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Why training doesn’t work


Last week, I think we covered enough statistics to convince even the hardiest sceptic that training isn’t working.  The question this week, is why does this happen and the answer lies, in research by Geary Rummler and Alan Brache (1995), who found that 80% of performance problems relate to factors within the work environment.  In other words, what happens outside of the training room gets in the way of application.

In my experience, three scenarios occur repeatedly, and make application difficult, if not impossible:

Training for no reason
I’m working with a multinational company training sixty of their managers, at great cost, simply because they haven’t had any training for a couple of years and the company thought some training might be a nice idea.  Training is supposed to be performance enhancing: it’s the bridge that takes you from point A to point B.  If there isn’t a point B, why do it?

There is a reason – the delegates just don’t know what it is
There is an idea that training can “fix” people.  A manager has a member of staff with performance or behavioural issues; they don’t want to confront the issue directly, so they send the member of staff on a training course, in the hope that they’ll learn something and change.  It’s not always that extreme, though: so many times, I see delegates who’ve had no conversation with their managers in advance of the workshop – they’ve just been sent there.  What does that do to their willingness to learn?

Nothing happens afterwards
What happens after the workshop is crucial – if on-the-job reinforcement is missing, there’s no reason or incentive to do anything.  It’s difficult to sustain changes in behaviour and often we need help and support; if that’s not forthcoming, most of what we learn is gradually forgotten.

Of course, a fourth reason is that sometimes the training’s just bad.  A poor workshop or a poor trainer (and, lets face it, some are terrible) won’t generate any kind of change or application at all – but that’s a topic for another day!

So what’s the solution?  There’s a great quote, attributed to both Einstein and Woody Guthrie (it’s easy to get them confused): “Any fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.”  The inspired philosophy is simple things, done well, repeatedly: the good news is, for all of these problems there some very simple solutions and we’ll look at them next week.

5 Responses

  1. Why training doesn’t work

    We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” – Aristotle

    Just to pick up on the final words of the article, training needs to get the basics right.  The highlighted problems have been there since I frist started working in training nearly 20 years ago and i’m sure they will be still be there in some form in the next 20 years.

    With this in mind, we as trainers need to repeatedly address these issues within our training sessions eventually a step change must occur within our delegates. As our expertise grows in setting measureable learning outcomes within each session regardless of how the delegate has come to us. this must surely pay off in the long run. The change is a journey and not a destination!

    If the delegate sees the performance benefit of training albeit not what the employer expected the delegate will force the change. They will start to demand a reason why from their managers. The delegate will want to measure their own success and have something to boast about in their reviews with the manager.


  2. Good point, well made

    I agree with you completely and I know that I’m not really saying anything new or earth-shattering in the article.  However, as someone that’s been in the business for just over ten years (a babe in arms in comparison) the question I keep asking is why we, as trainers, allow it to keep happening…

  3. Another obstacle?

    Agree wholeheartedly with this article! I’d also add into the pot that another of the reasons training doesn’t work is that the organisation itself and its own objectives stop it happening. For example, if customer-facing staff are measured on numbers of calls taken or customers served they will naturally want to deal with people as fast as they can, often to the detriment of good customer service. If "managers" also have to produce sales, process invoices, deal with customers’ complaints etc they will devote most of their time to these measurable activities and not to truly managing their staff (by offering development, carrying out meaningful appraisals, dealing with poor motivation etc). So, much of the customer care training and management development training they receive will, sadly, be "put in the bottom drawer of the desk", once they get back to work.


  4. Another obstacle

    Excellent point, Jenny – and one of the things I went on to talk about in my next post…
    Have a great day

  5. Look at Gilbert’s Six Box Model – Engineering Worthy Performance

     I discovered WS Gilbert’s work about 10 years ago and was astounded by (a) its beautiful simplicity and (b) the resounding truth which I had been witnessing for years in the training world (before we became learning and development and put our rates up).  I was also intrigued to note that Gilbert’s work was not widely known.  Gilbert described managers as "performance engineers" whose job it is to engineer the environment for people to give of their best.  His model asks performance engineers to consider fundamental questions in numerical order 1-6

    • Box 1 – Information – Do they have the information they need to do the job.  Is the information timely and accurate.
    • Box 2 – Instruments – Do the tools and technology actually make the job easier and were the people that do the work involved in their design?
    • Box 3 – Incentives – Do reward systems actually encourage high performance?  Do people understand how high performance leads to high reward?

    If the answer is "Yes" to all the above then, and only then, think about the people themselves

    • Box 4 – Knowledge – Do people have the requisite knowledge to use the Information provided.  No good giving people up-to-date market research data if they don’t understand it
    • Box 5 – Capacity (Skills) – Do people have what’s needed to use the tools/instruments provided? Do they have the requisite experience and capacity to make the most of what’s offered?
    • Box 6 – Do people’s values and motivations align with the nature of the incentives offered?  Commission based sales work for people motivated in a certain way but not for others.

    Gilbert suggests organisations start at completely the wrong end (Box 6) by describing a motivation problem or suggesting that "you can’t get good people nowadays" (Box 5) when, in reality, the answers to Boxes 1-3 are a resounding "No". Training only addresses Boxes 4 and 5 and those alone will not bring about high performance or change.

    My last realisation was that if you takes Gilbert’s boxes and imagine a world where all the answers are "No" it’s both tragic and funny.  Hence Dilbert (scarily similar name) makes us both laugh and inwardly weep.   Gilbert himself produced a formula for creating incompetence – and it reads just like a Dilbert script.

    We always include Gilbert’s work on our senior manager programmes and for the last 5 years it has consistently been described as the most practical, pragmatic and useful of the tools we employ.  Managers and leaders have taken it back to their teams for (and here I quote from course feedback) "the first useful thing we’ve ever done on one of our away days"

    The best search terms to find out more is "Engineering Worthy Performance".  I’m also happy to share a couple of articles I’ve found if people are interested.


    Clive Hook

    ClearWorth – making learning a habit

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