Training Professionals: If You are Not Alarmed, You Should Be

Author: Dr. Roy Pollock | Source: HCI | Published: May 2, 2012

Two alarming statistics crossed my desk recently which should be wake-up calls for all of us in learning and development.

The first was in a McKinsey Quarterly article entitled “Getting More from Your Training Programs.” What really got my attention was the third sentence of the opening paragraph: “only one-quarter of the respondents to a recent McKinsey survey said their training programs measurably improved business performance.” In other words, a whopping 75% of the senior managers that McKinsey surveyed felt that their training programs failed to contribute to the success of the business.

The second was even more alarming. According to a study by the Executive Board’s Corporate Leadership Council, “more than 50% of line managers believe that shutting down the L&D function would have no impact on employee performance!”

Can you image the alarm bells that would go off in your company if market research discovered that more than half your customers were dissatisfied with your products? 

What’s going on? Most training departments have never been working harder or had more learning tools and technologies available.

In the brief space available here, I want suggest two root causes and the actions we need to take at once.

Inadequate linkage to the real business needs. Too many training departments have become mere “order takers,” responding to requests for training by harried but ill-informed managers who believe that training is the solution to every kind of performance problem. (Managers probably don’t really believe that, but ordering training is easier than tackling the real issues.) I call this the “McDonald’s Clerk” approach to training; take the order and, at most, see if they want fries with it.

As learning professionals, we need to push back more. We need to “just say no” when we can show that the real issue is not a lack of knowledge or skills, but unclear expectations, inadequate feedback, poor motivation, or any of the host of other problems that training won’t fix. Anytime we agree to do training when training is the wrong solution, we are sure to fail and prove our critics right. 

Second, even where training is appropriate, we need to do a much better job of ferreting out the real business needs and what managers are trying to accomplish through training.  The first, and arguably most important, discipline of effective training is to define the business outcomes.  If you don’t get that right, it does not matter how elegant the design or flawless the execution, the training will fail to deliver the value the business is seeking.  We must push harder to probe the issues behind the request and to clarify the business sponsor’s definition of success.

An event mentality. Another key contributor to the perception that “training doesn’t work” is an event mentality. That is, just send them off to training and they will come back cured, with no effort required by their manager.

And we have contributed to this misperception. Every time we give a certificate of completion at the end of a training program we reinforce the paradigm that when you finish the class, you have fulfilled your responsibilities. In fact, the real work begins when the class ends

In today’s hyper-competitive environment, businesses want more from training and development than just great training. They want on-the-job results. That’s the new finish line for learning. And the only way we are going to reach the finish line—and change the perceptions with which I started this blog—is to manage learning as a change process —one that starts before and extends long after the training itself.  We need to start to plan for, positively influence, and manage learning transfer.  We have to make sure that managers understand the key role they play in the transfer process and that they are either part of the solution or part of the problem. 

The alarm has been sounded; are we prepared to respond?
Guest author bio: Dr. Roy Pollock is the Chief Learning Officer of The 6Ds Company, a teaching and consulting firm dedicated to helping learning organizations maximize the return on their training investments. He is co-author of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning and How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results. A popular speaker and consultant on learning and development, he has broad experience in both business management and instructional design.