Sunday, October 21

How would the world have evolved if everyone assumed training was just about worthless? Like it has!

There is a pact between corporate students and corporate trainers (and, I think, IT, budget holders, the lawyers, and middle management) that essentially says, "We all know that training does almost nothing. Given that, let's all agree to make it as frictionless as possible so that we can all check off that necessary corporate requirement and get on with our 'real' work."

This was the motivation for "e-learning" back in 1999. "Given that training was useless, let's make it cheap and convenient." The biggest sponsors of e-learning were the corporate managers who most opposed learning programs. The vendors who did well offered the most titles as cheaply as possible.

Today, most organizations only bother with level one analysis of training. "Question one: did we make the program as convenient and easy as possible? There is no question two." And stunningly, in a recent eLearning Guild's report, managers of educational programs from both academics and corporate, when asked about relative importance in a learning program, ranked ease of deployment (57.4% said it was very important and 37.2 said it was important) over every other category, including provides a strong return on investment (34.6% very important/ 41.4% important) and fun and exciting for participants (50.2%/28.4%).

The newest attempt to reduce the friction of learning to all stakeholders may be epitomized by the informal learning movement (which is happening if we choose to label it or not). "People learn what they need on the Internet. Who needs an LMS when you have Google?"

Simulation people disrupt that pact at all points. Students actually have to put some skin in the game, and experience intellectual awkwardness (which they hate). Trainers have content that does literally change behavior, so now they have to be extra careful it is the right content, and they actually have to learn how to measure the impact of formal learning, something they have never really figured out. IT, in some cases, has to now justify why some employees have old browsers, bad connections, and no sound. Middle managers have to free up the participants to actually learn (which means offloading work and not just letting it pile up in their absence).

Any new program can be killed by any member of the pact who feels that the deal is changing. We may be at a point where real formal learning is the enemy of everyone (but the organization's shareholders).

There are exceptions, of course. There are environments that truly value formal development programs. These are the groups that say (in a riff on the more famous phrase) "train hard, manage easy." That seems better than, "if you pretend to teach me, I will pretend to learn."


Harold Jarche said...

Simulation may become the great disruptive technology that really changes the training game. Therefore, it may be best to keep simulation away from the training department.

The other day I learned about a hockey game that lets players handle all of the contract negotiations for their team but adds in many of the real constraints that owners face. This kind of hidden feedback makes for great learning. You get the test first and afterwards you figure out the lesson, just like real life.

Role-playing simulations are what the military has used for years to prepare for battle. I think that ubiquitous simulations may even completely disrupt our training and education systems in the next few decades.

There is no doubt that the future of our profession lies in simulation.

jay said...

"if you pretend to teach me, I will pretend to learn."

C'mon, Clark, your faux-conspiracy theory insults most of the people in our profession. Are you testing our tolerance?

Clark Aldrich said...

That quote is a riff of of the old Soviet Union quote, "You pretend to pay me, and I will pretend to work."

I don't think it is a formal conspiracy, however, but an all too familiar downward spiral of lower expectations.

Unknown said...

There may be organizations that belive that all training is a waste of time, but I wonder if at least part of the blame should be put on the trainers at those organizations - for not educating the C-suite managers about what impact their training has. The same is true for public school teachers - can you show me how I will acutally USE this information? If you can, I will spend more effort learning.

Clark Aldrich said...

But the other side might be, and I think Jay might actually back me up here, is that if traditional training really hasn't worked, we either need to ramp it up or stop all together.

Stuart Kruse said...

I'm with Clark on this one. I even think his word 'conspiracy' may not be too extreme. If nothing else, companies and training providers are complicit in forming a cosy little world where we pretend traditional training or electronic courseware 'works'. I know this is true - I experience it every week when I hear the reasons our customers selected us to create their bespoke e-learning. They talk about our cost-effectiveness, our flexibility, our technical expertise and our creativity....rarely the actual learning effectiveness of our products. Hardly any of our customers have shown any interest in evaluating their training beyond simple satisfaction questionnaires and multiple-choice assessments. And these are top-tier companies, all FTSE 100 companies, international and UK based. Equally, when being selected by new customers they never demand evidence of effectiveness beyond recommendations/references from other customers and maybe some basic figures on amount of users who passed basic tests.

