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When (and Why) Training Isn't the Best Solution

— by Bill Cushard

ElearningLearning developmentTraining

Training professionals often make two mistakes without ever realizing it. By simply acknowledging them, we can begin to improve performance quickly and easily — and without any new training programs.

The first mistake is that most trainers typically operate in reactive mode. If the VP of operations says his managers need to learn how to run meetings, we go out and find, or design, a training solution that can get the managers up to speed. We’re given a request and we try to fulfill it.

The second misstep is that we try to solve every problem through training. It makes sense: If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But even when we ask that VP of Operations for evidence (or better, data) of the managers’ inability to run effective meetings so we can establish a performance gap, we’re doing so in order to find the most effective training solution to the problem.

Trouble is, training isn’t always the best solution to these problems. In fact, it’s hardly ever the best solution. Training focusses on people skills and personal behavior — aspects that are internal to the individual. And those are hard to change. Hard, time-consuming, and expensive.

It’s the Environment, Not the Person

Trainers need to start thinking of non-training solutions to problems, especially when they’re quite possibly more appropriate and effective than training. Thomas Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model (BEM) is a great place to start. BEM suggests there are several environmental and individual factors that impact performance. Environmental factors include data, resources, and incentives. Individual factors include knowledge, capacity, and motives.

Notice that knowledge is only one out of six possible solutions to a performance problem. So why do we always look first to training when there are so many other (and possibly more effective) ways to improve performance? Take behavior-specific feedback, for instance, as a means for improving performance. Most of us at some point have wished somebody would have stepped in and given us feedback on what we were doing. You know the saying, “If I knew then what I know now …” If only we’d been told what changes to make early on. Trainers should be sure to use a tool like feedback loops to help people learn.

Everyone says they want constructive feedback until they actually receive it and reject it. Other people simply aren’t comfortable giving constructive criticism out of fear of confrontation or fear of hurting someone’s feelings. So there are reasons why feedback loops can be a difficult performance solution to implement. But with a tool like Rypple, a social performance management system, people can seek feedback from trusted sources, in their moment of need, and gather useful feedback they can use to improve. Thinking of it in those terms makes a lot of sense for a training professional to consider. After all, a great deal of learning takes place through completing assignments and getting feedback. This, like self-assessment, is a crucial process of learning.

In this spirit, trainers and managers can use feedback loops to help people improve performance in two main areas: in current job performance, and as professional development. Here are two examples.

Current Job Performance

Back to the operations VP requesting training to run better meetings. Most trainers would probably find a class, schedule managers into a mandatory training session, and hope they pay enough attention to learn something they can apply on the job. But in a world in which feedback loops are used, managers could simply run a regular meeting, after which they would request anonymous feedback from everyone who attended, asking, “How effective was that meeting and what could I do to improve future meetings?” I bet the manager would receive several responses, and I would bet again that most of the feedback would be constructive. What better way to learn than to gather feedback in the moment (or right after). No expensive training class purchased and no opportunity costs incurred because all your managers spent a day away from their desks, in training sessions.

Professional Development

Let’s say that from time to time, you get to chit-chat with the president of your organization. She is busy but polite enough to stop and chat for a few minutes every once in a while — enough that she knows who you are and that your are a pretty good performer. You could request feedback from her about getting ahead. You want to become the customer service director one day, so you ask her what you can do to eventually get there. You might call this advice, but I call it feedback or information you can use to change your behavior and improve your performance. What a great way to learn — from someone who has also grown in an organization.

Feedback may well be the unsung hero of the learning world, yet it is rarely thought of as a tool for helping people learn and improve. Trainers should expand their tool belt and embrace feedback loops. It’s a great place to start.

Bill Cushard is the director of training and development at Allonhill and a learning leader with more than 12 years’ experience in training and performance improvement at companies such as E*TRADE Financial, Accenture, and Time Warner Cable.

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