Thursday, 1 May 2014

What Does the Training Department Do When Training Doesn’t Work?

clip_image002The global training industry is large and in growth again post-2008. Data provided by the US membership organisation Training Industry suggests annual growth around 6% per year since 2009.
Training Industry estimates the 2012 figures for the training market at $131billion in the USA and $160billion for the rest of the world – a global total of $291billion.
ASTD data suggests US companies spent $164billion on employee learning and development in 2012 saying that ‘despite a continuously changing economic environment, organizations remain committed to training and development’.
Although the Training Industry and ASTD figures vary a little it is clear that the global training industry is a large and apparently healthy one. The annual global market of around US300billion is equivalent to the total GDP of countries such as Denmark and Chile.
It’s not just about the money
So how well is all this money being spent?
It’s almost impossible to give an accurate answer to that question other to say that, as with all systems, we can be sure there’s room for improvement.
One of the challenges about how well the money is being spent is that the ‘holy grail’ for many training and learning departments - identifying the financial value of the investment in training and other structured learning and development activity (the ROI) – is rarely achieved and, many would argue, is a flawed measure anyway. We know that there’s a lot more to ‘value’ than a tangible monetary figure (try getting someone to swap their late mother’s wedding ring valued at $1,000 for a new one valued at $3,000 and you’ll get the picture).
In the ROI world the perfect solution consists of a identifying a clear causal chain linking and isolating training input with the ‘hard numbers’ of output. Unfortunately life’s not always as easy as that. Sometimes isolating ROI is easy, sometimes it’s impossible. I have seen some very impressive and valid ROI results and I have seen many other ROI projects end up in the ‘too hard’ basket.
Supporting our workforces to get better and achieve to their potential is not just about the money. In the words of a famous English football manager “it’s much, much more important than that”.
Of course efficiency is important in any training activity – both in financial terms and in terms of achieving results at the speed of business. And it’s not only efficiencies within the training process that we need to look for. Sometimes it’s more efficient and more effective simply not to train at all.
We see examples of opportunities for improving performance by not training all around us. There’s an article I wrote some time ago which addresses that particular issue in detail here.
Training is not a panacea
Most learning and training professionals understand that training is not a universal panacea. Sometimes training works, sometimes it doesn’t. Occasionally the outcomes are the exact opposite of the intentions (see my article on compliance and diversity training here for examples of this).
So, what happens when it’s clear that training is not an effective or and efficient solution for a specific problem?
In other words, what does the training department do when training doesn't work?
The training department response
There are a number of options available (other than shutting down altogether).
  • it can change its name
  • it can change its practices
  • it can change its skillset
  • it can change its mindset
Changing names
clip_image004Name changes alone may feel good, but they usually do little or nothing in terms of real change.
Sometimes a name change does have the effect of changing perceptions. But simply changing perceptions alone has little effect on improving organisational performance. We have all seen ‘training departments’ become ‘learning and development’ departments and trainers rebranded as L&D consultants or with some similar – often more exotic - title. There are some tremendous new and exciting ones that I am sure many in the profession could share.
That’s not to say that changing names should be avoided. When other changes are implemented, a change in name for the training department and a change of titles for the team is probably essential. But this needs to be part of a wider change process.
Changing practices
Changing practices, or the ‘way we do things around here’ is both a sensible and increasingly common response to the realisation that training is to an extent a one-trick pony that can’t cover the wide spectrum of needs in today’s fast-moving and demanding work environment.
Training’s inherent inertia often creates more problems than it solves. Training takes time to plan and prepare, and to deliver. Usually the best solutions to performance problems are faster and more cost effective than training. Often the root cause of the performance problem is something that training simply can’t address. Only a minority of instances of under-performance are due to lack of knowledge or skill. Most are due to motivational or external environmental factors.
Equally, building high-performing teams and organisations is overwhelmingly a matter of exploiting opportunities for experiential learning and practice.
Experience and practice, together with coaching and exploiting networks, and with sharing challenges and potential solutions with colleagues provide the answer. Content-centric , away-from-work, training approaches are on the other hand overwhelmingly ineffective in fast-moving knowledge-based environments where people need to ‘know now’ and ‘know how’ almost instantly in order to perform. They are usually far more costly, too.
Learning in the workflow is the way forward. This is where I have seen the 70:20:10 framework, when used strategically, help organisations adopt new and more effective practices.
Changing skillsets
The dominant model of physical content design and delivery that has been in use over the past 100 years is being shown as increasingly less effective and more costly when compared with the alternatives. the problem is not only that the alternative options have expanded, but the ground has also moved, too. Speed and change dominate. The need to build capability well, fast and flexibly has become critical.
Meta-learning has become more important than learning facts and figures. The details changes almost daily, so there is little use in learning well in advance of needing to ‘do. Ubiquitous access has done away with the need to know the detail unless it’s used on a daily basis. If it is used daily we remember it through exposure and practice. If it isn’t used daily we can find it when we need to.
Training departments need to adopt new approaches, and with these new approaches comes the need for new skillsets.
Traditional training skillsets still have their place (particularly in what I’d call the ‘10’ – the structured learning part of the 70:20:10 model). But the need for skills in design and delivery of face-to-face training events is without a doubt on the decline. There will always be the need for highly skilled trainers. It is just that the world probably doesn’t need an increasing number of them. Just the opposite.
So training departments need to help their people build new skillsets, or need to acquire new people with new skillsets – often both.
These new skillsets will be many and varied. Jane Hart, in her Social Learning Handbook 2014 explains:
‘New learning practices involve understanding it is not just about delivering courses but about helping people to make the most of how they learn naturally and continuously as they do their jobs – in the flow of work – in project or work teams.
It’s not just about internal experts telling people what they should know or do – but about peers sharing their thoughts and experiences, and in doing so learning just as much from one another’
Identifying and exploiting workplace learning opportunities requires skills that are different from those traditionally needed by trainers.
Training needs analysis skills need to be replaced with performance consulting skills. New skills for understanding and using the Social Web, and for helping workers develop their personal knowledge management capabilities are required. Skills in utilising scaffolding theory and scaffolding learning experiences are essential. (Scaffolding is a concept introduced in the 1950s by Jerome Bruner , one of the greatest educational psychologists of our era and still, at the age of 98, senior research fellow at New York University).
These are just a few in the new armoury for training and learning professionals. There are many other items in this ‘new skillset’.
Changing mindsets
More than all the other changes, the most important action a training department can take when training doesn’t work is to work on changing mindsets.

