If we are to believe David Maister, the sky is once again falling, everything you know is wrong, and we’ve all been wasting our time by doing what we do as trainers.

 

Having modified an earlier series of blog postings into Why (Most) Training Is Useless in the May 2008 issue of T+D, ASTD’s monthly review of what is new, exciting, and challenging in the world  of training, Maister offers a thought-provoking confession and a suggested remedy.

 

Among his assertions are the proposition that “the majority of business training—by me and by everyone else—is a waste of time because only a microscopic fraction of training is ever put into practice with the hope for benefits obtained” (p. 53).  He also, in a section subtitled “The Right Approach,” suggests that a “full-change program” should be created; people should be trained with their coworkers so the lessons are carried back to and implemented in their workplace; and that staff rather than outsiders should be used to provide effective training experiences: “Outsiders should be used only to help train-the-trainers programs” (p. 58).

 

There’s much to admire in Maister’s article, and he is not alone in questioning whether current training procedures are effective. More pre- and post-workshop activities undoubtedly lead to better learning opportunities. Training employees in their “regular operating groups” does help create the possibility that the learners will have their lessons reinforced.  There is, however, also much to question.

 

Those of us who have managed training programs featuring a combination of in-house trainers and those hired from outside our organizations hear from our colleagues that they appreciate the training opportunities they would not have received if we had to rely solely on in-house resources. We also hear and see that what we offer is far from useless when our colleagues consistently tell us how helpful it is for them to have the variety of options we provide: one-hour, half-day, and full-day offerings on a variety of topics; occasional series which extend over two- or three-day periods; series which may continue once a month for several months; and other combinations such as asynchronous online learning opportunities or lesson plans which can be printed out and used on a schedule established by employees rather than supervisors or trainers.

 

Useless? I think not. Common? Not as common as it should be, but we all have to start somewhere.

 

The current “learning revolution,” which concentrates on learners as much as on instructors and which encourages abundant pre- and post-workshop activities to assure greater results from training sessions, is something to be admired and supported. It does not, however, mean that one-time workshops need to be eliminated.

 

A one-time harassment prevention session led by attorneys and involving an actor and an actress who did short, improvised vignettes on the topic led to unplanned workplace and lunch-time conversations among employees for several weeks after the sessions ended. Those informal discussions drew in employees who were not even present for the original presentations and helped create more awareness of the topic throughout the organization.

 

Workshops including discussions and tips about how to more effectively work with transgender colleagues and library users led to similar viral learning and the unsolicited assertion from at least one participant that the effectiveness of the instructor’s presentation had caused a major shift in the way that the participant worked after attending the session.

 

In the same way, we don’t need expensive surveys to know that employees who choose to attend one-hour, half-day, or full-day workshops on how to use the latest versions of Word, Excel, or PowerPoint are returning to their workplace and using what they learned to their benefit and to the advantage of those who use the services of the organizations for which they work.

 

I have no argument with Maister and others who suggest that more training time and more cohesive planning of long-term training goals can produce fantastic results. I’m also a strong supporter of having comprehensive in-house peer-based training programs along the lines of what the Contra Costa County Library offers. Where I do part ways with them is when they act as if they’ve suddenly seen the light, discovered that everything they’ve done was useless, and try to lead us to the one, true way to reach our goals—until they discover that this new way is also far from perfect and needs to be replaced by yet another “right” way to do things. As if everything we know were wrong.

 

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