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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Book review: The FT Guide to Business Training by Tom Bird and Jeremy Cassell


“Business training doesn’t work.” This is the first line in the new FT Guide to Business Training and you’ve got to love a book which lays out its stall so clearly and so boldly.  So why don’t I?

One would hope that a Financial Times guide would be far reaching and comprehensive – in the cover notes it is described as ‘definitive’ - but before the introduction is over I learned that business  training doesn’t include coaching, mentoring, facilitation, e-Learning, informal learning, apprenticeships, etc, etc.  Instead, business training is about designing and running workshops – classroom events.  Although other activities are mentioned as part of a blend of interventions to meet training requirements, this guide fails to help the reader navigate how, what, when and with what purpose alternative tools and techniques may be employed.  As Abraham Maslow said: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to approach all problems as if they were a nail.” 

To be fair to Tom and Jerry (yes, I know) they recognise this is an issue.  They spend a significant amount of time telling the reader that business training (i.e. running classroom events) may not be the answer.  By far and away the best bits of the book deal with the consultative process preceding any training initiative. 

The book follows a linear structure from needs analysis; design; the trainer as performer through to evaluation.  But there is little here which is new, despite an opening section called “Adapt or Die”.  It would seem the adaptation required is simply to fall back on, admittedly, reasonably good practice in the classroom.  The good practice is primarily a selective digest of the work of others - from Bernice McCarthy via Peter Honey, Noel Burch and Donald Kirkpatrick.  Each approach is described simply and straightforwardly enough, but there is little additional insight.    

The widely used and abused Honey and Mumford Learning Styles Questionnaire is given a thorough airing, but those who question the entire basis of learning styles – David Willingham, Susan Greenfield et al  -  are not mentioned.  Frank Coffield’s extensive research at the University of Newcastle concluded : Most disappointingly, we found little good evidence to suggest that teaching influenced by the idea of learning styles has a significant effect on achievement or motivation.”

Surely an authoritative guide would have at least commented that there was some question mark over the application of learning styles and the instruments at their heart.

There are other examples.  NLP crops up repeatedly as one would expect when Tom Bird describes himself as a Master Practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.  Any idea that NLP might be controversial or that, as described on Wikipedia Reviews of empirical research find that NLPs core tenets are poorly supported” is not mentioned.  Faith is all.

I don’t normally quote wikipedia, but the NLP entry was subject to a wiki-war.  With NLP devotees taken down comments from those who hold a very different opinion and those who think NLP is highly questionable repeating the process. The resulting wikipedia entry is the result of a truce between the two opposing parties with the devotees of NLP, like Tom, having agreed the wording I have quoted.

There are some good things here, but most of it is so much motherhood and apple pie.  We are urged to tell stories as a way of making our training stickier.  And stories abound in the book – usually as a light-hearted way of introducing each topic.  But they are teeth grindingly simple, bordering on patronising.  By trying to be all things to all people these exemplars of the story teller’s art simply irritate.

In many ways, the book falls between two stools.  Despite the lists and lists (and more lists) of prompt questions, The FT Guide to Business Training provides few answers - certainly few  which are immediately actionable.  Following Noel Burch’s competence ladder, by the end of this, a reader may have achieved conscious incompetence but nothing further.  Is this definitive?

Having made such a brave start by saying that ‘Business training doesn’t work’ one would expect a more searing analysis and detailed discussion of innovative measures to address the problem.  But this is not the path we are led on by this particularly guide.  The prescription for the ills faced by Business Training?  Keep calm and carry on.

If your business training doesn’t work,  I’m afraid  this guide won’t provide much assistance in  resolving the issues.

Robin Hoyle is a trainer and consultant and the author of 'Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement'

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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