I’ve been a trainer for over 28 years. During that time, I’ve trained on a wide variety of subjects including music performance, leadership, personal and spiritual development, organizational development, conflict resolution, and even how to use photocopiers. I’ve led training lasting anywhere from one hour to one week for just about any demographic of person you can think of.

If I’ve learned anything from my training experience, it’s this: I no longer believe in training as we know it.

The Trouble With Training

I love being a trainer. Every aspect, from designing the curriculum to teaching new concepts to helping students overcome obstacles, is gratifying for me. A day of training seems to go by in an hour. And yet, despite my love of training and the impact I’ve seen it have on students, I see many flaws with traditional training. The potential of training to make a significant impact has been reduced to a generic solution for just about any problem. Having interpersonal issues in your organization? Do a training. Need to address diversity? Do a training. Noticing leadership gaps? Do a training. Ad nauseum …

It’s not that training per se is the problem. What is the problem is a) training is used a quick-fix stopgap for underlying problems, b) most training is based on outdated models, and c) most training is generic and doesn’t address individual needs.

To go further, let’s look at elements of a typical training session:

  • Held outside of the normal work environment, which yields results that are less integrated into the daily culture and environment
  • Likely at least a couple of hours. Most people’s attention and ability to store information times out after about an hour. We only have the capacity to learn one or two things at one time, and need practice to actually do them well.
  • Covers a variety of sub-topics. When I look at training I’ve attended and follow-up with participants from training, most people only use one or two things they were taught.
  • Rooted in theory. Training covers principles, tools, and techniques, with minimal direct application.
  • Emphasizes mental and intellectual stimulation. Training typically doesn’t include physical and emotional elements. This makes it harder to apply and integrate learning.
  • Little to no follow-up. Most training has no follow-up or integration afterward. People return to their normal environment and quickly default to old patterns of behavior.
  • Little to no systemic support. Pockets of individuals attend training, and when they return to work the principles are seldom practiced or supported by peers, leaders, or the organization as a whole.
  • No tie-in to larger needs or objectives. Training typically makes people adapt to content instead of adapting content to people. This core reasons for the training aren’t relevant to its initial needs or serve its purpose.

Some of these points aren’t necessarily bad. For example, taking time to train outside of the work environment so as to eliminate distractions or introducing theory and principles has its place. However, when training includes at least three of the elements listed above, as it typically does, it becomes more of a hindrance than a help.

The Impact of Traditional Training

Unfortunately, the impact of training can and often has become quite negative. In my years of training, some of these include:

  • Cynicism about doing “another training”
  • Being taken away from work and needing to catch up afterward
  • A lack of “bang for the buck” given the amount of time spent compared to the amount of return for that time
  • Active resistance to what is being taught, especially if there’s a perceived hidden agenda, that trickles back into the culture
  • Lack of faith in the ability of training to make a difference

Over time, training becomes something to dread rather than look forward to. Employees go through the motions, get their certificates, and then? Not much. A lot of time and money is invested with minimal return to show for it.

Re-Imagining Training

To make training effective, it’s important to identify its strengths and align them with what people need to get the most from it. If we look at what we need to best learn, we can adapt training to people instead of the other way around. Consider some basic principles:

  • We can only typically learn, apply, and master one or two new ideas, concepts, or tools at one time
  • To put those ideas, concepts, or tools into practice, we need sufficient time to practice using them
  • We typically lose attention and/or reach capacity after an hour, at most
  • Applying what we learn in our native environment provides context for application
  • One of the most significant factors in sustaining change is the people with whom we surround ourselves
  • The more senses we use, the easier it is to learn and retain information
  • Using tools to suit our purpose instead of adapting our purpose to the tool provides practical applications that meet our needs for using the tools in the first place

Incorporating these principles means thinking outside the box and significantly altering how we approach training. In order to do this, we have to be willing to shed the old models and let go of what we know. If we apply the basic principles above, some elements for successful training would then include:

  • Short, lasting no more than one hour
  • Delivered in or as close to people’s regular work environment as possible
  • Attending with existing teams or working groups
  • Ongoing practice afterward with those same people
  • Delivered in stages
  • Content that people can apply to their personal situations
  • Incorporating mental, physical, and emotional elements
  • Clear purpose and objectives defined by the organization that is integrated into the curriculum

A Case Study in Re-Imagined Training

Recently, my colleagues and I decided to put these concepts into practice. We developed training (or a workshop, as we call it) to build skills in a couple of areas: effective meetings and professional 1:1 conversations. Not surprisingly, the results have been quite different. To align with the principle above, the workshops include:

  • Conversations around personal experiences related to the topic
  • Personal identification of strengths and weaknesses around the topic
  • A simple model that participants use for self-reflection and point of reference
  • Activities that elicit group discussion, debate, and alternative perspectives and experiences while providing new insights and approaches to the topic
  • Two one-hour sessions held one week apart, with homework in between to test learning and report back
  • Emphasis on only one or two self-identified actions to take in between sessions
  • Held in participants’ work areas instead of classrooms, including normal meeting spaces and/or board rooms
  • Approximately a 20/80 ratio of facilitator speaking to participant speaking

The results have been quite astounding, especially compared to the results I’ve seen in traditional training. Some things we’ve seen and heard from participants include:

  • The hour goes by in no time and they can’t believe it’s already over (and they want more)
  • Immediate and sustained application of content
  • Quick results that reinforce participants continuing to use what they learned
  • Group accountability around implementing solutions
  • Leaving the workshop more energized and inspired instead of drained
  • Content directly relates to their personal situation and needs (and leverages personal experience to bolster content)
  • More engagement and learning from one another

Making Training Work For You (and Your Organization)

This is just a start towards a new paradigm of training. There are plenty of ways to make training concise, practical, and sustained. The key is to think about what people need and how to most effectively meet those needs. It may take some creativity and a willingness to try something new, but there are countless options. To take that next step, consider the following questions:

 

  • When you think about training you’ve attended, how much did you use of what was taught (and still use today) compared to how much you didn’t? Of the things you do use, how could the training have centered around those tools or concepts?
  • What problems is training trying to solve? How could those specific problems be directly addressed in the training (or even in other ways)?
  • What activities do you find most engaging in training?
  • How could your team and/or organization reinforce, practice, and apply takeaways from training?
  • What would people want to learn from training, and how can the training be developed to provide that learning?