Developing People: The Bane of “Training”

I frequently receive calls from prospective clients who seek “training” of some sort. The requests include Lean overviews, problem-solving workshops, value stream mapping training, and the like. Targeted participants range from the frontlines to executives. But there are typically three problems during these calls.

  • Unclear learning objectives. Much of the time when I ask, “What do you want the training participants to be able to do immediately following the training?,” I’m met with silence. After I probe a bit deeper, I’m usually able to articulate what I hear them asking for. It’s important for both learning providers and requestors to have a clear understanding of what the participants will gain from the learning activity. Without the goal in mind, it’s impossible to create curriculum that will deliver. Seeking clarity in this area often reveals the second issue.
  • Unrealistic expectations. Most people are significantly off-base when it comes to determining what it will take to accomplish defined learning objectives. This is true even of the people in those departments that are dedicated to staff development, such as HR, OD and training. I spend much of my time in the early part of these calls delivering bad news: “What you seek is simply not possible in that timeframe and in this format.”

The education model that we’re indoctrinated into from pre-school forward has created the   paradigm that learning takes place in a classroom. But while people can learn principles, theories, and the mechanics of performing a task in a classroom, the real learning occurs outside the classroom through applying content over and over. This is where practice comes in, which lead to the third problem in most development programs.

  • No coach. Once outside the classroom, people need someone to turn to as they begin applying what they learned in the classroom. Even well-designed classroom activities are no match for the real world and, as the “student” begins experiencing different conditions (people, systems, issue complexity, etc.) than the classroom can provide, he will need someone at this side to provide guidance. Yet most training programs don’t provide for post-class coaching from a person who’s highly skilled is being developed. This is like taking one or two piano lessons and hoping to become a concert pianist with no additional guidance from a skilled pianist.

The following graphic from my book, The Outstanding Organization (p. 115) illustrates the nature of progressive learning from gaining awareness about a topic/skill to achieving mastery – a process that typically takes 10 years (10,000 hours of deliberate practice). So expecting high degrees of proficiency after classroom training–especially without engaging a coach to deepen learning–sets a learner up for failure. It’s disrespectful.

Stairs showing progressive learning from novice to master.

So what do I do with calls like this? And what should you do? First, recognize that classroom training does indeed have its place. It’s an efficient way to expose a lot of people to concepts quickly. But realize it’s limitations and provide “countermeasures” for this reality.  Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Coach requestors to help them clearly define learning objectives. Encourage them to complete sentences, such as: “At the conclusion of this session/workshop/program, participants will be able to….” Encourage them to use the term “development” (the end state) versus “training” (only one of many means to achieve the end).
  • Match the length of the program to the learning objectives–or alter the learning objectives to match the time available for training. (The latter option occurred yesterday–the caller wanted to train improvement facilitators in two days; I helped him narrowing define learning objectives that are realistic for a two-day program (skill development in only 3 areas, not the 7 he originally asked for).
  • Offer content that’s activity rich. There should be FAR more “doing” than “listening.” Application of concepts is key. Use multi-media as well. Project-based programs are ideal for teaching more complex skills such as problem-solving and improvement facilitation.
  • Provide the means for immediate application. Workshop participants who learn the mechanics of value stream mapping in a classroom setting, for example, need to immediately create or lead the creation of a real value stream map.
  • Provide virtual or onsite coaching for a period of time after classroom learning. The coach’s role is to support learners as they build confidence (which is a precondition for competence), answer technical questions, help learners navigate tricky real-world conditions, and challenge learners to deepen their understanding and skills.

I encourage you to comment, ask questions, etc. to get a dialogue going. Learning is THE most important performance improvement and people development goal there is. And participating in that process is the most important responsibility there is. Let’s all vow to get better at it.

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