Opinion: Training is not enough

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Wrong answerNot only is training far from the only answer, sometimes it is the wrong answer, says Donald H Taylor, who asks that L&D managers turn down more training requests.

In part 1 of this article I suggested that training is not enough by itself to ensure improved workplace performance. I pointed to the AMO model, which says that performance is determined by three factors: ability (can a person do their job), motivation (do they want to) and opportunity (does their working environment allow them). This model is often expressed like this:

P = f (A, M, O)

This has been successfully used to understand workplace performance by many in this field, notably John Purcell of ACAS and Warwick Business School (see his 2004 Lovett lecture).

Photo of Don Taylor"What is the alternative? The department can take on a new role. It can take managers through an analysis of the performance issue and help them decide which problems can be tackled with training, and which cannot."

Training that boosts ability, then, is not enough to ensure performance. People must also want and be allowed to do their job well. This has an important implication. Yes, training is not the only answer, but furthermore, sometimes it is the wrong answer. And if that is the case, then sometimes the L&D department should refuse to carry out training.

Take a familiar scenario: a department is underperforming. Different managers will respond to this differently. Tactics might include incentives, managerial bullying and training. But just because they are asking for training doesn't mean it is the solution to their problems.

There is a ghastly ritual in these circumstances: manager asks for training; the L&D department supplies it without qualification; evaluation sheets show happy trainees. A little while later performance is re-evaluated. If it has not improved (and why should it? Was training ever shown to be the right solution to the problem?) the training is regarded as a dismal failure. Then another problem crops up and the departmental manager turns again to the training department, more out of habit than a belief that anything will change. This is what David Wilson calls the 'conspiracy of convenience': activity agreed on by everyone, and useless to anyone.

What is the alternative? The department can take on a new role. It can take managers through an analysis of the performance issue and help them decide which problems can be tackled with training, and which cannot.

"At its most developed, this is performance consulting, a discipline popularised for trainers in the 90s by Gaines Robinson & Robinson in the US and more recently by Nigel Harrison in the UK."

This is not something traditionally within the training department's remit. But it's not in anyone else's remit either, and it's crying out to be done. At its most developed, this is performance consulting, a discipline popularised for trainers in the 90s by Gaines Robinson & Robinson in the US and more recently by Nigel Harrison in the UK.

These authors offer practical, structured approaches to performance consulting, at a level of detail that cannot be explored here. There is, however, one practical method of Nigel Harrison's for helping managers understand where to apply training, which Charles Jennings shared with me recently.
Suppose a manager appears, asking for training. After talking, you understand that the issue at hand may be unrelated – or only partly related – to the areas that training can touch: a person's knowledge and skills. The manager, though, does not recognise this.

Invite the manager and as many others involved as possible in the issue into a room with a white board, or a flip chart. Scatter sticky notes and pens on a table and after discussing the issue in some detail, ask them each to write on the stickies as many of the facets of the problem that they can think of.

Give the group enough time to write up a lot of stickies and then tell them that each sticky will fall into one of four categories. These correspond to the parts of the AMO model, with ability a product of both knowledge and skills, and opportunity to participate summed up as environment.
Draw up an empty grid on the whiteboard, like this:


The stickies have to be sorted into one of these four categories. Group members can do this themselves, or you can take charge, reading out each sticky and inviting group members to comment - this is slower, but forces more reflection on the issue and should generate consensus. Eventually the grid fills up.

Even the most obtuse manager should get the point by now. Yes, the warehouse employees are taking too long to enter details on the stock system but that's not because they can't use the system (skills) it's because the network connection slows them down, so they'd rather enter the information in batches at the end of the day (environment). Yes, the furnace workers are underproductive but not because they don't know the steel manufacturing process (knowledge). They're just disengaged after years on the job (motivation).

It is the process of discussion that gets people to this point, which means having enough of the right people in the room, in an environment comfortable enough to support respectful discussion.

When all the stickies are up, the person leading the discussion takes a big pen and draws a line across the grid:


"The learning and development department can help with what's above the line," he or she can then say. "Knowledge and skills is what we do. But if there's something wrong with the working environment, or your employees' motivation, then the ball is your court."

What happens next?

That is up to you, but having reached this point with your managers, it makes no sense to abandon them. If they have identified a problem, the L&D department probably can help, even if formal training is not the answer. How? One option is to go for a full performance consulting engagement, which has much to recommend it for those with the necessary skills.

There is a shorter, more immediate course of action: find others in the organisation who have faced the same, or similar, problems and put them together with your manager. This does not mean that the L&D department needs to know everyone in the organisation, but it can know where to find them. That could be through an informal knowledge of personnel; it might be through a piece of formal social networking infrastructure or an HR system.

What happens when these people get together depends on them and on your organisation. It might be a single, informal conversation. It might be a secondment between teams. It might become a more formal mentoring relationship. It certainly won't be a formal training course on the L&D department's schedule. Whatever form it takes, it's still learning, facilitated by the L&D department. Your manager just won't recognise it as such.

To read the first part of Donald Taylor's feature
click here

Donald H Taylor is chairman of the Learning and Skills Group and the Learning Technologies conference. He blogs at www.donaldhtaylor.co.uk and learningtechnologiesconference

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not of TrainingZone.co.uk

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