The only company that has been demanding in this area has been a company where safety is paramount, training and assessing individuals who deal with gas emergencies. I can't remember who said it, but I think it's true - look at how companies train where the training really matters (life/death) - they all do simulations of some sort.

I have sympathy with training professionals in the companies though - we all do what we get rewarded/paid for. They get rewarded for delivering training in the cheapest way possible with some kind of faux-evidence of effectiveness (everyone passed the test). They are just doing what their companies expect of them. It is the level above that is to blame...the company sponsors who hold the cash just shouldn't accept this...they spend a lot of money. If it was me, I'd want a much bigger reassurance that it was working.

However, I don't think simulations are everything. I think the Informal Learning movement and even standard courseware is an important complement. We should support natural, informal learning paths. We should support provision of basic awareness information or basic facts. It's all in the mix. I've never thought that there is one single answer to the training issue.

However, I think simulations do have the biggest potential to transform the basic ability of employees in a way that has a real transformational effect on business.

Mind you, what do I know, I'm just an anonymous floating nobody....


Clark Aldrich said...

Thanks, Mindful. Much richer than my original post.

Peter Isackson said...

To my mind, what both Clark and Mindful Learner are legitimately complaining about isn’t so much a conspiracy or a general failure of competence as a persistent culture, which I like to call the “busyness of business training”. Business is focused on profitability, which essentially means ending up with more assets (generally measured by money) than you started with. But busyness is focused on playing the game, living up to behavioral expectations.

Human society and psychology are such that whatever the authentic long-term objective (increase of knowledge and competency for training, profit for business, responsible citizenship for government, etc.) there are always rituals, routines and explicit as well as tacit rules of the game that condition our perception of how we move towards achieving those objectives and how we act out our roles. That could be considered to be the fundamental defintion of “culture”. Culture may serve a lot of different purposes, but it always and invariably creates subjectively acceptable ways of being or appearing “busy”.
The ultimate objectives always require roundabout ways for their achievement. For example unless you’re a counterfeiter or a central bank, you cannot simply make money, which is why we mobilize the concept of profit and use the expression “making money” only metaphorically. This means there are all kinds of things you have to do (organization, investment, production processes… and even training) to get there.

The problem is that the further an area of activity is from its initial objective, the more likely it is to create its own culture and the more detached the rules of busyness will be from its logic of business. In the context of government we call this bureaucracy. In the context of training, it’s the kind of thing Mindful Learner has described. Even business itself – with its seemingly inviolable focus on profit (and therefore efficiency) – is plagued by forms of busyness, the worst being the kind of crony-infested and celebrity-focused financial culture that leads to Enrons (ultimately not viable) or Blackwaters and Halliburtons (viable but perverse) and increasingly self-interested corporate governance behaviour.

It’s all about the quickest way to make the players happy (or simply reassured) in the short term and to remove challenges. It would be a brave warrior indeed who stood up and said, “enough of busyness, let’s get down to business”. But cultures don't usually allow that to happen, because such warriors are branded subversives (if not terrorists).

Stuart Kruse said...


That was such an excellent post, I had to sit down for a bit after reading it :0)


Peter Isackson said...

Thanks Mindful. The next time I'm in Nottingham, I must look you up.

I'll take this opportunity to express agreement on another point in your previous post: the importance of the mix between what I call high profile informal learning and high performance formal elements such as simulations (as well as any other useful elements). If the aim is to create a different culture of learning, the informal component needs to be the foundation. Culture is always essentially a bottom-up affair, though influenced by top-down "policies". One instrument of leverage for us subversives is to take the omnipresent corporate mission statements seriously, although it might probably be a bit like asking Bush and Cheney to fulfil the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

My agit-prop plan would include creating CoPs at various different levels, plugging in a range of resources – knowledge-building items (e-learning, sims, etc.) alongside mission statements and lists of corporate values (that usually include ethics and the ambition to be a “learning organization”) - and see where it takes us, the only stated objective being to make the community live within the context of the enterprise and provide methods and resources enabling that. Bottom-up meets top-down. Something’s gotta give. Communities inevitably create their own cultures and those cultures can produce enough moral heat to provoke the kind of chemical reaction that will ultimately transform or at least modify the corporate culture (for its own good, by the way, i.e. increased performance better adapted to real contexts).

