Last reviewed 1 February 2017

There was a time when training was seen as the panacea for all ills. Now, an increasing number of people realise that training isn’t the solution that it was once thought to be and are prepared to speak out and say so. But, why does training so often fail and what can be done about this? Here, Judith Christian-Carter takes a look at why training is not the be-all and end-all that people often think it to be.

“Diversity training doesn’t work … Stop training people to be more accepting of diversity. It’s too conceptual, and it doesn’t work.” (Peter Bregman, 2012*). Oh my! Shock, horror! Can it be true that all the money and time spent on diversity training has just been one, tremendous waste? Indeed, it is true and, as shocking as it may seem, the reasons why are not that complicated to understand.

What is training?

Training is the action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behaviour. That’s it, nothing less and nothing more. One of the best examples of training people can be seen in the armed forces or military. In situations where rules and procedures are critical, and the main focus for demonstrating specific skills and behaviours, people need to be trained to reproduce these on a consistent basis. Likewise, with compliance and regulatory matters, both of which have legal implications if infringed, training people is, and rightly so, regarded as the solution.

Aside from matters of defence, compliance and regulation, training is also required to teach people how to operate machinery, to play sports, to improve physical and mental performance and to keep fit. These are the real uses and meaning of training, however, even with all these, it’s not just a question of the physical and the mental, as people are complex creatures where attitudes and other personality traits need to be taken into account. Therefore, the belief that training is the cure for all performance-related issues in the workplace is grossly misplaced. It has its uses, of that there is no doubt, but to be used as the sole means of learning it is totally unproductive.

The importance of attitudes

The roots of training are essentially Pavlovian in nature, ie classical conditioning based on stimulus and response. In some situations, such as a military procedures or operating a machine, this is just fine, but in those situations where “the heart may rule the head”, clearly this isn’t the case. This is why people’s attitudes are so important, in that they so often govern what we do, why we do something and how we do it.

Therefore, providing people with training, without taking into account or paying any regard to their attitudes, is likely to be a waste of both time and money. This, essentially, is why diversity training does not work, because “… rather than changing attitudes of prejudice and basis, it solidified them … Millions of dollars a year were spent on the training resulting in, well, nothing. Attitudes — and the diversity of the organisations — remained the same.” (Bregman, 2012).

To put it quite simply, you cannot train people to accept diversity if their attitudes are set against accepting it. This is a classic case of using training as a means of learning for all the wrong reasons. There are numerous other examples of using training for the wrong reasons, such as management training, sales training, customer service training, interpersonal skills training, leadership training, team-building training, to name but a few. In all these cases, the human factor, attitudes and personality traits are so important and dominant to ensure that any training is, more likely than not, to fail.

Training is not always the answer

As obvious as this may appear, it’s something that is frequently ignored. The temptation, particularly in training-orientated learning and development (L&D) functions, is to be told or to see that there is a performance issue with either an individual or a group of people and to jump to the conclusion that some training is the answer. This training could be an existing course or one that needs to be designed. External L&D suppliers are often told by organisations that they need to provide a training course, regardless of whether this is the required solution.

When it comes to performance issues in the workplace, be they as a result of a lack of knowledge, skills or inappropriate behaviours, training is seldom the answer. In addition, choosing the wrong means of delivering training, be it face-to-face, classroom-based or virtual, through eLearning, or by using a blended learning approach, compounds further making the wrong decision in the first place. In many instances, assuming training is the answer is akin to taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut!

Address the cause and not the solution

In today’s world of wanting solutions to problems yesterday, there is often great pressure on L&D functions and suppliers to cut as many corners as possible, even though the time and cost wasted in so doing are often considerable. All performance issues first need to be validated, ie do they actually exist or are they imagined, and, second, analysed thoroughly in order to identify the cause or causes, as well as the impact on the organisation if they are not addressed and remedied. Yet, so often, these two vital steps are ignored with adverse consequences for all those involved.

If the cause or causes of poor workplace performance are not identified, it is then a matter of pot luck as to whether or not the solution provided will work. The cause may not even be something that requires a learning-based solution, eg it may be due to a lack of equipment or having to use the inappropriate equipment. Even when the cause is a learning issue, because knowledge and/or skills are lacking or because inappropriate behaviours are being demonstrated, the solution may be very quick and inexpensive to implement. This is often the case when dealing with knowledge and/or skills deficiencies, where something as simple and as straightforward as performance support materials are all that is needed.

Tackling behavioural causes is often far more complicated and time-consuming, particularly when negative attitudes are prevalent, as cited above with regard to diversity training. As no two people are the same, taking a “sheep-dip” approach by providing a training course is bound to be unsuccessful. Instead, each person in the frame needs to be treated as an individual and provided with a specific, tailor-made solution if behavioural change is to be achieved.

Training that works

The cost to organisations of training that fails is enormous. Not only in the cost of designing and providing it in the first place, but also in the time spent away from the workplace by those receiving it. The cumulative cost, year-on-year, of training that doesn’t work is staggering and, yet, organisations continue to demonstrate the belief that it is the cure for all ills.

If L&D is to remain both credible and viable, it must ensure that training is only provided when it is absolutely the very best, if not the only solution to address workplace performance issues. In short, any training that is provided must work.

*Diversity Training Doesn’t Work, Peter Bregman, 12 March 2012, Harvard Business Review.