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On a train to nowhere



I’ve come to a conclusion.  A conclusion that worries me less than it probably should.  Training doesn’t work.  Well not in the sense that it is suggested that it does.  It is a complete crock of shit and waste of time. Most training interventions are little more than a placebo.  At best employees go away with a sense of having been “invested in” at worst they go away with a sense of bafflement and confusion and having been “done to” by the organisational big brother.

The reason we can never show ROI on most training is because it doesn’t have one.  Let’s admit it. There may be some small shifts immediately, but look back after a period of time and you’ll see that the effects have dissipated along with the budget.  OK, I accept there may be some training that has straightforward value, such as training on a new system but that is only to provide initial access…most learning actually takes place afterwards in real life…..I give you driving as a classic example.  

The vast majority of training it is a complete waste of time, dreamt up by the crooked and funded by the gullible.

If we want to redeem something from the whole sorry situation then lets focus on the feel good effect.  Stop trying to justify the impact of training, stop working with the myriad of providers on pointless solutions to non-existent problems.  Work out the amount of budget you have per head and allow employees to spend it on the development they want.  Work or non-work related.  

I can tell you for sure it will have a much greater motivational effect, it will win true engagement from the employees and is more likely to result in improved productivity than anything the feckless training consultants can dream up.  Then harness the skills that you have within the business to develop younger staff through mentoring. Develop coaching capability and engage in organic learning. Go back to the way that things used to be before we created an industry from our lack of self-confidence and fear of inadequacy.

I might be wrong…… But I’m not.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. david permalink
    11/10/2010 08:51

    If only more HRDs could see it thus…. other than where performance is an issue or a skill for the role lacking I completely agree. The “happy sheets” and attempts to measure ROI are broadly valueless. Actually, let me re-phrase that…. you don’t need to measure it to see the value of good training and development.

    Yet organisations are so task focussed that they struggle with such broad perspectives on development and don’t have the ken or the balls to take what is surely an obvious step. They are too focused on what you can measure no how can you learn.

    Surely it’s the role of HR, L&D, OE departments to help the business see it so? Or is there just too much self interest?

  2. garethmjones permalink
    11/10/2010 09:14

    If you allow most people to play to their strengths, they will perform amazingly. Well, as long as the working environment doesn’t have additional barriers to their self motivation. Unfortunately, most organisations focus instead on an individuals weaknesses, or perceived weaknesses, and then invest huge sums trying to make them better at what they are never going to be great at.

    There are exceptions as you and David point out, but at the end of the day you cant make a short person taller. If you try, you create a false sense of awareness that ultimately leads to lack of fulfilment. I agree, give people the money and let them achieve personal fulfilment.

  3. Sukh Pabial permalink
    11/10/2010 09:31

    You just know I’m gonna respond! Deep breath Sukh…

    Of course, you’re right – to an extent. The ROI of training is difficult to draw a clear line of sight to, and that will always be the challenge for the L&D profession. There are companies out there such as Abdi Ltd who have a formula for proving the ROI of training. Unfortunately, not every company is as robust as Abdi would want them to be, and so ROI gets lost or diluted. I’ve written about this on my blog.

    Ford Motor Co. have done the very thing you’ve suggested about giving employees a pot of money for years. And their staff are very grateful to have that. And it can honestly be used however they want – for work or non-work related events. As part of a range of employee benefits, it’s a very powerful and easy win.

    Increasingly though, the field of OD is where L&D professionals should look to expand their skillset as I’ve suggested in my blog today. In truth though, any L&D professional should be looking to develop the very culture you describe. L&D in an organisation will never be about the stock and trade training courses. It is far more about real life, day to day activities that nurture and cultivate an L&D culture. That’s what the L&Der should be trying to facilitate and help the business achieve. Training has its place, but it is limited. The knowledge sharing, the informal chats, the one to ones, the line manager coaching – all these and more, are activities the L&Der should be aware of and that’s where their value lies.

    It’s all intangible though. And even I worry about this. You can use employee engagement surveys, exit interviews, benchmarking surveys, to help you gauge how engaged your staff are, but if you as an L&Der can’t ‘feel’ that, and ‘get’ how to improve it in the absence of those tools, then you shouldn’t be classed as an L&Der.

    • 11/10/2010 12:49

      I agree with you, Sukh, that there needs to be more emphasis on OD and learning. However, as someone who has worked as an OD consultant both for a big firm and for myself, I can tell you that most organisations just don’t get it.

      For a start, when you use the term, many folk think the letters stand for organisation design!!

