Why we don’t believe in training

by Didier Marlier on Saturday May 16th, 2020

I recently wrote here an article warning on the fact that Webinars and Distance Learning were not to be discarded of course but would partially or totally fail to address the Ethos and Pathos critical components of any experience intending to produce a lasting impact on the participants.

Someone shared with me after that, an excellent article touching a somewhat similar theme and written by Alexandre Santille, CEO of TEYA, a fascinating Brazilian Leadership Development firm. Here it is:

“About $160 billion is spent annually in learning initiatives, and only 10% of training programs are effective, according to the authors of a Harvard Business School working paper, “The Great Training Robbery”[1]. As we already know most companies are not getting the return they expect on this huge investment in training and education.

Too often CEOs turn to HR to create a training program when faced with a problem. The point is that almost no one addresses the real issue, let alone whether training will solve it. The CEO avoids opening the Pandora’s Box of larger organizational flaws, and HR is happy to comply because it puts the function more at the center of things and avoids a risky conversation with the CEO about why training is not a panacea.

Michael Beer, one of the authors of HBS survey, explains that this type of conversation is uncomfortable. “Which is why most people don’t want to go through what we call an honest collective and public conversation about what’s really going on here… so training becomes an easy way to try to fix the problem, even though it doesn’t fix it”, Beer says[2].

Why training programs fail?

Senior executives and their HR professionals assume that leadership and management training will be sufficient to improve individual and organizational performance. But to begin transformation with training, and not with a larger change strategy led by the senior team, is at the root of persistent training failures.

The business needs (first) and the development designed to support the pursuit for results, led by the senior team, must be underway to create a favorable context for learning and development initiatives. Embedding training in a visible senior team-led change effort, in partnership with the HR team, creates the conditions that enable individuals to successfully learn and enact the required knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Another reason why training so often fails is the belief that the problem concerns only the competence and commitment of people.

This happens because executives are locked into a false implicit assumption about organizations, namely, that they function as an aggregation of talented individuals as opposed to a system of interactions shaped by multiple facets: strategy, structure, processes, leadership style, peoples’ background, culture and HR policies and practices.

It is these multiple facets that drive individual behavior. It is much more like an ecosystem, which presents complex network dynamics that cannot be controlled or predicted, with high-level connection affecting its evolution or performance as a whole.

In other words, placing all transformation liability solely on individual talent makes the problem of wasting money without getting the expected results persist. The pervasive HR logic — that leaps from strategy to definition of requisite individual competence and training — neglects a broader perspective demanded by the ecosystem.

So why does this model persist, even without results?

Education, in general, has an unquestionable value for most people. In fact, success in almost all areas is related to education, so learning never hurts. Learning amplifies our perspectives, provides a strong sense of self-efficacy, and gives us self-confidence and satisfaction, among many other benefits.

But, in the organizational context, learning initiatives need to contribute to the major objectives of the business. The point is, despite all its potential, training is often designed without strategic alignment and implemented in the usual “school way” of doing things, in the worst sense. So, although it is essential, training almost always has a null effect.

Unbounded learning

Based on this understanding leadership and HR team prepare to change their people development practices. The recommendation is: do not start with training, begin by considering business needs. In other words, one must start with the strategic objectives led by the senior team of leaders (including HR), followed by learning focused in business results, with the support of managers and a well-defined transfer process for the day-to-day work. The 6Ds methodology[3] is a strong ally of this vision.

In that sense, it is necessary to rethink the training model that is limited to developing specific groups (as most companies do), consigning the “people development” to punctuated moments outside the flow of day-to-day work, such as stand-apart trainings to high-potentials development or talent programs etc.

Implementing a learning culture

An alternative that represents a rethinking of the very place of people-development in organizational life is the model “DDO” (Deliberately Developmental Organization)[4], created by Robert Kegan et al, faculty members at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Instead of investing in growing some of their people, they propose a new model committed to development for all, creating immersive cultures for continuous individual growth as the necessary means of achieving superior business results.

This way, deep alignment with people’s motive to grow means fashioning an organizational culture in which support to people’s ongoing development is woven into the daily fabric of working life, visible in the company’s regular operations, day-to-day routines, and conversations.

It is not about developing employees’ skills. At the level of culture, it is about integrating deeper forms of personal learning into every aspect of life in the company.

According to Nigel Paine[5], author and expert on learning culture and former Head of L&D at the BBC, encouraging a learning culture actually has little to do with learning itself. “Increasing the velocity and quantity of learning doesn’t build a learning culture”, he explains.

Nigel points out that an organization needs four fundamental pillars in place to encourage a learning culture:

(1) an environment of trust where people can express themselves without fear;

(2) collaboration and an environment of sharing;

(3) places where collaboration and sharing can occur — both physical and virtual — and a move away from individuals being isolated;

(4) a strong purpose with employees believing that they are making a vital contribution towards what the organization is trying to do.

When those four things are in place, learning emerges.

In learning culture, learning is work and work is learning. The two things are not separate. An L&D department that see their role as separate are not going to make it. L&D has to be totally integrated.

Learning culture links with engagement in the workplace, that is, the aim is to focus on making staff feel good, in their own context, to show them that work is a joy and that they count.

Having a learning culture installed, the discussion takes on another level. From a higher level of maturity organizations are able to place learning (and not training per se) as an essential element of culture and therefore a powerful ally of business objectives.”

REFERENCES

[1] The Great Training Robbery. Michael Beer, Magnus Finnstrom & Derek Schrader. Working Paper 16-121, Harvard Business School, 2016.

[2] Companies Waste Billions Of Dollars On Ineffective Corporate Training. Roberta Holland. Forbes, 25 Jul. 2016.

[3] 6Ds:As Seis Disciplinas Que Transformam Educação Em Resultados Para o Negócio. Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock & Andrew Jefferson. Évora, 2011.

[4] The Deliberately Developmental Organization. Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey, Andy Fleming, Matthew Miller & Inna Markus. Extended Whitepaper, p. 1-15, Way to Grow Inc., Mar. 2014.

[5] Workplace Learning: How to Build a Culture of Continuous Employee Development. Nigel Paine. Kogan Page, 2019.

Insights: Alex Bretas, Ale Moreira, Conrado Schlochauer, Isadora Marques, Lais Yazbek, Mariana Jatahy, Mauro Mercadante and Renan Salotto.

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2 Responses to “Why we don’t believe in training”

  1. This seems to be one of the most intractable problems in management (another big one is the prevalence of vertical silos that destroy customer value over managing horizontal processes that create it). In both cases powerful political forces and vested interests strongly resist the systemic changes that are needed.

    Organisation Development was originally conceived as a strategic function reporting at the highest levels to address systemic change. Unfortunately, any competent OD person very quickly uncovered uncomfortable truths, so they were soon demoted to a small specialist department in HR and asked to focus on, guess what? Training!

    The only way out is for the CEO to understand and embrace the challenge of deep, systemic change. Training can never play more than a small supporting role in this. Anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves.

    Reply
    • I fully agree with your points dear Marvin. And when they come from someone knowing HR inside out (for having been himself into the profession), it means a lot to me! Thank you very much for sharing
      Didier

      Reply

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