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Why Training Isn’t a Cure All

Looking to make a change in your business? Thinking about attending a training program (or sending someone else to a training program) to develop new skills? Hoping for transformational change of some sort?

Training may not be the answer.

It’s a common fallacy that a little training is all that’s needed to boost motivation, develop competencies, and promote change. Trainers and trainees alike forget that training is not the end-all, be-all solution.

I occasionally get phone calls that start like this: “We’d like to bring in a training program.” In response to this, before I start selling my services, I ask, “Why?” and, “Why now?” and, “What outcomes are you looking for?” These are not easy questions to answer when training is misunderstood. The people who have called me – frustrated sales executives, harried HR leaders, or time-challenged divisional heads – often haven’t thought these things through. They saw a problem and figured training would make it go away.

I wish it were that simple. But it’s not. We’d all like for it to be that way, and it’s tempting to plow forward with this assumption. But doing so is a recipe for disappointment and disillusionment. The only outcome likely without thinking through a training strategy is a long-lasting echo of “training doesn’t work.”

When there is a clear outcome and strategy, training may very well be part of the solution. It is seldom a stand-alone solution, though. Timing, trainee readiness, ongoing reinforcement and organizational preparedness are all important considerations. A trainer who doesn’t pay heed to these factors is derelict in his or her responsibilities.

Unfortunately, many training companies assume that these considerations have been internally discussed and that the training is in alignment with other aspects of a solution. When the company hiring a training provider does not know the importance of following a process that evaluates these factors, big money is often wasted.

Here are some of the most common reasons that training does not work and should not be expected to stand alone as a solution.

Not everyone can be trained.

It is not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. It is true, however, that seasoned professionals can be set in their ways and resistant to change – especially if they don’t see value in making a change. In order to learn new skills and apply them on-the-job, training participants must be open to learning and changing. No trainer can magically transform people who don’t want to be transformed.

Additionally, there are some people who do not have the capacity to learn what the company would like for them to learn. These folks may have the will but not the skill needed. Training cannot always compensate for hiring practices that bring in people who are unskilled, under-skilled, or skilled in entirely different competencies. When restructuring or downsizing results in people being reassigned, there is only so much that training can do to assist in that transition. For example, not all inside customer service reps can be taught to become outside sales reps.

Training isn’t the right solution for every business problem.

In a training program, participants can expect to learn about concepts and to be challenged to apply those concepts to their own work situations. But conceptual learning and reflection on application may not be enough to sustain change, particularly if there are competing factors.

For example, trainers are often brought in to organizations to help with management skills development or team effectiveness. They may deliver first rate programs on subjects like conflict resolution, strategic planning, emotional intelligence, decision making and more. Participants may excel in the classroom exercises. They may thoroughly enjoy the training and give it high marks. They may have every intention of putting what they learned into practice. But none of that will matter if the workplace culture, business practices, expectations from senior leaders, time pressures, or performance measures subvert the training.

No one intends to undermine training. It just happens. It happens when the senior leader is not familiar with and does not reinforce or exhibit what’s been learned. It happens when the message is, “Good thing you’re back from training. Now get back to work, business as usual, because we’re way behind.” And it happens when there are deadlines, pressures and performance metrics that don’t allow for practicing new skills.

 Training will not work if it’s just a classroom event.

The training event should never stand alone. Before training, the strategy should be outlined and the right people should be prepared for training. The right people are the ones who need to know and want to learn, the ones who are willing to try something new and capable of doing what they will be trained to do. Before training, the right people should be liberated from their regular work responsibilities so that they can focus on the training. Delegating their work, delaying their deliverables, and setting an expectation that this learning is their top priority are all best practices.

Before training, the desired outcomes should be clear to the trainer, the participants and the management team that will reinforce what’s been learned. Ideally, the management team would participate in training, too, so they are fully competent in and cognizant of what they will need to reinforce.

Before training, there should be a plan for how to sequence any systems changes or cultural practices that will also change as a part of the overarching strategy. This should all be transparent and communicated to participants so that their apprehensions about training will be alleviated.

Whenever possible, a pre-training survey to understand participant needs is also advised. This gives participants a voice in shaping their own training and provides insights to the trainer and the organization about current skill levels, attitudes and range of skills. These factors should be taken into account by a trainer so that preparation and  customization of content and/or delivery can meet the unique needs of the group.

After training, the reinforcement of what’s been learned should include manager interest and oversight. Reinforcement through skills practice and repetition is also essential. On-the-job coaching for continued development significantly accelerates adoption and ensures that new skills become routine practices.

When “training doesn’t work” it is usually because short cuts have been made or because training was never the right or only solution for the problem at hand. Using these tips as a starting point will help ensure that the training you bring in to your company or that you seek for yourself will be worth your investment.

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