Training is Not a Hammer

Author: Roy Pollock | Source: HCI | Published: May 9, 2013

My father used to say frequently, “To a young boy with a new hammer, everything is a nail.” Unfortunately, for many young managers, training is a hammer and every sort of performance challenge is a nail. 
Training can be an essential part of the solution when a lack of skill or knowledge is holding back someone's performance. But there are many other causes of suboptimal performance that training cannot resolve—and indeed, that training may actually make worse. Among these:

  • Unclear expectations or performance criteria
  • Lack of unambiguous feedback on performance
  • “Bad attitude”
  • Lack of motivation
  • Inadequate information, tools, or time for the task
  • Lack of incentives or consequences

In Analyzing Performance Problems, Mager and Pipe suggested that an acid test for whether training is an appropriate response is: “If their lives depended on it, would they still not be able to perform? If a genuine lack of skill is not the problem, then you can forget training as a potential solution.”
How big of a problem is the inappropriate use of training? Bigger than most HRD professionals suspect.  For the past year, whenever we teach a 6Ds Workshop, we ask the learning professionals in the room: “Of all the training you do today, what percent is trying to address performance issues that training can’t fix?”  What would you say?
We have been surprised that even in well-known and highly-respected companies, the trainers themselves estimate that between 10% to as high as 50% of all the training they do is doomed to become learning scrap because the fundamental performance issue cannot be resolved by training.
Why does this happen? Numerous factors contribute to the issue, but the two biggest culprits are:

  • 1. It’s easier. Imagine that you have a problem-employee whose behavior is having a serious adverse effect on teamwork within your department. Which is easier? To confront the individual and deal with the problem behavior directly, or to ask the training organization to provide a team-building session for the whole department? Many managers opt for the latter approach, which just transfers the problem to the training department (although this move almost never resolves it).
  • 2. Inadequate push-back. HR professionals, in general, and trainers in particular, have a helping mindset. They want to assist their clients whenever possible and have a lot of passion for the training programs they endorse. That is a great attitude, but carried too far, training departments can become mere “order takers.” They can end up agreeing to provide training even when it is the wrong solution, rather than focusing energy on better determining the root cause of the problem.

What can we do about it?

  • Build the process for approving training so that it requires more up-front analysis. Ensure that training really is the right solution and that other possible causes of the problem and alternative solutions have been explored.
  • Keep in mind that even when training is an appropriate part of the solution, it is never the whole solution. For training to be effective, it must be directed toward the right problems and it has to be supported by active managerial engagement before and afterward.

So, what do you think? What percent of the training in your organization today is being wasted on the wrong problems?
Roy Pollock is a popular author, speaker, consultant, and business executive with more than 20 years’ experience helping organizations create competitive advantage through learning. He is Chief Learning Officer of The 6Ds Company, which provides training and consulting services to organizations worldwide to help them improve learning transfer. Roy is the co-author of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results.