      Even if they do understand it at a level, there’s still and undue reliance on “interventions” or programmes. Some of course really appreciate that it’s a pretty strategic, conceptual and long term way of looking at things and are able to see real ongoing change happen at all kind of levels as a result of embracing it. Sadly, however, my experience is that most businesses need for things to be concrete, focused and immediately actionable or they won’t go there. Training ticks that box.

  4. Ben Fletcher permalink
    11/10/2010 10:20

    I’m sure this applies to soft skills training, and I’ve been on worthless training myself. But some technical training if done in a practical format definitely improves skills. I think more courses should assess people before and after to see what new skills they have developed.

  5. 11/10/2010 11:15

    If you said that HR Led training and the self serving ROI efforts are all too often a crock of crap then I would agree with you.

    The whole paradigm of employees being in a total learning vacuum…until they attend a course laid on by HR ….and then their [happiness/learning/behavioural change] is measured and the vaguest grain of improvement is attributed to the course….insane

    Facts are that at least 90% of our learning takes place outside of the formal courses….People wake up wanting to learn……it’s in our DNA and our primal motivation set.

    It could be different…imagine a world where HR just administers tests and publishes the results…..the right people in the right roles playing to their strengths will shine….the rest you can deal with – and not by sending them to a Hilton for the day.

  6. 11/10/2010 11:47

    One of my key frustrations with Companies is that they send people on ‘training courses’ without analysing what the real need is in the first place. I remember one personal experience as a new manager. My HR boss decided that as I spent so much time out with my ‘customers’ rather than sitting at my desk, waiting to have worked dumped on to me by said boss, that I clearly needed a ‘time management’ course. I was duly booked onto an open course in London. Within the first few minutes it was clear that, even if I had needed a time management course, this was not the one for me (or anyone else in attendance), as the Trainer commenced the session with telling us the course would really help us get the most out of our secretaries!

    Nowhere in the literature for the course was this cited as an objective, and none of the delegates had their own secretary. I at least managed to get our money back!

    I try and focus people on reflecting on what they are learning as part of their day job – this shows them the reality that their job is developing them (at generally no direct cost to the Company). It also gives them a structure whereby they can identify their own development needs and work with their employer to try and fill them – often around future projects. The employee benefits and the employer gets a more rounded worker.

    And please, do not get me started on IiP, which is the ultimate training for tick boxing scheme there is.

  7. 11/10/2010 13:08

    Interesting post – as a training provider we so often come up against companies who are more focused on measuring that on the point of the training. If it can’t be measured there’s no point in doing it – or so they say. A learning experience that gives people more confidence in what they do well and a realistic picture of what they don’t do well has great value – we get loads of feedback from people who have found the experience personally fulfilling and enlightening. But that’s why I think that learning should be about experiences, not about being sat in a classroom with a happy sheet at the end. If people have a memorable (and sometimes emotional) experience, they are more likely to be motivated to do something with it – and possibly make some changes. Learning is in people’s DNA. It’s also about engaging with people on a personal level so that they see what’s in it for them. Off the shelf, churned out training rarely works. And if they discover something that works for them they’ll pass it on – and they will become better mentors because they will have experiences to back them up – and that’s how we can see the impact of training.

    • 11/10/2010 23:11

      Farscapedev, interesting that you mention “experience”.

      All too often trainings feel like somebody presses the “pause” button and you step out of your reality for a day or two. Afterwards it’s back to the daily grind and the training is soon forgotten.

      Another thing is the happy sheets you mention. They’re usually completed directly after the training. Why not do this 3 months later and instead of asking how you liked the trainer and the coffee, ask how you managed to apply what you learned?

      I dream of a world where nobody says that they’re a “learning organization”, but where all opportunities to learn are welcome. Regardless if it’s an MBA or a link in a tweet that links to a useful blog post.

      • 11/11/2010 21:27

        Etienne – you’re absolutely right. It’s ok to press the pause button as long as you make it relevant to work and workplace challenges rather than creating a bubble.

        And yes – follow up and questionnaires 3 months down the line is much better. It also gives us a chance to evaluate if people need more support rather than delivering training and then running away.

  8. 11/10/2010 14:32

    Wait! Are you saying Diversity Training, where we spend a day looking at a slide show of nuns who get jailed for protesting a nuclear facility and tattooed burly men who are former Marines who pull small children out of burning cars and WE SHOULDN’T JUDGE, is a waste of time and money?

  9. Colin permalink
    11/11/2010 12:24

    why do I feel like I’ve just been at your training session..?

  10. 11/13/2010 00:39

    The problem with cars is that they have too much stuff. Take my last one. Had it 3 years and only 2 weeks before it went, I found something new. Now, if the dealer had given me some decent training, maybe I’d have found that switch a bit sooner. I would have been more fulfilled I can tell you just knowing that I’d got full value. As it was, some other lucky git got the pleasure as I told him. Not sure if that was a bit of training or salesmanship?

