Founder & CEO Institute for Transfer Effectiveness
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Why training is often not the right solution

No matter what the problem, we can sometimes be found guilty of assuming training is the solution. But by asking one simple question we can  determine whether training is the answer or if, as is more likely, another approach is needed.

27th Jan 2020
Founder & CEO Institute for Transfer Effectiveness
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Training is not always the answer
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When we are faced with organisational challenges, training is usually discussed as the solution. An employee survey shows employees are unhappy with their managers – the solution: management development training. More and more burnout cases in the company – the solution: stress management training. Sales figures are declining – the solution: sales training.

Those training programmes can work and produce the desired results. However, it is equally likely that they have no effect at all. In many cases, training investments have no return. The evaluation studies of the renowned transfer researcher Robert Brinkerhoff show that about 85% do not apply on the job what they have learned.

Adapted from Brinkerhoff, R. O., What If Training Really Had to Work?

Source: Figure 1. Adapted from Brinkerhoff, R. O., What If Training Really Had to Work? 2006 (1.12.2016).

Training effectiveness

The reason for this low level of sustainability is often not the quality of the training, but rather that training is not the appropriate solution to the existing organisational problem.

Why is training seen as the obvious solution?

  • Training is an established, well-known intervention that encounters less resistance compared to other interventions, like organisational or cultural development projects or restructures, due to their familiar routines.

  • Training has a known timeframe and is easy to plan. There is an implicit expectation that the organisational problem will be solved after the training course has been completed.

  • Training has a strong lobby, including trainers, professional associations and HR and L&D departments. The implementation of training is in the personal interest of many stakeholders.

  • Training is institutionalised. It is expected that modern companies offer training programmes. A large company that does not offer training is perceived as ‘obsolete’ and ‘not up-to-date’. It is important that the company offers training, while effectiveness is not always the bottom line. This is also reflected in the fact that many companies measure and communicate the quantity of their training in the form of key figures (number of training days, training days per employee, etc), but not the effectiveness.

  • Training is supported by the overarching belief and conviction of ‘education’. ‘Education’ is considered to be good, right and effective by society as a whole, and this also applies to ‘the little internal sister’ of organisational development. This is also shown by the fact that organisational development uses concepts and elements of education such as certificates, academic degrees following training, curricula, faculty and trainers with scientific backgrounds.

When is training the appropriate solution?

A well-known and very catchy model from Professor Lutz von Rosenstiel helps us find the answer. He studied the question of what employee behavior in organisations depends on – including the behaviour we want to change through training. 

Rosenstiel identified four conditions: 

(1) Individual desire (‘Do I want to behave like this?’) 

(2) Individual skill (‘Do I have the necessary skills?’)

(3) Empowerment and obligation (‘Is the behavior socially permitted and desirable?’) 

(4) Situational enabling (‘Is it possible to act like this?’)

Four conditions of behaviour change

 

Source: Adapted from Rosenstiel, L. v., Grundlagen der Organisationspsychologie, Stuttgart: Schäffer-Poeschel, 2015 (6th Edition), p. 56f.

If we look at these four conditions, what is training aimed at? Quite obviously, at individual skills. Training primarily helps to build knowledge, skills and capabilities. However, to achieve genuine and sustainable behavioral change, there are three other crucial conditions: Trainees must want to change their behavior, and the new behaviors must be both socially acceptable and feasible in the given situation. 

To decide whether training is the right intervention, the first and most important thing to do is ask the skills question!

Is training the right solution?

Let’s look at some examples. 

1. A company that is suffering a sales decline

They send their sales team to a training course to learn new sales techniques – that is, to improve their individual skills. But – who knows? Perhaps the team will never be able to use those new techniques. Why? Because a competitor has entered the market with a better technology, perhaps, which our company’s products can’t compete with.

In this case, even the best sales techniques and the best training won’t help, as the reason the sales team’s efforts are no longer successful is not a lack of individual skill but the inhibiting external circumstances (i.e., adverse situational conditions).

2. Stress prevention training to reduce an increased burn-out rate

Does this make sense? It depends on whether the problem is really related to individual skill. Let us imagine that in the stress prevention training, trainees learn to take regular breaks, switch off their phones on weekends, and stop working overtime – no doubt, all sensible and effective new behaviors.

But quite often this new behavior conflicts with the organisation’s values and standards. Our participants may get funny looks from their colleagues if they have an apple break at 10 a.m. Their supervisors will point to their all-in work contracts if they leave at 5 p.m. sharp, and all in all, they will rightly fear being accused of slacking off and a lack of commitment.

If that happens, they won’t stick to the new behavioral routines. Burn-out, in this company, may not be a question of individual skill and routines but of empowerment and obligation.

3. Management development training to address poor feedback results for managers

Again, the question is whether we are dealing with a lack of skill or very different reasons – such as, for instance, a leadership team demanding that supervisors impose overly ambitious targets on their staff, or a general salary decrease.

And if managers do learn to replace their authoritarian leadership style with a more participative one, would this ‘new’ style even be permitted and wanted in their organisation?

Ask the skills question

To decide whether training is the right intervention, the first and most important thing to do is ask the skills question! Think about the behavior you’re aiming to instill through training and ask yourself: ‘What do we want our trainees doing differently in their day-to-day work after the planned training?’ Then ask yourself why they haven’t been doing it until now. 

If the answer is ‘Because they lack skills!’, do the training. If there are other key reasons, forget about the training for the moment and try to solve these key reasons first!

It is the responsibility of HR and L&D to ensure that every organisational challenge gets the right intervention and does not use training as the standard solution for everything.

Training as part of an effective solution

In practice, the answer to the skills question is often more complex. Skills are rarely the sole cause of organisational problems and challenges. If lack of a particular skill is only part of the problem, then classic training can only be part of the solution.

A change in behaviour requires all four conditions and these should be established before the training as much as possible. To this end, the organisation must do its homework and create the right environment, so that the skills acquired in training can be established as new behaviours in the workplace. Then we can talk about a link between L&D and organisational and cultural development, which is becoming increasingly important.

It is rarely enough to communicate the organisation’s environment for ‘new’ social norms and values verbally or through brochures. Actions and clear signals are needed alongside the training, so that the participant can experience and believe that the organisation actually endorses, demands and enables the new behaviour.

A question of professionalism and aspiration

It is the responsibility of HR and L&D to ensure that every organisational challenge gets the right intervention and does not use training as the standard solution for everything.

It is also the responsibility of HR and L&D to ensure that if training is chosen as the right intervention, application opportunities will be available and supported by social and organisational empowerment, which obviously requires the active involvement of management and other organisational stakeholders.

Last but not least, it is a question of transfer aspirations, perhaps even of professionalism, for trainers to decline engagements that are doomed to fail from the outset due to a lack of application opportunities and organisational conditions – or, at the very least, suggest that such opportunities be created.

 
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