The Waste of Training

We can see that organizations, made up as they are of people who find change no more appetizing than most of us do, will go to great lengths to look for panaceas and band-aids, rather than grapple with real issues of human change and growth.

When what faces bosses seems cerebral, analytical, diagnostic, detached from the leaders they personally are, they are quite happy to go for consulting solutions. They will look for firms with pedigrees, fixate on theoretical models that are conceptually compelling and leave the sordid matter of “implementation” for later.

When what faces them has to do with people, how they act and interact, their skills and what they are capable of delivering, the most common approach is either to exhort them at Conferences, or subject them to “workshops”. These workshops are often selected by HR on “methodology” grounds, and they look for consultants who are congenial to them — who wouldn’t have the temerity to suggest the Emperor has no clothes — so to speak.

Then running these workshops provides a seemingly “heroic” demonstration of remedial action, even though the precise business aims these workshops are meant to address are rarely spelled out — nor is there much accountability from senior leaders to coach application when their direct reports return to them. Part of the reason for this is, that in order to coach application credibly, leaders would have to model the way — at least to some extent.

When we decouple adaptive problems from senior leadership behavior, then we look to training as a sort of vaccination. And this way, under the guise of “development”, large amounts of money are expended without much by way of tracking. If we measure anything it may be the popularity with the audience of the deliverer and perhaps workshop effectiveness as an isolated event. The workshop is evaluated as a performance and whether it was found stimulating at that time and place.

Training instead needs to evolve into a form of true consulting. That is to say it should only be undertaken to advance strategic business objectives, which of course can include developing leaders at all levels. But then evaluation has to be built into the design.

Then we have to spell out the type of leaders needed by the organization taking that example, how they will be evaluated, how we will know if we have them, the relevance of such leadership to business success as well as individual progress… all this has to be settled in advance. Whoever is nominating the person has to work with them at the outset to create buy-in, establish relevance, and ensure there is some shared expectation of what will occur as a result of the training. An action-plan then should be generated in the immediate aftermath and diligently tracked. And only then, based on the results achieved, the training or other input should be assessed, re-calibrated, enhanced, or ditched. How enjoyable it was, the quality of delivery performance, are relative peripherals and should not take center-stage.

The above seems highly time and energy intensive. It is! And so it should be part of a continuum of efforts to engage and develop our leaders and teams as they seek to add strategic business value to organizational assets.

David Maister rightly suggests that first the systems of  a company have to be in place to underwrite whatever the training is preparing people for, the organization has to duly motivate people to take full advantage of the training by establishing its strategic importance, knowledge has to be provided of what it is participants are to do as a result, and then and only then can the development of skills have any chance of not only taking place, but also taking hold.

Moreover, for it to be called “training” in any common sense usage of the word, the session has to be high on practice, application, coaching, feedback and feedforward (future-based performance goals) and a chance to be assessed and improve from an initial base-line. This may require not an “event” but a real “process”.

If we truly wish to be cost-effective during a difficult period, we should remove generic training budgets. We should separate training as Paul Kearns has suggested into those things people have to learn for their role or position, and things they should learn to truly fulfill the potential of their role or position or as part of their citizenship requirements in that organization.

Anything else, the “nice to do” items, can be postponed, or carefully provided as incentives or at least as frosting on the overall development effort. And then those things people in the organization DO need to know and those things they should know, particularly non-technical abilities required of leaders as they move into successive roles (how to manage people, understanding the difference between strategy and tactics, getting teams to work effectively, process improvement, guiding innovation, delivering projects, selling ideas or actual products or services, coaching and mentoring others who report to them, etc) should be linked to some line of sight business improvement. And then all interventions should be designed accordingly, require significant line manager or boss-engagement, and whenever possible be undertaken with the very people the person will have to deliver this with (rather than a random assemblage of people who have never, and may never, see each other in action in this regard).

Shockingly different? Possibly.  But if so, it’s only because it’s shockingly sane, sensible, practical, amenable to ROI, and only when these conditions are met, really valuable.