Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Trainer is Naked!

Everyone knows Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes. The basic premise, you may remember, is based on two weavers preying on the pride and vanity of an emperor. Educators often focus on the courage of the child to speak the truth. Training associations and conferences tend to focus on the throngs of educators who spout terms like LMS and SCORM mercilessly, while wasting thousands of hard-won profit dollars to at best maintain the status quo. I’m not a child, but I’m going to throw in some “truth” about the state of training today. Why? In the past two months I’ve taken a lot of classes, both online and instructor led. And based on my experience, things are not what they should be in this parade.

Let me begin by saying, good training benefits every organization, every employee. I am a firm believer that “good” learning experiences can take individual performance to a higher level, improve employee satisfaction, and generally improve the entire organization.

Ladies and gentlemen, the problem is – THERE ISN’T A LOT OF GOOD TRAINING OUT THERE. Most corporate training falls into three distinct categories:

  • Compliance / Risk Management Training
  • Employee Development Training
  • Needs-Based Training


Compliance and risk management training is boring. Students hate it. Insurance companies and risk managers love it. Governmental agencies love it. Do you really consider this training? Let’s call the trainer flat out naked on this one, because it isn’t really training in the majority of circumstances. Put in the tape, take the test. Log on to the LMS, click next a few times, then take the quiz. Yes, we are 100% trained. These are some serious blanket statements, and there are exceptions. A very few exceptions. A lot of these programs are in place because we didn’t prepare someone (or a group of someones) to do the job the right way in the first place. We didn’t do our job initially, then something bad happened. So now we have lost the luxury of using training time and money for real benefit. Before you start thinking “that’s just a small area…” OSHA compliance was estimated as a $33 Billion per year as a direct cost to industry in 1998. [i]

Did your company buy a training package on Lock Out, Tag Out or Forklift Operation? Did you customize the curriculum for your company? Most of you will say yes, because you teach your Company’s policies and maybe changed the logo on the PowerPoint. Think about how many times you’ve had to un-teach something they just saw on a video, or had to explain outdated equipment (in the program, or in your own shop). Truthfully, the programs may be expensive, professional, and top quality. Yet they’re still junk. They miss on the one of the single most important mark: STUDENTS HATE THE TRAINING, especially the recurrent/refresher programs. If students hate it, they probably aren’t learning much. And if they aren’t learning – i.e., if they aren’t building the competency that forms the reason for the training – the whole program is pretty much a waste. Sign the roster and send them away; at least they’d be happy. If they’re competent, document the competency through observation or demonstration rather than waste 4 or 8 hours in a classroom.

The reality is that this is “check off” training; the result of a mandate or standard somewhere. Treat it as such. No amount of development work, SCORM conformant development, or flash animation will take away from the need to train employees properly when they first come onto the job, or make this kind of training truly effective at changing employee behavior. Once an employee has learned a behavior, you have to motivate them to “un-learn” it before you can imprint the correct process. How much time was spent in that last lock-out class “un-learning” how you currently operate in the “real world”? I bet you didn’t spend much.


Who Moved My Cheese? Yep, I’m going to go there because that mouse is naked. Spencer Johnson’s tale is a good parable, and good read that will help you in understanding organizational psychology. It is a good BOOK. It isn’t a cult, or some existential training program that revolutionizes management. Good trainers should have had an understanding of these concepts all along! Yet we routinely, and endlessly, push our corporate hoards through employee development programs in the hopes that some will survive the next purge or merge. I really love all the teamwork training that’s out there; some of the team-building exercises promoted by our “experts” belong on reality TV. The fact is that teamwork develops when a group of people are faced with a common challenge, which forces them to work together, and has a (generally) positive outcome for the team members. The “M & M Game” really doesn’t do much to build solid, lasting teams. I don’t recall seeing the US Marine Corp implementing it at Parris Island, SC ; and the USMC is regarded worldwide and taking disparate socioeconomic youth and turning them into the most effective teams in the world. I’m kind of partial to learning from those who ARE experts, not those who are CALLED experts.

Yes, just like compliance training… These employee development programs are almost as universally hated. Well, hated by all but the most rear-end kissing employees who would write a positive review about cafeteria food that gave them salmonella. The truth is, if you want to develop your marketing department – bring in someone who has done it and let him or her learn your business. Then develop smaller, social learning opportunities. Develop mentor relationships. Solid management, solid leadership, and providing resources will develop your employees. Be extremely careful sending people to external training unless you’re sure it will have a positive effect.


Okay, well after two passes down the parade route the emperor is still naked. The third category is finally something that is starting be worth the time and investment. Needs-based training. Who defines the need? Who fills the need? That’s the area that can make or break this type of program. These are those unique, custom-built in-house programs. Often these hit closer to the mark than the other types of training. Why? Because they are typically internal to a company. They make use of in-house subject matter experts. When you pull a few of the SME’s together and ask them to help develop training programs –guess what? Remember what I said about a shared challenge? You can get a solid team when your SMEs start working together. Beyond training, good ideas breed good ideas, efficiency of process of person, and so on.

The problem with this area, over the past five years, has been the transition to “Online Education”. We’ve taken 15 years of PowerPoint, narrated it, and thrown it on a server somewhere. In addition to the time and money saved by doing learning-on-demand, we saved our students from any chance of improving their performance. We removed the ability of the student to interact with what was a skilled subject matter expert and peers. Properly constructed online programs can overcome the loss of the SME and peer group; poorly constructed ones exaggerate it.

How many properly constructed online programs are there? I see a lot of client content on a day-to-day basis. I’d say less than 10% of all content that’s posted meets even simple tests for “good courseware”. And let’s talk about this SCORM stuff for a second. SCORM is a solid, but complex standard. I love the ability to randomly pull questions from a pool, track interactions, etc. Probably that same 10% of online content makes us of SCORM features. A core group of academics is already pushing for the “next” update. Hey, fellow educators. Let’s take a minute and get the content that’s out there up to at least one of the standards we’ve written before we go writing the next one. Even better, before we worry about the technical aspects of delivering content via a system that costs upwards of six figures… LETS SHOOT FOR THE CONTENT ITSELF BEING OF BETTER QUALITY!!!

In my days as a public safety instructor, I used very simple tests for competency that took into account the big-picture outcome I was shooting for. “Would I let this paramedic student take care of my infant son?” But honestly, if the students went home at the end of the day tired, maybe a little dirty or sweaty because they were doing things in a real-world environment, and feeling a little smarter or a little better prepared – I felt I had done my job.

Gang, we cannot teach everyone everything. The Trainer isn’t wearing any clothes. Somewhere along the line, as an industry, we have become so caught up in the profession – and have become so vain that we aren’t seeing the obvious, just like Anderson’s Emperor. Training is about teaching someone to do something new, or do something they already do, better.

Good Training Requires:

  • The Right Curriculum
  • The Right Environment
  • The Right Student
  • The Right Instructor
  • The Right Technology

Stop selling yourself, and your students, short. Put the buzzwords on urban dictionary and take them out of your vocabulary. Go put some clothes on and get back to teaching. Our students, and our profession, should demand nothing less.

[i] James, Harvey S., Jr., “Estimating OSHA Compliance Costs.” Policy Sciences 31: 321-341, 1998. Kluwer Academic Publishers.