And the revolutionary USP we need to develop is simple. CoPs ensure knowledge development without specifically paying for expensive training events or products, so they are economical. They also spread and perpetuate the results of learning (and not just training), producing results that traditional training (whether face to face or autonomous e-learning) couldn’t hope to achieve. If as Sam Adkins told us a few years ago the transfer rate of training is practically nil, CoPs are all about transfer and resulting growth. So instead of the entropy of training we have the “extropy” of learning. (Extropy is a term coined by Tom Bell and defined as “the extent of a living or organizational system's intelligence, functional order, vitality, energy, life, experience, and capacity and drive for improvement and growth” -Wikipedia).

Finally on the deleterious nature of new-style corporate governance, I refer everyone to an excellent article by Timothy Noah published yesterday in Slate on inflated CE0 salaries.

Harold Jarche said...

Thanks, Peter. I'll take your last comment as an initial outline for a performance/learning change management plan :-)

test said...


You have asked a lot of good questions - what are the answers? The issue of return on learning for the accountants and management levels is now irrelevant. This is the wrong question. The right question is - "How do we help learners know the impacts of their leanring?" It is important for learners to know of their impacts in real-life work situations, not in theory but actual work results. They learn better from this feedback. On top of that, if we help them measure their success in micro-terms, then we can collect the micro-learning impacts and aggregate a huge number. I call this Micro-Learning Impacts.

With all our technical gadgets, we seem to be applying them in solving "old problems - in old conditions" instead of asking newer questions for conditions today and in the future, which we never asked before. That is why there seem to be a conspiracy. There is no conspiracy but LACK OF NEW THINKING and provocative solutions.

Our industry, the gurus, vendors, and corporate learning leaders is acting out the "blind leading the blind" story. Vendors follow the gurus, gurus "think" of ideas leaders will love, and leaders follow everyone. An endless cycle. There is no conspiracy, but stupidity, because we can not seem to break out of the mold.

Until we do, training is, and now, OLD and useless in most cases. It will not be a big surprise when the day comes that the training function (most of it), will follow what industry has done to the task of payroll - relegated to activities the Internet and computers can deliver.

Why? The training profession simply failed to deliver. Results matters after all.

Keep on provoking!


Anonymous said...

I appreciated the post.

After reading through it I thought the real headline for me was your statement: "train hard, manage easy."

Thank you.

Clark Aldrich said...

Thanks David. If I knew this would post would be up there as long, I probably would have used a less negative title.

I think the real issue is, are we in a situation where great training is actually the enemy of all involved?

Stuart Kruse said...

I suspect it's time to nominate some guest posters if this is how long each post stays up.

Anonymous said...

Clark, I'm very late to the party, but that didn't stop me from coming. You grabbed me with the provocative approach, and the comments have enriched the discussion.

I don't believe for a moment that all training is worthless. Lately I've been thinking that in highly procedural, predictable situations -- a hotel employee using the reservation system, a bank officer processing loan applications -- well-designed, well-organized training makes sense and offers efficiency as well as consistency.

(Notice, I'm not saying how that training gets delivered -- classroom, workshop, online.)

Still, as long ago as 1982, when I was in charge of computer-based training for Amtrak, I found that technology tends to foster a kind of Gresham's Law: bad training drives out good.

In our case, we had mainframe CBT that was excellent for training people to use amtrak's reservation system. Our courses were small (typically under 20 minutes), available at the workplace at any time, and linked to a robust set of "training trains" that let people practice interactions with no risk of issuing actual tickets or tying up space on actual trains.

However, even then, different parts of the organization wanted to use the CBT structure to deliver shovelware -- pages of text documents, or "training" in the form of twenty click-next-to-continue screens followed by three gotcha questions.