Don’t Waste Your Money on Training

In Brief:  Millions of dollars are wasted every day on poor quality training that is delivered in businesses, non-profits and government agencies.  But it doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, good quality training can revolutionize the work you and your team do.

By Jonathan Halls

Training Often Gets a Bad Name

A friend recently attended a cross-cultural communication workshop.  The trainer had twenty plus years working around the world and a very impressive resume.

But at the end of the week, my friend explained to me she wasn’t sure what the skills of cross cultural communication were.   “Are there principles or rules that I can apply?” she asked me.

I asked to see the learning objectives or course outline.  The outline was a list of vague descriptions about topics the trainer would cover but there were no learning objectives.

I asked how the trainer led these sessions.  Did she draw on the participants’ experiences then link them to a set of principles or rules to follow when working across cultures?

The answer was no.  She told stories of her own experiences working internationally and mostly ignored the experiences of participants in the room.  This went on for the whole week.

She assured participants they’d be encouraged to share experiences.  But her stories kept running overtime so participants’ opportunities for interaction kept fizzling out.

It’s experiences like this that often lead people to question the value of training.  And justifiably so.

Not all training is training

My friend didn’t attend a training workshop.  She sat in on the trainer’s “show and tell” session.  It was merely a theatre show starring the trainer or perhaps an opportunity for self-aggrandizement.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of really poor training being delivered by people who either don’t have the qualifications to facilitate vocational skills learning or are simply poorly organized.  I see it all the time both in soft skills and media production training.  Why is this so?

The story usually runs something like this. Roger is a newspaper editor with ten years’ experience.  He was a reporter for ten years before that.  His record isn’t sterling but it’s not bad either.  In fact he’s well regarded and competent.

Roger Tries Training

Roger is about to hit the magic age of 50 and sees the news world changing all around him.  He’s going to have to learn new skills to stay competitive.  And he’s sick of late night shifts getting the paper out.

At about the same time, his employer sends around an email saying the company needs volunteers to take early retirement.  What does Roger do?  Well, twenty years ago he taught softball to local high school kids.  Why not take a package and teach journalism?

Six weeks later, Roger hangs out his shingle and approaches his network of old buddies who hire him to train cadets.  “They don’t churn the kids out of college with the same skills we got in the old days, Roger” they tell him.

Roger is not a trainer.  He’s a good communicator, but he hasn’t studied the science of how adults learn.  Or the exciting new techniques designed to speed learning up and ensure people walk out of workshops with real skills they can use.

So, he does theatre.  He lectures.  He doesn’t use scientifically proven effective learning techniques like drawing on participant experience and stimulating interaction.

He doesn’t follow the cognitive science of breaking knowledge into manageable chunks which are easy to learn.  Or employ the various interactive techniques to make sure they’re remembered and applied on the job.   Because Roger is a news editor, not a trainer.

Roger doesn’t come from the only profession where people make an instant transformation to trainer.  You see it in every industry.  Accountants teaching bookkeeping, software engineers teaching computing.

Teach gym

Some people argue that having industry experience is the most important thing.  A newspaper doesn’t want to hire a so-called trainer who has never filed a story or met a deadline.  They want a news professional to teach news skills.

They argue that there’s nothing worse than listening to a trainer who does a lot of teaching but has never done the actual job.  They quote that old line, “if you can’t do, you teach.  And if you can’t teach, you teach gym.”

Sure, there’s no substitute for real experience and knowledge.  But there’s also no substitute for a professional trainer who can take that knowledge and turn it into practical skills used in the workplace.

And this is where companies waste thousands of dollars on training.  They hire people who don’t understand how to make training work.  Because they lack a basic knowledge of the science of learning, they run training classes like theatre shows.  They may be entertaining but everyone forgets them a few days after.

This was evident a few years back when my London Media Training company was hired to deliver multimedia workshops for TV professionals new to digital media.  My client was a company owned by respected TV professionals.

You could tell the folks in this training company didn’t know the first thing about learning because all they wanted to know was, “What are you going to cover?”

My client wanted to know what topics we’d cover on the first morning and what would happen on the last afternoon.  Not once did they ask about the skills participants would walk out with.  For them it was theatre.

Now not everyone who leaves a job and hangs out their shingle as a trainer offers bad training.  Far from it.  But there are enough people out there who can’t train or coach and they give training a bad name.

When you hire a training provider, you need to find trainers who both know what they teach – preferably from experience – and understand the science of learning so that they can turn knowledge into a practical skill that will add to a company’s bottom line.

What to look out for

Inexperienced trainers often approach learning sessions as if they are theatre shows.  Just like the cross-cultural communication trainer we talked about.  They develop flashy slide decks and practice  telling their old stories.

You can spot these folks because they tend to talk about what their course covers, not the tasks your staff will be able to perform at the end. Good trainers understand the science of human performance and skills development.  They’re happy to put reputation on the line and talk about performance outcomes.  Amateurs avoid this like the plague and hope for the best.

The amateurs often over-emphasize the energy they bring to the room or event.  But forget you want the learners to be the ones with the energy.

About six years ago I was visiting the American Film Institute.  I asked one of the executives how AFI evaluated learning effectiveness.  At the BBC, we followed the traditional Kirkpatrick model.  She reached behind her and pulled out an Academy Award statue.  “By these,” she said.

That’s what we call results.  To this day I am still proud of my colleagues at the BBC who run probably the best television training courses in the world.  Participants on a one-week intensive studio directing course often go live the following week.  That’s what training is about.

Training is not about what we deliver in class.  It’s about what learners can do when they get back to the office.  Experienced trainers will talk about skills and application.  Newbies will be fixated on what they do at the front of the classroom.

Professionals Talk About Learning Objectives

When professionals talk about the skills, they usually express them in terms of behavioral objectives.  Behavioral objectives are also known in some quarters as learning objectives and learning outcomes.

Professionals follow a specific grammar when writing behavioral objectives.  This grammar or format explicitly describes the tasks learners will be able to perform at the end of the session and the standard they perform them to.  This makes learning effectiveness quick and easy to measure.

Professionals Design Classes Around the Job

A common mistake among newbies is that they design curricula around their own experience or approach, rather than the job – such as the client’s workflow, or the culture or technology.  “Oh, I always did it this way, so let me show you…”  Wrong.  Trainers need to find out how the organization does it and teach their staff according to the organization’s culture and workflow.  This is not to say the training professional can’t comment or offer suggestions to an organization’s workflow.The moral center of the curriculum belongs to learners and the organization, not the trainer.

Workplace learning professionals are focused on delivering results and helping people improve their performance.  Not talking about something, showing a series of PowerPoint slides, delivering content or sharing their wisdom.  Training must be about the results back on the job.

Invest in training

I see a lot of companies wasting their money on skills training.  They hire amateurs who do theater shows rather than train and coach their staff to improved performance.

When you hire your next training professional,  make first ask them what skills or knowledge you or your staff will walk out with at the end and be able to immediately apply to the job.  Ask for specifics and make sure your trainer describes the learning objectives following the correct grammar.  Then ask them to explain what techniques they’ll use to reinforce the learning which is another important aspect, although a topic we’ll explore another time.