Training's dirty little secret

Jul 06 2006 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

I was interviewing someone I really respect the other day for The Cranky Middle Manager podcast, when the following words slipped from her mouth… " You know, I've never learned anything really worth knowing in a training class".

The tape wasn't running, she has plausible deniability, but she DID say it.

Given that we both make our living doing instructor-led corporate training this was heresy of the first order and immediately led to an oath of silence on both our parts. (Note to editor: if I'm suddenly found in the Chicago River bound, gagged and bludgeoned, her name is in an envelope in my sock drawer).

What she was saying is something that everyone in middle management has felt at one time or another and speaks to the paradox of developing talent: there is plenty of evidence that learning opportunities increase performance, contribute to employee engagement, and do everything short of curing the common cold.

On the other hand training is frequently a waste of time, doesn't change behaviour enough to produce measurable ROI and generally drives both management and its participants crazy.

Quite the little conundrum.

We have mistaken training for learning and it's screwed up our priorities

The problem is that we have mistaken Training for Learning and it's screwed up our priorities. "Training" is something you do that allows you to learn something (or at least get out of work for the day). You do "training" to enhance "learning". When you substitute "Learning" for "Training" the solutions present themselves in a very different light.

Put simply, you can learn all kinds of things without "Training". You can also do all kinds of training and have no learning take place whatsoever. (Note to companies, never do software training 2 months before the rollout AND let them know there's a help desk at the same time. Let them think they're on their own and they need to use it tomorrow or it's a long, wasted day for everyone).

So why do training at all? Well, as an organization you want to make sure that people are working towards a common goal, often with common processes and language. You want everyone to get better at their jobs. Additionally, you want to know that learning (and performance improvement) is actually taking place.

The behaviourist Fred Keller said that learning in the new Millennium would be mostly self-driven but that organizations could ensure consistency of learning by determining the information or skill sets to be learned; dividing the material into self-contained modules or bite-sized chunks; formally evaluating whether learning has taken place and; allowing learners to move at their own pace- as long as they move.

It is difficult though, for most organizations to do all that. Think of determining the competencies, setting individual development plans, making sure they've been completed and to top it off, they'll do it when they're jolly well ready to do it. Sound like fun to you?

Let's take an example. You want your line managers to be able to read a balance sheet and be aware of the financial implications of their actions. Fair enough, there's no shortage of resources- books, college courses, on-line tutorials and the like. So you set the managers to the task. "Go forth and "Learn" to read a balance sheet".

They scatter to the winds and you have no idea what they're doing. Some take 20 minutes to brush up their skills. Some take days and struggle. Some walk out of the office, count to twenty and send you an email saying they're done.

They all SAY they've learned to do it. Well, you have to have a final test - which has to be administered - which also has to be compiled and put into their files and added to their performance reviews - which happens as many times as there are managers.

Then you have to follow up to make sure that they are actually reading the P and L when it's sent to them every month.

It's far easier to take all the managers who require that skill, put them in a one-day program (because no matter how complex the skill, there's no way you can have them gone for 2 days) and check it off the to-do list. There are plenty of companies out there to help you do it, too.

To be fair there are times when training is absolutely the right solution:

  • When the reason performance is down is due to a lack of skills or knowledge
  • When you have multiple people who need to learn the same thing the same way
  • When the skill learned requires practice and feedback
  • When you want the whole group to share a common approach, language or process
  • When participants understand why they're there, what's expected of them back on the job and that they will be evaluated on the change in their behavior
  • When there's value in having everyone all together- the social aspect of class room training is maybe the most important to the team and least appreciated

If organizations are serious about developing core competencies, they need to shift from a Training perspective to a Learning mindset. Then put the structure in place to allow the learning to take place.

Just for the record, I HAVE learned something in a classroom. You can actually type a whole website column while holding your Blackberry under your desk. Now if the Instructor would just shut up I could figure out this darned balance sheet…

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.

Older Comments

It is actually not that hard to set up dynamic task-based systems that tailor themselves to individuals when they need them (check out What is hard, is to find anyone in the enterprise willing to champion such a system.

I could write a whole dissertation on why that is, but bottom line is that most people in training like to talk a good game about performance, but want nothing to do with it when it comes down to brass tacks: My “butts in seat metric” is just fine the way it is, thank you…

( was created for small to medium businesses without training departments â€' the type of organizations in which you either pay attention to performance, or go out of a business)



....and not only do organisations 'tick the box' on training rather than developing some serious learning experiences, they maintain formal and informal measures and policies which make it difficult for participants to apply what they were supposed to learn without a negative personal consequence.

Moreover, participants go back to their jobs with no tests completed of their assimilation of the knowledge and rarely do they have the opportunity to actually apply their new knowledge within the first few weeks. The result is a very quick decay in knowledge retention making the whole exercise a failure by design.

Kevin Dwyer Melbourne, Australia

I concur wholeheartedly. In fact, if anyone wants more discussion of this, I recently wrote an article called 'Why (Most) Training is Useless. (

David Maister