“In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war [WWII] they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they wanted the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires alongside the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in with 2 wooden pieces on his head like headphones, and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas. He’s the controller, and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land.” Richard Feynman, Cargo Cult Science

Form without function*

Sound familiar? Think about the time you were sent to a certain class, maybe something like new hire orientation or a safety update. Maybe compliance. Likely mandatory. The trainer was an SME from the HR Department, or a presenter recruited because they were a good technical expert. Or maybe they even had the job title of “trainer.” They arranged tables and chairs. They created a PowerPoint show. They provided a copy of the slides. They did everything right, and perfectly mimicked what they’d seen other trainers do.

But no one learned anything.

This is Cargo Cult Training, in which the leader replicates what he saw teachers do, capturing the artifacts of instruction without understanding what’s underneath. Online? Same: Pick a template, load text onto slides, add a next button, and call it “eLearning.” Throw in a Jeopardy!—type board to support recall of content and claim you’ve “gamified” a course. But without an understanding of instructional design, or of the basics of game mechanics, or of how people learn, all this is just a display of artifacts the creator has seen elsewhere. It’s adherence to form without regard to content. They’re lighting fires by runways and standing there with their wooden headsets waiting for the planes to land.

*I wish I could claim credit for thinking of this phrase, but I ran across it while researching this piece. Thanks to Steve Wittens for letting me reuse it.

The Cargo Cult is everywhere

Cargo Cult thinking has been widely discussed in other arenas. Richard Feynman wrote of it as a metaphor for cheating the scientific method, where we cherry-pick evidence that supports our beliefs and confuses that correlation and causation (for instance, believing that “people learn more when training is fun” without understanding that it isn’t only about making an instructional experience fun). You’ve seen it around you:

  • The bureaucratic organization that believes meetings and documents will generate results.
  • The “community” made up of a pretty discussion board—with no one seeding conversations or nurturing interactions.
  • The company that demands extended workdays because they heard Awesome Acme Company employees work a lot of hours—without understanding that the long hours are a byproduct of highly motivated employees who find a great deal of engagement and intrinsic reward in the work.
  • The person who says Twitter is “worthless” because, “I followed 25 people and tweeted twice a day for a week but when I asked for help no one responded.”
  • The organization that goes through the motions of an idea, claiming to be “agile” when it is anything but. I know of one organization in which the “agile” projects involve a designated “Scrum Master” who insists on firm deadlines months in advance (so he’s really still just a project manager, right?) and the word “scrum” has come to be synonymous with “meeting.”

And be honest: You’re in Cargo Cults. Do you, like me, look into a malfunctioning car engine as if it were a human brain, randomly shaking wires and twisting caps and whatnot because you saw your dad do it? Ever been part of a document-laden, formalized-meeting, ritualistic mandated performance review process? Like the islanders, we sometimes believe going through the motions will result in magical outcomes.

So what to do?

Much of the writing on Cargo Cults talks of the novice, and in L&D that can mean a literal novice—new in an instructional job—or someone called out of their usual role. My organization offers a lot of support for this, and in fighting the “anybody can do it” mindset we’re careful to distinguish “presentation skills” from “training skills.” I spend a lot of my time talking about the different forms eLearning can take, and helping SMEs see that sometimes instead of creating an “eReading” program we’re better off just sending the policy out.

  • Include managers, and not just as links in an email loop. Find a few who are really interested in workplace learning, make them trainers, and send them to training skills or instructional design courses. Involve them in actual design processes and delivery of programs. Help them see that we don’t need to just hire people who can use this authoring tool or that graphics program, but can demonstrate design that helps people learn and articulate what plays into that. And find ways to help managers understand that “learning” doesn’t necessarily look like “school.”
  • Get better examples in front of people. Show how this scenario on this topic prepares a learner to perform better than the multiple-choice quiz will. Compare a great “harassment” or “ladder safety” or “Excel” course to a terrible one. Don’t just lecture on technicalities but take time to explain rationale: I once got a lightbulb moment with an SME/designer/trainer when I said, “You know, we all read and hear at different speeds so when we narrate every word in a program we’re basically splitting the learner’s attention. It can hurt learning because they aren’t really attending to either thing.”
  • Help the organization find data. If you can’t conduct a full-blown evaluation of training impact, can you suggest means of collecting data—quantitative or qualitative—to get some feedback that helps you see if you’re moving in the right direction? (See my piece on evaluating eLearning for more.)
  • Offer a “let us help improve it” service, and remember to work out loud. When Craig Taylor was at Bupa International’s UK office as a learning technologies manager, one of his first tasks was helping a division improve materials for client sales pitches. He found they employed a very traditional, bulleted, text-heavy style. But rather than just fix the slides and hand them back, Craig took the “working out loud” approach and recorded what he was doing, and why. Talking over the slides in a recorded screencast, he explained the problems with each and described—and showed—how to make them better. He made this available to the workforce via the company’s internal social platform. He ended up being in great demand. Craig notes that this was more than just a tutorial on “How to create better presentations.” The material was addressed in context, moving beyond the pick-a-template-and-add-some-text method.

Which brings me to this: it’s important to remember that Cargo Cult Training followers are not badly intentioned. People mostly want to do a good job and are doing their best to follow what they think is good practice. Encourage them to ask for help. Be available and kind when giving the help. Get better examples in front of them, and show how just presenting content isn’t “training.” Talk them through an eLearning program that works well, and why, rather than just criticize the one that doesn’t. Show the difference between a fun activity and an activity that results in skill development that also happens to be fun. Show them the elements that make Angry Birds more than just another cute catapult game. Help people understand how learning happens by making them more aware of it: ask, “How did you learn that?” and, “What have you learned lately?” and, “Can you show me how to do that?” Sometimes learning by experience just means copying bad ideas. To conquer Cargo Cult Training we need to be the ones to provide examples of better practice and offer support to those engaged, even if only on an ad-hoc basis, in that practice.

Want more?

Feynman, R. “Cargo Cult Science.” Engineering and Science, Volume 37:7, June, 1974.
Available at http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.pdf.

McConnell, S. Cargo Cult Software Engineering.” IEEE Software, p 11-13. 2000.
Available at http://sunnyday.mit.edu/16.355/cargo-cult.pdf.

Wittens, Steven. The Cargo Cult of Game Mechanics. September, 2014.

Cargo Cult Programming (Wikipedia)

Craig Taylor anecdote is excerpted from Bozarth, J. Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-Tos of Working Out Loud. San Francisco: Wiley. 2014.

Thanks to Julie Dirksen for her help with this piece.

More Jane?

Don’t miss Jane at the Learning Solutions Conference in Orlando March 16-18. She’ll be offering her popular session on “Designing for Performance: 9 Critical Elements,” joining the fun at “Ignite! Meme-ing the Innovative World of Learning” panel, and hosting “Lrnchat Live!.”