The Great Training Robbery

The Great Training Robbery

Much as I would like to take credit for (what I think is) a catchy headline, it is actually inspired by an October 2016 Harvard Business Review article: “Why Leadership Training Fails – and What to Do About It.” The article justifies the phrase by saying that, globally, companies spent $356 billion on employee training and education in 2015 but are not getting a good return on their investment, as “learning doesn’t lead to better organizational performance, because people soon revert to their old way of doing things.” If you contributed to that global figure, I suspect you already know that!  

Nevertheless, the “What to do about it” aspect makes the article worth reading. Beware, however, the “leadership training” focus. Its undoubted relevance to leaders ensures it inevitably applies to all organizational training. But any narrower focus is limiting. As it is, I think it perhaps constrained the writers and led them to omit points that would increase the return on all training investment. Let me share some.  

Training is very like communication. To communicate effectively you not only have to express what you intend but you have to ensure the recipient understands what you intended. Any misunderstanding is always the result of poor communication. So too with training. First there is a requirement and then there is the result. And, as with communication, you determine effectiveness by the outcome.  Generally, the major difference between the two is that, whereas the outcome of effective communication is likely to be a once only thing, for training it is expected to be ongoing and/or permanent.

Of course this is well recognized in education and identified by the distinction between training (the delivery of the requirement) and learning (the embedding of the training to the point that it becomes natural.) Often this can be even more simplistically, and narrowly, identified as theory and practice. Yet, the HBR article, and likely your own experience, point to a chasm between the two. So how do we bridge this?

For me, it starts with the common element of both: intention. You cannot identify the requirement for training without an objective. Thus for effective training you must have a clear intention, while for effective learning your people also need to have a clear intention. So, to instigate learning, you need to be sure that intentions are aligned.  That is considerably easier said than done!

The article identifies two major shortcomings.

  1. Failure to recognize the organization as a system of interacting elements;
  2. Impossibility of confronting senior leaders with their own deficiencies.

Clearly these are leadership issues. Nevertheless, before you dive into the 6 barriers to change, or “silent killers”, that the writers identify, or the solutions they provide, you ought to think about these two more deeply. No-one can effectively deliver a strategy if they fail to understand and get to grips with those points.

Firstly, understanding the organization as a system of interacting elements, means moving beyond the traditional hierarchical view of the organization and looking at the interactions, inter-dependencies and relationships throughout. Too often change, particularly at senior management level, is motivated by either what you have achieved elsewhere or a need to impress; something done by either trying to have an immediate impact or being seen to be doing something different. One change by each member of the C suite may result in several changes for people further down the hierarchy.  You have little or no right to demand change unless you know what the impact on your people is going to be. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of barriers to learning that the individual might be facing in order to learn.  

Barriers to personal change

Of course you face the same potential barriers yourself, but you are self-evidently not a good learner if you are not even open to your deficiencies. That makes trust impossible. It also reduces your right to ask others to accept theirs. You cannot then expect to engender successful change.

Effective learning only happens when it is relevant and necessary. People also learn at different rates; some take longer than others. Consequently trying to effect change through scheduled organization-wide training programmes is to load the deck against you. It is yet another by-product of hierarchical management and further justification for moving toward an organic, self-organizing structure.

Long familiar with the term “lifelong learning” I was recently introduced to the term “through-life learning.” For me this not only implies learning for the duration of your life, but also learning when you need it. This suggests a kind of “just-in-time” approach to training and I would ask, “Why not?” If you operate on a just in time basis for everything else, surely it applies just as effectively to training and is more likely to ensure the learning takes hold. This will do wonders for your return on training investment. It does, however require that you recognize that ‘Every Individual Matters.’

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  • I see this so often following leadership courses and I too have been guilty of not changing what I agreed to in the first place , for me its not lack of will but sometimes work just gets in the way. an then the learning curve hits you and you have forgotten what you wanted to change anyway !

    • I understand Julie, "Work gets in the way!" That seems to sum up the problem;quite neatly, and I am sure most of us will make the same claim. Yet, isn't that precisely the problem? It effectively says that the status quo is more important than the desired change? How can you expect to see the improvement, if there isn't the fundamental organisational commitment to it? It will only, ever, happen when both parties see, understand and commit to making it happen.  

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