4 Standard Learning & Development Practices & Their Unintended Harm

What if the ‘right’ things to do in training are hurting you without you even coming to know of it? What are they? And how do they hurt?

Organizations have mandatory training man-days, dedicated external training partners, full-time internal trainers, plans to track return on investment. They point to these resource commitments as a reflection of their solid commitment to training.

And they are right. They do walk the talk. They put in the time, the money, and the resources. But, do they evaluate the unintended consequences or the missed opportunities of their actions in the areas referred to? That is something to explore.

Mandatory Training man-days – Planning is not an event. It is a continuous process that adapts to everyday reality. Mandatory Training man-days are cast in stone. Mandatory Training days are a relic of the industrial era when safety drills had to be incorporated into the running of plants. Downtime had to be scheduled.

When an organization has mandatory training man-days, it can showcase its commitment to people development in a tangible way. A grand plan can be chalked out for yearly learning activity. Budgets can be allocated. External partners can be roped in well ahead of time. The stage is set. Everything is in place. The wheels are in motion.

Motion should not be mistaken for action. Action is timely learning for the changing task at hand. In today’s world marked by disruptive changes in technology, business, and society, the conditions in which people are expected to perform alter not by degrees, but in kind.

In even a two-month timeframe for a scheduled training program, so many things can happen. Change of customer preferences. Leadership change. Technology tweaks. Process change. Competition-led innovation. To name just a few. When training man-days are in place, like pre-programmed scripts, we run training programs unmindful of these changes. After all, the learning has to be applied outside in the same changed environment. If the learning does not fit, people realize it even before they step out of the training room.

When the training program is conceived as a business imperative, it will spring up in response to an urgent or important learning need. The training program has a vitality, a freshness about it. A real sense of purpose. It creates momentum for learning and change.

Instead we find that the calendar entry turns training into a bureaucratic routine. No real flexibility for tweaks here and there. In-the-moment tweaking is discouraged because you will then have to make changes across the board.

There is no flexible mindset. When you have a flexible mindset, you do not go by what is on paper. You go by the real need on the ground.

Training man-days also lead to rule beating. Rule beating means evasive action to get around the intent of a system’s rules – abiding by the letter, but not the spirit of the rule.

We have many business units that are loathe to release their staff for training. Yearly or quarterly deadlines allow them to put off trainings till the last hour. And when the deadline knocks, they hurriedly go through the motions making their staff learn pre-packaged stuff that does not address their here-and-now needs.

The training happens at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. The worst part is that because all the boxes are ticked, everything seems just fine. It is business as usual.

Dedicated External training partners – Most organizations form long-term relationships with a small set of external training companies. The advantages are undeniable. Both sides form a level of comfort and trust in each other. They know each other inside out. The external partner functions as seamlessly as an internal unit. Everything is efficient.

Peter Drucker specifies why management consultants bring value to an organization. One, their exposure to many organizations. They have exposure in depth, but also breadth and variety.  Second, professional detachment. While committed to client success, they do not enmesh themselves into organizational dynamics and become a part of the problem. Their value stems from seeing things from the outside.

When you have dedicated external training partners, you unwittingly blunt the edge of their offering. To the extent that these partners work almost exclusively with you, they do not possess the value gained by exposure in breadth and variety. And to the extent that they become exclusive business partners, they run the risk of losing their professional detachment.

For the organization, the missed opportunities are many. You are not actively engaged with the learning community outside because your engagement has always been mediated by the present partners. You do not acquire the capability to sniff out domain experts, evaluate the right ‘fit’, acquire ‘early-mover’ advantage in new learning solutions.

Are the dedicated learning partners proving themselves to be continually relevant by addressing your ‘business’ challenges? That is a good indicator of where you stand.

Full-Time Internal Trainers – An organization that relies only on full-time internal trainers misses out on building enterprise-wide learning capability.

Most organizations are knowledge companies. Knowledge-work has its own special demands. Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes. If Oil is not drilled or gold is not mined, it sits there. Not so with knowledge. If an organization is totally into knowledge work, the logical question is – how can knowledge be improved, challenged, and increased constantly? The simplest answer is teaching.

Let us define a knowledge worker here. Knowledge workers know more about their job than the bosses ever will. Once their knowledge foundation is built, they do not need to be told how to do.

But the demands of their task continuously change. With the same set of tools, they need to learn new methods, new ways to apply them. No-one learns as much about a subject and its new horizons as one forced to teach it. In teaching, knowledge workers learn more and become better. When an organization looks at training as a productivity-enhancing imperative, it creates processes and structures to make everybody train and learn.

Why should others learn? Knowledge work means that the output of one’s work becomes the input of another. They even co-create the output. Knowledge workers are each other’s source for real feedback on performance. By knowing what each one contributes, they can integrate their outputs and create the right ‘fit’. They cannot excel in isolation.

Full-time internal Trainers are the learning specialists who can design learning experiences for these knowledge workers. Their substantive value is more in creating a context for learning, rather than the content. The content is the domain of the knowledge worker.

Most full-time trainers are doings things right (efficiency). They are invaluable resources for getting the right things done (effectiveness).

Tracking Return on Investment – The sword can be put back into the sheath. Is there a way anybody can argue against measuring results? Peace. Measuring results is sine qua non for any purposeful endeavour.

And life is a paradox. Neils Bohr said it best, “The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”

Consider these two truths. The first truth is this – What gets measured, gets done. The second truth is – Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

Organizations embody both living truths. The first one is widely accepted as standard business maxim. The second one is evident in the realization that the biggest pay packages do not retain the best talent. It is driven home in the gut-instinct business decision that flies in the face of all available data and turns out to be spectacularly right.

In business, the only certainty is change that nobody is in control of. When you are in a fog, and visibility is just a few feet, you have two choices. Wait for the fog to clear. Or walk ahead a few feet. You can see further ahead when you do.

Business reality is like a fog. And in situations where doing nothing hurts, to wait for the fog to clear is not an option. You have to act.

In any case, success is an outcome of multiple factors, all of which have to align together. Motorola University was a world-class training institution and its legacy in terms of its contribution to the learning and development field is substantial. The company itself has been sold.

Another dimension to consider is the act of omission. If you specify everything that needs to be done on paper, and the need of the hour is doing what is not at all specified, I can easily get away by doing nothing. Especially when I am the only one aware of the need that emerged, the choice that I had, and the action that I chose not to take. Invisible non-performance. An act of omission.

An insistence on doing only the training that can be tracked for returns can quickly degenerate into such an act of omission. By all means, do whatever is humanly possible to measure. Accept that sometimes you just can’t because of multiple causal factors and complex outcomes.

To summarily discard mandatory training man-days, dedicated external training partners, full-time internal trainers, requirement of tracking return on investment (ROI) will be a knee-jerk response. What is needed is to ask: What is the unintended impact of what we do? What has the missed opportunity cost? When we realize the not so apparent fact that the available means influence our choice of ends, we have a profound insight. An insight for the ages.

Every organization needs to evaluate the unintended consequences and missed opportunities of their current learning and development practices. It is more a case of being mindful, reaffirming strategic priorities, taking risks and also the occasional leap of faith.


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