilarating.  But as befits my lifelong passion for learning, I also started acquiring and reading books on sales and selling. In the process, I also began to understand and be intrigued by the so-called “buying process”.

My professional journey has provided me with an interesting confluence of information and skills such that occasionally (actually, very rarely!), flashes of insight from one body of knowledge or discipline spills over into another.  And that is the basis for what I believe will be a few blog posts on learning.

About 18 months ago, my work in developing learning programs and attending conferences on learning impressed upon me the parallels between the buying process and learning.  You see, regardless of how it is described (and there are a whole lot of descriptions of it just on the web), the buying process is also at the heart of how learning happens.

Problem (with pain identification).  Re/search. Evaluation of Options. Justification – of solution and vendor. Step-backs and objections.  AcquisitionReview/remorse/repeat.  When you try to synthesize what is known about the buying process or cycle, these are the elements you come up with.

Sounds an awful lot like what happens in learning.  In fact, I have argued that a learning program is more than the instruction – it is the sum of all elements from first contact with need to recommendation to others (advocacy).

In my review of the parallels between the buying process and the learning “process”, about which I have many more musings (and which should fuel some future blogs), it also dawned on me that there are five persistent problems of learning that are intimately tied to the buying process and that may have solution sets that can be borrowed, believe it or not, from “sales wisdom”.

I’m not going to dive deep in this blog, but here are those five persistent problems of learning:

  1. The learner sees no reason to participate in the learning (failure to start).
  2. The learner has heard parts of it before, and because what is presented is in part familiar, wishes s/he could be somewhere else (aka false start).
  3. The approach /style/format of the learning is inconsistent with the learner’s approach/style/format preferences (incongruence).
  4. The learning offers too much/too little, too late (underwhelm/overwhelm).
  5. The learner participates in knowledge transfer, but refuses to translate to behavioural change (resistance).

Each of these, wonderfully, ties to a buying process stage or step – and in future blogs, I intend to evolve some thinking about how learning professionals can leverage insights from the sales body of knowledge to address each of these problems.


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