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Why training doesn't work

By Elaine Varelas, 9/6/2005

A colleague of mine was recalling her experience at a company-sponsored ropes training course with a little laughter and a lot of embarrassment. It took place over an entire weekend (ugh!) with male and female colleagues sleeping in the same quarters, and even sharing the same bathroom (yikes!). She remembers much more clearly her concern with the co-ed sleeping arrangements ("I didn't know what pajamas to wear!") than the actual "training" or even why her company sent her there. If employees are focused on bed-head, morning breath, and bodily functions, how much do you really think they're taking away from the experience?

I often hear human resources managers talk about how their training programs are unpopular, ill-received, or ineffective. At many companies, training programs just don't work. And it's difficult to justify the expense of training to company leadership if there aren't short- and long-term results. Why are so many companies struggling with this? And why do they keep repeating the same mistakes?

For many organizations, training takes place in a vacuum. It's a one-time event-a seminar, workshop, or ropes weekend-that exists out of context from the rest of work life. In order to be successful, all development programs, including training, must be integrated with initiatives tied into the organization's business needs and goals. Otherwise the experience is irrelevant to employees, and ultimately, to the company. A ropes course can be a valuable learning experience, but what is it trying to teach? When I asked my colleague about her company's intended goal, she said, "I don't know. Trust? Teamwork?"

Training often fails because employees miss the point. Human resources managers and trainers can be myopic. They assume employees understand the desired results of the program, but the goals need to be communicated and put into context. In fact, discussing the objectives of the training should be a large part of the program. Is the group there to learn to take risks, work as a team, or solve problems together? How does the program relate to everyday work? Trust falls, zip wires, and obstacle courses can be important learning tools, but how do they tie back to performance?

It is also helpful to realize that there is a difference between training, development and education. Training, by nature, is more of a one-time event. It is ideal for specific skill development, such as learning a new technology. Development and education usually tackle bigger issues like risk-taking, management and problem-solving.

HR managers need to decide what's important in an education program. Do you want employees to follow orders or develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills? Are you looking to help your employees learn the skill of scaling a wall or the process of working as a team?

Don't get me wrong - seminars, workshops, and ropes courses all have their place in employee education, but may not be enough for some circumstances. For certain key employees, an individualized longer-term approach may be more appropriate. For example, an extended development program will help an employee garner experiential learning. That employee could work one-on-one with a manager or a mentor.

If there is a disconnect between what companies are offering for training and development, and the results leadership is seeking, HR managers would be wise to start asking questions. Why are they offering the present training options? Many HR managers look at training and development from the inside out, but they should approach employee education from a more external view. What are the business needs? Market needs? Customer needs? How do the training and development programs help gain market share or customers?

HR managers should also query managers: How can we help your people do a better job? What are your, your managers' and your employees' impediments to success?

And employees themselves are also a great resource. Ideally, the goal of employee education is to develop employees' skills as they rise to their full potential or leadership positions. Ask employees what they need to reach their goals. You can also talk to customers about how your employees can better meet their needs or the needs of the market. The answers to these questions should help craft your training and development programs.

By working with your employees, managers, and clients to develop the content of your programs and aligning those initiatives with your business goals, you are sure to offer training that will benefit your employees and your business. This integrated approach allows employees to develop not just individual skills, but better practices, techniques, and work styles.

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