The Angels’ Share of Learning

A romantic perspective on the ROI of learning 

I happened during one week. On Monday my two sons and me watched our favourite TV show ‘How it’s made’. The episode was about making whisky. We learnt about ingredients, the brewing process, ageing, the function of the wooden barrels and the idea of ‘the Angels’ Share’. Later that week I watched a nice Scottish movie about Robbieangels-share-poster, a criminal guy who avoids a prison sentence by doing community payback. He is under guidance of Harry who finds out that Robbie is about to become a father. When Robbie’s son Luke is born Harry insists on celebrating this event by drinking a whisky. Robbie likes the whisky and is fascinated by the background information he learns from Harry. During the movie Robbie accidentally becomes a whisky expert. And the title of the movie? Here it was again: The Angels’ Share. Surely a sign for me to explore the topic a bit further and see how it might apply to learning & development.

What is the Angels’ Share?

The creation of whisky has a number of different steps including malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation or ageing.  The ageing process is critically important. Ageing takes place in barrels made of oak wood. During the ageing process there is ‘interaction’ between the wood and the whisky giving the whisky it’s beautiful colour and additional flavour. The process is influenced by the conditions in the warehouse where the barrels are laid on shelves. The temperature and humidity in the warehouse influence the process of ageing as does the exact placement of the barrel on the shelves. Ageing also has another effect: due to evaporation a portion of the liquid ‘disappears’. One could say that portion is lost but they call it ‘The Angels’ Share’. I think it is a brilliant and kind of romantic idea to reframe ‘a part is lost’ into ‘a part is consumed by the Angels in the warehouse’.

The Angels’ Share of Learning?

Every time I come across an interesting idea I can’t help but want to explore how it could be applicable in the field of learning and development. There is a lot of pessimism around the effectiveness of learning interventions or programs. We want Return on Investment instantly aiming for newly acquired skills and knowledge to be applied directly on the job. Isn’t that like drinking whisky before ageing and directly after the brewing? I guess we need to be a little more patient and let the ageing do its work. Could it be that ‘fresh brewed’ knowledge and skills need interaction with the physical, digital and interpersonal environment of day to day work thus uncovering the essence and deepening the ‘flavour and colour’ to turn it into performance?

Good barrels made of the right wood, with the right treatment and stored in the right place are the optimal context to turn the distillate into real whisky. So – we should create the right context to turn learning into performance. And shouldn’t we accept that during that process a portion of the new knowledge and skills ‘evaporates’ thus being the ‘Angels’ Share of Learning’? I’m sure whisky makers aim to minimize the Angels’ Share so they will have a bigger portion for themselves and that is what ‘learning and performance brewers’ also should aim for. Both are delicate processes. I hope the idea of the Angels’ Share will smoothen your next discussion on ROI of learning with your stakeholders. Cheers!

(Thank you to my Scottish friends Peter Casebow and Stef Scott GoodPractice for checking the whisky ageing details! They brew some real good performance support services.)

Ger Driesen

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