Mindset: noun \ˈmīn(d)-ˌset\
a particular way of thinking : an attitude or set of opinions. An inclination or a habit…a way of life
To be successful and effective, and to be able to adapt to the emerging knowledge-based fast-moving world, training and learning professionals need to cultivate a development mindset. This is needed above everything else.
A development mindset is one that understands learning and development is a continuous process and that learning and working are not separate activities but simply aspects of the same thing – doing good work and improving continuously.
A development mindset is one that sees opportunities for learning and development in everyday work activities and has the capacity to exploit them.
A development mindset is one that doesn’t need to assume the role of ‘expert’ to help others grab development opportunities as they emerge.
A development mindset is one that understands the power of learning through real-work experiences and practice rather than feeling the need to create ‘training systems’ and simulations for learning
A development mindset is one that helps, supports, guides, advises, connects and reinforces rather than teaches or instructs.
A development mindset helps fishers fish.
That’s what the training department needs to do when training doesn’t work.   It’s easy, isn’t it?


  1. Fantastic post Charles. I'll add that organizations/leaders must recognize and support the role change of L&D. The first mindsets that need to shift are theirs. As catalysts for change, leadership can help their people understand the imperative that learning is the responsibility of the individual, not a department.

  2. Thanks, Mark. Along with the L&D mindset shift there certainly is a need for leaders to come along on the ride and provide support and, where necessary, shift some boulders themselves.

    One of the precursors for the re-alignment is the building of trust between Training/L&D, senior leaders and the other key stakeholder group, line leaders/managers. Trust relationships are an essential ingredient - both competence trust and benevolent trust (see

  3. Charles, once again hitting the nail on the head. The quote from Arie de Geus has influenced a few to change their mindset. “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” Utilising 1:1 coaching sessions for senior management and explaining to them that this is also learning and development has helped to shape the mindset, making them think about a capable and happy workforce as opposed to resources who generate income.

  4. As always, Charles, a good read – thanks. One observation: your four possible points of change are all internal to the training department. Is there not also a case for a fifth point: changing the attitude of the business to the department? If training doesn’t work, then part of the solution is to stop the rest of the business asking for it!

  5. Thanks, Allan and Kenneth. The points that both of you make are extremely valid.

    I wrote this article from the perspective of a training/L&D department but there are certainly other important aspects to the challenge. The task of helping senior managers and line managers change their own pre-conceptions of training as a panacea is a critical one.

    How many times have each of us heard a leader/manager say 'we need a training course on xxxx'? Many times, I'm sure. Yet when faced with other challenges in their responsibility most leaders and managers will analyse the cause of the problem before deciding to commit resources and budget.

    One of the big tasks training/L&D professionals need to address is the task of changing senior leader and manager mindsets as well as those of the training/L&D department.