Where’s the beef?

‘Drive-by’ training may have sizzle, but few positive long-term effects
Question:
Recently, I was having lunch with a couple of colleagues from a professional group for trainers that we all belong to. During our
conversation, the topic of selecting training topics was brought up. Their approach in selecting topics or presenters seems to reflect what they see some of our other colleagues doing. I was greeted with blank stares when I asked them the question, “How do these topics relate to what your company is trying to accomplish?” Sometimes, I really struggle with making a clear link between the
training that I offer and the demands that my participants confront when they’re back at work. Considering what I heard at this lunch meeting, I’m wondering if I’m making my job harder than it has to be. Maybe I should follow their lead. What do you think?
Answer:
Before I offer a response, I have a question. Where were you having lunch? If it was at a fast-food restaurant, that setting would be very appropriate because what your colleagues were talking about is what I like to call “drive-by” training: Training that is initially satisfying but has few positive long-term effects.
You’ll be pleased to know that my thoughts on this matter are consistent with the approach that you allude to in your question. From my perspective, training must be synchronous with the business objectives of the organization. If it is not, then it is extraneous and participants are likely to have little motivation for investing effort in the course(s) they are completing.
On the other hand, when the training clearly connects with what people are doing in their work, then they can see that they have an opportunity to improve their performance by applying the subject matter to the work they are doing. Identifying the relevance of the subject matter is fundamental to maintaining your participants’ interest and attention; factors that are of course necessary for learning to take place.
I certainly understand where your lunch companions are coming from. Undertaking a thorough learning needs assessment or task analysis and setting it in the context of organizational strategy can be hard work. And it may be unappreciated hard work. Upper management may simply not understand why these activities are necessary. After all, from their point of view, selecting a training topic may be as easy as offering a directive along the lines of, “We need training on (pick a topic). Make it happen.”
If the long-range impact of training- the cost of the training, the time spent in training, etc.- are not concerns, developing a curriculum can be a lot like going through the drive-through lane at the neighborhood fast-food restaurant: “Oh, I see you’re offering a new ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ sandwich, I’ll try that. Yes, I’d like to super-size that order. And I’ll have a diet soda – trying to legitimize this meal choice in your own mind.”
If you select training topics or presenters based primarily on the basis of their “sizzle,” you are not doing yourself, your participants, or your organization any favors. The only people who benefit are the vendor who provides the instructional materials or the trainer who facilitates the course. As in the drive-through example, if this is the way training is designed, before too long, you’ll be looking to legitimize your choices.
Better to invest the time and effort up-front and identify the business objectives of the organization and what learning is necessary in light of them. An easy example of this would be the case where a company buys a new piece of equipment or machinery to upgrade its production capabilities. Such an upgrade will require employees to also upgrade their knowledge and skills. Consequently, technical training is needed to help employees make full use of the new tools at their disposal.
You get the point. You also can see how it is applicable with other learning initiatives. Talking about encouraging full and active participation of all organizational members? Better offer some communication and interpersonal skills courses. Expecting your employees to “act like owners?” Better offer a “business basics” course so that everyone can interpret a cash flow statement, understand basic marketplace issues, document a work process, etc. And so on.
While your lunch colleagues may be coming up with a lot of “fun” topics, I’d be curious to see what impact such programs have beyond the immediate context in which they occur. Certainly, it’s a benefit to have a program which participants enjoy, but enjoyment doesn’t always equate with better job performance. For that to happen, connections need to be made between the learning program, the objectives of the organization, the team or department, and the specific job that is being performed. This means involving the strategizers (i.e., top management) and the line managers in the needs assessment, program design, program implementation, follow-up/maintenance, and evaluation components of the training process.
Are you making your job harder than it has to be by being thoughtful and deliberate as you select training topics? I don’t think so. You’re doing things the right way, from my vantage point. In my opinion, the frustration you seem to be feeling is a reflection of the difference between putting together a loose list of topics (what your colleagues are doing) and developing and implementing a training “system” (what you are doing). The latter takes more time and effort but also facilitates lasting results.
In the final analysis, would you really be satisfied with a “menu” of training topics that are hastily prepared and abruptly delivered, whose only impact is some fleeting after-taste? I hope not. Stay away from the fast-food approach and continue doing what you’re doing. Build a menu of training topics with the long-term “health” of the learners in mind. Identify what they need to better perform their jobs and provide courses that specifically relate to those needs.
HR Connection is provided by
Daniel Schroeder, Ph.D. of Organization Development Consultants, Inc. in Brookfield. Small Business Times readers who would like to see an issue addressed may contact him via telephone at 827-1901, via fax at 827-8383, or via e-mail at odc@execpc.com.
July 23, 1999 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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