Hans Monderman, R.I.P.

by Jay Cross on February 28, 2008

    hans.jpgWhen I drew upon the wisdom of Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman to make a point at Learning Technologies 2008 in London, I was unaware he had passed away three weeks earlier. The world has lost a persuasive, unassuming designer.

    Monderman was the champion of the free streets movement:

    “If you treat drivers like idiots, they act as idiots. Never treat anyone in the public realm as an idiot, always assume they have intelligence.”

    Hans Monderman

    This observation tipped me off that if you treat trainees like idiots, that’s what you get. I credit Monderman as an inspiration in my book on informal learning and in this column I wrote for CLO last year.

    Don’t Call Them Trainees
    , CLO, October 2007

    Hans Monderman is a Dutch traffic engineer who is gaining fame for what he doesn’t do.

    hans4.jpgHe’s also famous for what he doesn’t like: traffic signs. His reasoning is that over-engineering drains things of context, civic responsibility fades, reckless driving ensues and people get hurt.

    Monderman was asked to design a village’s bike path, on which about 2,500 children a day would ride. Following his standard routine, he invited the village elders for a walk in another village. There, they saw a road with no speed bumps and no chicanes.

    hans3.jpgThe lack of signs and obstacles made drivers take responsibility for their actions. They immediately reduced their speed by 10 percent when alongside the bike path. Eventually, their speed dropped to 50 percent of what it had been.

    Monderman has worked his magic in more than 100 Dutch communities. He uproots signs and clears barriers so drivers can easily see pedestrians. Traffic accidents in Holland are 30 percent of what they were when he began.

    Remove the center line from a country lane, and people drive safer. Clutter a road with signs and barriers, and people feel sufficiently protected to drive as fast as they like.

    Monderman says that if you treat people like fools, they act like fools. Take off the training wheels, and they drive like grown-ups.

    The vice president at a major Silicon Valley chip producer was concerned with the meager results of the company’s classroom training. He wanted the firm to focus more on building competencies and less on training events.

    Workers had been happy to pick and choose traditional training from a buffet of offerings. Taking away their choices would require extreme measures.

    Yet, the vice president shut down the learning department cold turkey. Focus shifted to talent management. A steering committee representing the vice presidents from each major function was formed and backed the plan.

    Online employee development plans replaced training. Employees work with their managers to determine what competencies they must master. They agree on a path to get there: on-the-job learning, coaching, books and other means.

    Nearly four years later, they are letting some training creep back in. Compliance and certification never really went away. A new CEO favors management development workshops. Training is allowed, but other development options are encouraged first.

    I am not advocating the dissolution of training departments — withdrawal is not pleasant. But I am in favor of dumping the term “trainee.”

    In a knowledge society, learning is the work, and the work is learning. There is no separate reality in a classroom outside of the workplace. It’s time for less push and more pull, less topdown and more bottom-up, less going through the motions and more creating.

    Being told to take a training course is like driving on a road with signs, stripes and bumps. If workers take a training course but don’t learn, what’s their reaction? “The training wasn’t any good.”

    Instead of training, tell workers what they need to know to accomplish the job. Offer a variety of ways to get up to speed, from treasure hunts to finding information on the company intranet. This makes learners take responsibility, and there’s no longer an excuse for not learning.

    Open up a training course at your company. How many inane signs do you see? Some of them are equivalent to saying, “Here, let me connect the dots for you.”
    No — people want to connect the dots for themselves! That’s the point.

    They are workers, not trainees.


Hans Monderman, Times Online
Roads Gone Wild, Wired 12/2004

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