    I keep bumping my new car. Thought I was a good driver so maybe need a coach and a wider driveway?

    Just my random thoughts really. I also think instruction books are a waste of time and take up too much space in the glove compartment. I mean, have you EVER seen any gloves in there?

  11. 11/13/2010 12:28

    This discussion seems to make sense to those taking part, but not to me.

    Are you discussing the effectiveness of training in a specific subject area? If so, then please say so.

    But to write: “Training doesn’t work. Well not in the sense that it is suggested that it does. It is a complete crock of shit and waste of time.”, as if it applied to all training, is complete and utter nonsense.

    The number of obvious examples of effective training are so huge, that it seems unnecessary to choose an example. Next time you take a flight, think about it: there might be a young, inexperienced, but fully trained and capable, first officer flying the aircraft. How did (s)he learn to do that? And if an engine failure occurs, or even all engines fail, during the take-off, what do you think (s)he does: figure it out on the night? I don’t think so. And who trained the instructors who trained the pilot. And what about the technicians who serviced those engines at 2am in the cold and rain the night before? Come on, get real everyone!

    Examples, extend throughout every industry and not only for operational roles, but for management roles too.

    Sorry, if this seems an extreme response, but clearly there are enormous number of examples of effective training.

    How do children learn to read and write: by figuring it out of for themselves?!!

    • david permalink
      11/15/2010 17:47

      John -those are great examples of training that works. They incorporate study, practice, assessment, and an underlying need/interest/passion all undertaken over a period of time.

      Contrast this with the plethora of corporate training available that only allows the individual to walk away with a small piece of learning because it the training lacked these features…

      Thinking about children reading there has been a shift towards phonics which help children “decode” the written word so they can read it phonetically. I’m sure there’s a better explanation but to me this is all about helping them figure it out for themselves isn’t it?

      • 11/15/2010 23:38

        Thank you, david, for putting this in context and for helping to reconcile these two views. I agree, but suggest that much of the difference is a matter of terminology, rather than substance.

        As I see it, and have described, there is a great deal of “training that works”; but surely training that does not work is simply not (effective) training at all.

        Having spent over a decade and a half delivering commercial “training”, I emerged to discover that everyone now called it “learning”! I think I understand the distinction, but also think that the shift in terminology has swung slightly too far.

        Surely “learning” does not replace “training”; they are the flip sides of the same thing. This is in the same semantic sense as, for example, a service being “provided” by someone and being “consumed” by someone else. An instructor (or teacher) is “training” (or “teaching”) and a student is “learning”.

        This terminology does not restrict or predefine the style of training/learning, which might range from simplistic handing out of information to the provision of “learnscapes” in which students play and learn.

        Also this attempt to clarify the terminology is in no sense intended to shift the onus for success towards the student. The old adage still stands: if the student has not learnt, then the teacher has not taught!

  12. 11/17/2010 10:48

    @david – It is much easier to go away and play with some new training toys than face the truth isn’t it? Or am I being cynical?

    @garethmjones – Personal fulfillment? in the workplace? Are you mad man??? 🙂

    @Sukh Pabial – But so many L&D departments call themselves OD and then just do the same stuff.

    @Christine Livingstone – Completely agree. But doing stuff properly is hard….and we don’t do hard.

    @Ben Fletcher – Thanks for commenting Ben. I agree that there can be technical training that provides the basic skills, but I still think most learning takes place afterwards when using them.

    @Gavin McGlyne – Welcome Gavin and thanks for taking the time to comment. “The whole paradigm of employees being in a total learning vacuum…until they attend a course laid on by HR ….and then their [happiness/learning/behavioural change] is measured and the vaguest grain of improvement is attributed to the course….insane” You put it so incredibly well.

    @Barry Rees – IiP……now that is a whole other can of worms……

    @farscapedev – Agree. That is why I chose the word training and not development. It may seem semantics, but I think it expresses very different concepts. I’m all about experiential learning.

    @Etienne – Good points, well made!

    @The Gold Digger – Have you been on the caffeine drinks again! 🙂

    @Colin – I feel your pain my friend…….

    @Peter Gold – You could just be crap?

    @John W Lewis – Welcome and thanks for taking the time to comment. I guess the things that you talk about I would argue fall into the “systems” category. Pilots need to be taught how the plane works, but most learning takes place whilst flying – which is why you have to have a certain number of hours before you get your license. Likewise, children get taught phonics (as @david points out), but they learn to read through experience and support. Not dissimilar to coaching. I appreciate your views, but I stand by my opinion! 🙂


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