How Mickey Mouse lost a sale and why smart businesses avoid encyclopedias

In the mid 1980’s my parents faced a tough decision: Do we give our kids fun or do we give them knowledge? I remember being about 12 years old, sitting in our dining room and watching them struggle with the choice.

They’d saved enough money for a Disney vacation but there was one major obstacle between me and a trip to sunny Florida: The door to door encyclopedia salesman sitting next to me. I wanted to throw him out a window as he went on and on about how “enlightened” my brother and I would become if my parents invested only $2,000 in his books. Unbeknownst to him, it was the same $2,000 earmarked for our trip.

Much to my chagrin, Mom and Dad opted that year for the encyclopedias. Remember those? A huge volume of leather bound books that contained the world’s knowledge. All these years later and I still feel a yearning for Mickey Mouse whenever I lay my eyes upon them.

In today’s world, the concept seems laughable, doesn’t it? Investing thousands of dollars in a heavy, soon outdated set of books? Encyclopedias and the salesmen who peddled them have gone the way of the dinosaur. Why, then, do so many of our training methods still follow this same archaic model?

For instance, take an industry related to my work: Foreign language development and support. Most organizations with overseas workers recognize that English skills are lacking, so they invest huge dollars sending a select few to expensive classroom programs. In a lot of ways, unplugging your workers from their jobs and relegating them to a classroom is akin to locking someone in a closet with a set of encyclopedias and telling them to learn as much as they can about language arts. An excellent strategy if you’re a game show contestant preparing for Jeopardy!, not so helpful if you’re looking for support that’s going to help you on the job.

My point is before jumping to the conclusion that our teams need knowledge to do their jobs, maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree. Is it knowledge that most of your employees need or is it real time, on the job support? Again using language training as an example, does your company benefit most if a select few spend hundreds of hours memorizing vocabulary terms or would your company benefit more if the masses were given instant access to powerful translation and social collaboration tools?

The best option for your company is debatable but there’s zero debate about which method is faster, less costly, and easier to manage.

Before you invest another dollar in formal, traditional training, as yourself if you’re buying encyclopedias in a world that now offers less expensive, more impactful options.

As for the thwarted Disney vacation, not to worry! This week my family, my brother’s family, and my parents (12 of us in all) will be storming the Magic Kingdom in matching “Lawrence Family Vacation” T-Shirts. Wish us luck ☺