Why Training Doesn’t Work

“Are you getting all the training you are paying for?”


You may think this an odd topic given my occupation, but it does explain why I have moved much of my business from offering training/educational programs to manager and executive coaching.

Here is what too often happens in many companies.  (I’m sure your experience or company is a clear exception but you may want to pass this on to someone who is more deserving!)

Employee goes up to Manager and says:  “There is a great course I just saw in a publication I get, down in San Diego, in May.  You remember that I had to cancel the last in-house course because my kid’s gerbil died, so I was thinking that I could get the same information from this”

Manager thinks to him/herself: Well there isn’t going to be any money for raises or a bonus this year, and I still have unspent dollar in the training budget, so sure, why not, and says: “Write me up a formal request and the details and we can probably make it happen.”

Employee does as requested, goes to San Diego, attends most of the course except for a couple of rounds of golf which he justifies as taking advantage of the ability to network with others who are as disenchanted with the course as he is, and runs into the Manager in the hallway, shortly after his return.

Manager. “How was the course?”

Employee:  “Good, good.  Learned some good stuff”.

Manager.  “Glad to hear it”.

This may be a bit of an exaggeration (well, the going to San Diego part maybe) but I have heard all sorts of reasons why people are attending a class that I am teaching.  Some are merely prisoners, sent by a Manager who has decided that the person needs to take this class.  You can always spot these folks because they are sitting at the back of the room, slouching, looking grumpy,  and playing with their smart phone.  The other reasons range from “I just needed one more class to finish my program”, to “The one I really wanted was filled so this looked like the next best choice”, to “I heard that this was a good class”, to the generic “I want to improve my skills in . . .”

To be fair, this is far more prevalent in the so called “soft skills” area – communications, leadership, and all the offerings that make up leadership type courses – motivation, creativity, problem solving, team building, developing potential – you get the idea.  If you signed up for a technical course, say one on learning how to use a new software program, then  you (and your Manager)would be pretty ticked  if you came back unable to do much more than what you could do  prior to taking the course.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that people are so much more complex than machines and tools and software, and the variance between individuals can be so large that it could be equivalent to trying to teach everyone in a course on “Learning to Fly” how to fly a fixed wing, helicopter, glider, or hovercraft all at the same time.

The more common reason that training frequently neglects to provide an adequate return on investment is that few of the steps required to make it pay off are followed.  Here is a 4 step process that, if followed, will increase the usefulness and utility of the training that your company is paying for.

Step 1 – Determine specific reasons why people are asking for or being asked to attend training.  What is the person not dong that s/he should – or conversely, what might the person need to start doing?  This needs to be clearly identified.  Too often people deal in generalities – “So and so needs to improve her communications”.   Communication is a very large catch basin – what, specifically, is it about communication that needs improvement?  Public speaking?  Listening skills?  Dealing with Difficult People? Non-verbal communication?   Basic skills such as paraphrasing, perception checking, demonstrating empathy?  (and please note, if you are making some types of training compulsory, remember Plato’s comment: “Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.”)

The impetus for training can come from three different sources:  the Manager who recognizes a need in an employee or who wishes to expand the employee’s skill set in preparation for more advanced work; from the employee who either recognizes a deficiency or who wishes to advance his/her skill set; or from the changing nature of work and technology – new machines, new processes, new tasks.

Step 2. – Focus on agreed upon training objectives – what do you and the employee want to see after training has been completed?  Then research where an appropriate program may be taken.  Consider a number of alternatives to traditional training as well.  Sometimes the most effective training can occur outside of a traditional classroom.

These two steps should precede the training.  After the training has been taken, move on to Step 3  – debrief the training.  The person attended the training with some specific objectives in mind – were they achieved?   There may be a number of reasons (besides skipping out and playing golf) that may account for this – too wide a spread in participant skill and/or experience.  This is the hardest element to control ahead of time.  It may be that the Instructor was subpar, or that the course was advertised one way but presented with a different set of objectives in mind.

Step 4 – make a plan to practice and consolidate new skills.  Too often, especially in the “soft skills” area, people really do want to implement some of the new things they have learned.   However, they receive no encouragement or support from their colleagues to reinforce new behaviours.  Rather, it seems as if, no matter how objectionable the previous behaviour was, co-workers think, “Oh, she’s been to a course.  Give her a couple of weeks and she’ll be back to normal”.   New and improved behaviours need to be acknowledged and reinforced if they are going to replace old, ineffective behaviours.

In my experience, many organizations have put significant effort into implementing steps 1 and 2, but very, very few pay attention to 3 and 4.  If you really want training to pay off, follow all 4 steps.

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