Can trainers make a difference?

Does training make a difference?

Maybe.

I would love to write ‘certainly’, but ‘maybe’ is as much as the evidence allows. And that’s from someone with a training background. Imagine what the cynics out there might write.

The truth is that if training departments shelter behind Charles Jennings’ cruelly coined term the conspiracy of convenience, there is no guarantee that training is doing any good. In fact, it may actually be doing harm.

How so?

The conspiracy of convenience occurs when organisations opt for training as the result of a manager asking for training, and the training department fulfilling the request no questions asked.

The department may deliver the training very efficiently (joining instructions accurate and timely, classrooms prepared, delegates at the correct level) but there is no guarantee that the training is effective – that it makes a difference to the organisation.

What the training department should be asking is: “Why do you need the training?” Or, perhaps more constructively, “I understand that you believe your cabin crew [or whoever] need communications training [or whatever]. What makes you think that?”

Even as I write, I can hear the sing-song voice of the therapist (“And tell me, how did that make you feel?”) and yet that is exactly how the Training Department needs to act – as a  therapist, teasing out the reasons why a manager believes people need training, as a therapist teases out the reasons for a client’s emotional state.

Because often a training course is not what’s required, even though it may be the first thing the manager turns to. What’s needed is something that will improve a person’s performance. That might be training (for their skills), but it could equally be some knowledge (possibly through training, possibly through an EPSS, or a job aid), an alteration to their environment, or some help with their motivation (both of which could be down to HR and the line manager).

But could it actually do any harm to just deliver the training you’ve been asked for?

Certainly.

Once you’ve delivered the communications training, what do you do when the manager comes back and says: “Hey, that training was no good. My cabin crew are still getting lousy customer satisfaction ratings, and now I have to haul my sorry behind to the board for a roasting!” (for some reason this particular manager has – in my mind – become a caricature cigar-chomping mid-Westerner).

Saying “But I delivered what I was asked to deliver” doesn’t cut it. The training has done harm. It has delayed the implementation of a real solution to a real problem, and allowed customers on this airline to continue having miserable journeys, or to choose a different carrier.

If the training department had engaged the manager in some dialogue, they would have understood that the problem was not one of communication. In fact the cabin crew were communicating all too accurately their low morale, which resulted from their work schedule and pay structure. Someone needed to sit down with the managers, HR and the cabin crew and hammer out an agreement.

Would that be the training department? Possibly not, but they could be the agent that brings everyone to the table.

In other words, to be truly effective, the Training Department has to move beyond training. It even has to move beyond Learning and Development. It has to be an agent of change. The fancy term for this is Performance Consulting, which got to be very popular in the late ’90s, and is now undergoing something of a resurgence. Dana Gaines Robinson and James C Robinson wrote explicitly about moving from training to consulting in their 1996 book Performance Consulting. Many others, including the UK’s Nigel Harrison, have added their input.

Will we see training departments make this change? In some cases, we already have. At InfoBasis, I’ve been lucky enough to see some training functions completely re-structure themselves, taking a pro-active view of their organisational role. For others the change will take a very long time indeed. The key to beginning the process of change lies with the training managers themselves. For too long they have allowed their departments to be seen as fulfillment houses. If they begin to work with line managers to understand what lies behind those requests for training, they will be helping them do their job properly, and truly building organisational effectiveness.

It’s time for training departments to stop taking orders and start asking questions.

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