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Opinion: Training alone can’t cure systemic failure


System FailureCan you really train an organisation out of trouble? No, you can't. But that doesn't mean that the training department doesn't have a vital role to play. Donald H Taylor looks more closely at dealing with systemic organisational failure.

Whose fault is it when a government department employee loses CDs containing the un-encrypted details of 22 million Britons? Clearly the employee is at fault. He or she should never have even burnt the CDs, let alone given them, unregistered, to a courier company.

But the employee's manager was also at fault. The employee should have known that it was a daft thing to do, and should have felt able to approach his/her boss to check.

Arguably, the computer used should never have been able to burn a CD anyway. The Inland Revenue used to spend millions of pounds commissioning kit free of any removable media, but merger with HM Customs and Excise meant the newly formed HM Revenue and Customs had a slew of potentially unsafe machines. Put that way, it looks like the whole organisation is at fault.

Photo of Donald Taylor"Unfortunately, dealing with complexity is not always management's strong suit, and it is all too easy for the training function to be dragged into an ill-thought out response to systemic failure."

Donald H Taylor, chairman of the Learning Technologies conference

Whose fault is it when the UK government's tax self-assessment web service collapses under the load when the deadline for submissions arrives?

The tax assessment deadline was the same this year as every year: 31 January. The surge in usage was predictable. So why the systems failure? Because nobody had decided to buy enough server space to meet a predictable peak load. In the pre-internet era, the Inland Revenue had print capacity to spare, idle most of the time, yet pressed into frenetic action to deal with peak demand at the end of each financial year.

Such events can be – and often are – labelled as another IT failure, but that is a glib way of dumping the blame on one department while absolving everyone else of responsibility.
The truth is more complex.

Fix the system

These failures are systemic failures. They show the inability of management to understand and deal with something significant to the organisation. In the two IT cases above, management failed to understand the flow and value of information, but for different organisations you could replace 'information' with 'diversity', or with 'editorial integrity'.

Fixing this lack of understanding and building procedures to ensure it stays fixed is not simple.
Unfortunately, dealing with complexity is not always management's strong suit, and it is all too easy for the training function to be dragged into an ill-thought out response to systemic failure.

Typically, the response is this: "Our people just don't know how to do the job right. We'll train them how." This usually fixes some problems, but not all. No number of Java courses will ever teach the common sense that sensitive data should never be put on removable media. That's a message best conveyed by good management, combined with sensible workplace structures – like not being able to copy stuff in the first place.

The problem for the training profession is that it can be made an easy scapegoat when it fails to solve a systemic issue. The line of argument goes like this:

We had a problem
We did training
The training didn't fix it
The training must have been bad

No. The analysis was bad. Something other than training was needed – good management, good structure, and some profound behavioural change.

When Chalk 'n' Talk is not Enough

Probably the area in which training has been worst deployed to solve a systemic problem has been on diversity issues. As Donald Clark has pointed out, a 2006 paper 'Best Practices or Best Guesses' from Harvard's Frank Dobbin et al said, baldly: "Programs that target managerial stereotyping through education and feedback (diversity training and diversity evaluations) are not followed by increases in diversity."

In the 700+ organisations covered by Dobbin's research, other methods were found to be more effective than training – in particular, assigning diversity responsibility to particular managers.

"When faced with a demand for content-driven classroom training to tackle systemic failure, the training department must not be quiet. It must refuse."

Has the training department no part to play, then, in
tackling systemic failure? Yes, it does. But not in standard 'chalk and talk' training, and not by itself.
The BBC is currently tackling a major dip in trust, and according to Mark Thompson, is taking action by:

  • first, a commitment to comprehensive self-examination followed by full disclosure;

  • second, a set of specific measures to make the chance of a recurrence as small as humanly possible;

  • third, not just training, but the start of a BBC-wide conversation about our editorial values and the boundaries of acceptable practice in broadcasting.

Having talked to cynical BBC old stagers who have been in on the 'not just training' piece covered in the third point, I can say that it is having the desired effect – on them at least – of making them reconsider years of established thinking.

And who is running the two-hour Safeguarding Trust workshops? Why, the College of Journalism – effectively the BBC's own training department. They have the skills with assembling content, with facilitating people in a conversation, with collecting and distilling the thoughts of a group and with inviting reflection around specific examples. This isn't chalk and talk, but it's everything else that a good trainer does.

When faced with a demand for content-driven classroom training to tackle systemic failure, the training department must not be quiet. It must refuse. Only interactive work with employees, supporting a wider change programme, will meet the needs of the organisation.

It's a technical skill to query a database for 22 million names and burn them to a CD. It's a professional understanding that says it's a bad idea. Learning professionals can spread the latter, but only if they are allowed to do their job the right way.

Donald H Taylor is chairman of the Learning Technologies conference. He blogs at and


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