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Nigel Harrison



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The Training Conspiracy


Most investment in learning and development is wasted, says business psychologist, Nigel Harrison.

It seems that many organisations jump much too quickly to L&D solutions without linking them to the business problem that they were intended to solve. In fact, it's almost as if there is a conspiracy of convenience around quick solutions because the client is happy to find answers and the L&D people are happy to provide them. All these factors lead to ineffective investment while the L&D budget is often protected as a sacred cow.

In recent years more senior executives have begun to question the assumption that investment in L&D is a good thing asking such things as 'What return are we getting from our L&D budget?', 'What measurable results do we get from the recent leadership course, or sales coaching?' The reality is, a culture of top-town L&D interventions can actually consume energy and take people away from solving the real business problems.

The conspiracy of convenience

Why do we have this dominant fantasy that any investment L&D is a good thing when it might not be? There are two main causes; 'The conspiracy of convenience' and 'solutioneering'. The 'conspiracy of convenience' is the old system of senior managers asking for instant L&D solutions where there is no down-side when the solutions do not work. To give you a real example: there was a sales director discussed a sales problem with his directors and agreed that they needed more sales coaching. They agreed a budget of £650,000 and called in the L&D director to give him the order. The L&D director was delighted to get high level support for coaching, the sales coaches loved the extra work and the sales managers appreciated the investment in their skills. No one was crying wolf. No one complained. No one stopped to analyse the real business problem. Everyone was happy to go along with a simplistic solution. But it did not work because it was not solving the real sales problem.


It is human nature to make sense of our environment. Given a random set of dots (stars at night) we try to make patterns (the Plough). This tendency to make 'a gestalt' or whole, to move to the concrete rather than the fluidity of uncertainty is normal human behaviour. However in an organisation with pressure to appear confident, macho and certain - “Bring me solutions not problems!” - this normal reaction to make patterns can lead to decision-makers jumping to solutions too early. So the sales director can appear positive about poor sales figures when he says we plan to spend £650,000 on sales coaching. No one will be criticised for having a plan and a commitment to action! However this is a classic case of solutioneering. More sales coaching is a solution not the problem.


Quantify performance gaps, diagnose the cause and then find solutions

The irrational drive for instant solutions within a culture of conspiracy of convenience is very difficult to counter with a rational diagnostic approach. There is a great deal of emotional pressure on the L&D department not to ask questions. It is easy to say that once a request comes in, the L&D consultant should not just 'take the order' but should ask some diagnostic questions around the real performance gap and only then invest in L&D solutions that are appropriate to close that gap. 

For example in the case of 'more sale coaching' a rational joint-problem solving approach revealed:
  • Product incentives still biased on the old way of selling
  • Inconsistent sales processes
  • Lack of good sales literature about the new products
  • No clear picture of what sales mangers should do in the new world
When the sales directors were asked the question: 'Would more sales coaching solve these problems?' one director said: “No they would actually make things worse because managers feel guilty that they do not have time to coach at the moment and more training will take them away from sorting out these real problems.”
Most L&D managers do not have permission to challenge around performance problems and most do not have the credibility and skill to supportively challenge their clients. The power of a 'quick-fix' culture, conspiracy of convenience and solutioneering is too great for most L&D departments to resist.

Where are we now?

One benefit of the recession has been the focus on doing more for less. If it is true that there is a dominant fantasy around the value of L&D and that many L&D solutions may actual cost more than they contribute? Perhaps now is the time to challenge this way of thinking? This supportive challenge implies a level of rational, adult thought to diagnose real performance gaps and causes before jumping to solutions but the benefits could be enormous. The skills that we require our internal consultants to have will be on a whole new level - there will be no easy fix for this one. 

Nigel Harrison is a chartered business psychologist who has spent over twenty years working with organisations such as Thomson Reuters, Xerox, AstraZeneca, South Yorkshire Police, Nationwide and HSBC to discover how to work as true business partners using a performance consulting approach to counter “solutioneering”. See for more information.Nigel will be running his 'Training conspiracy' workshop at TrainingZone Live on May 25.


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