The Fallacies of Training
I talk quite a bit on this blog about the freelance work I do, as well as the fact that I’m an author. That said, it’s not common that I bring up my day job. I generally don’t feel like this is the right place to talk about it in most circumstances. While there are some exceptions, the more I can keep my work life and my blogging life separate, the better I think the content I create is in both places.
My day-to-day for the past four and a half years1Across tenures with two different companies. That said, I’ve also been tasked with running training at multiple places before I officially got a trainer designation. has been a combination of training instructor, instructional designer, technical writer, and (occasionally) professional development coach. When taken as a whole, I’m going to classify these responsibilities as training, not just for ease of explanation throughout this post2As referring to it as Learning and Development or L&D is just silly., but also because training is more than just the act of standing in front of a room and telling people how to do their job. I find training to be a generally fulfilling job, however not everything about the role is particularly gratifying.
In my time as a trainer, there’s a handful of common fallacies about training that I’ve encountered regularly. These items tend to come up regardless of the company I’ve worked for, independent of departments of subject matter experts (SMEs) I’m working with, and commonly arise regardless of the nature of the project as well. I wanted to take some time to talk about them at the request of a friend of mine who recently stated she was considering getting into training, as well as to serve as a critical thinking exercise for myself about how corporate adult education is handled.
1. Your leaders and employees have very different perceptions of employee knowledge.
One of the first things I learned when I moved into a training role was that no one can agree on how much employees know about a given topic. Let’s say you’re a trainer for The Business Company3aka my favorite fictional company to use in pretty much any example thing I do.. Your first training task is to retrain your customer service team on supporting your primary product — Business Widgets. Your employees, on average, will say that they know 80-85% of everything they need to know about Business Widgets. Your leaders, on average, will say that your employees know 30-35% of everything they need to know about Business Widgets. While there will be individual employees and leaders who will have different answers for you (some objective, some not), you’ll find that this will be the general range you’re in.
The reality will be somewhere in the middle. Your employees, even the well-trained, long-tenured employees likely won’t know every single thing they need to know to do their job. Likewise, the leaders that assume your employees know little to nothing about their job are likely greatly underestimating the ability of those employees to do their job. This disconnect is common, if not expected. After all, employees are (generally) so focused on the minutia of their job that they don’t see how the mistakes they make impact the larger picture for the company. Similarly, departmental or divisional leaders are typically so disconnected from the reality of a front-line employee that they misinterpret a downtick in performance as a downtick in knowledge4There’s a separate fallacy that causes this issue as well, that being the use of small sample sizes to make training and staffing decisions rather than trended or longitudinal data.. Even leaders who used to be front-line employees fall into this trap, particularly the longer they’ve been separated from that role.
As a trainer, the key way to manage these expectations is to do your best to remind both sides of this debate that training is a process that everyone goes through. For leaders, remind them that their front-line employees are the experts in their role for a reason — and while they may need refinement on certain topics or in particular pieces of knowledge, there’s a reason they were hired to handle the hard work of their role. For employees, a lesson on the concept of an asymptote is probably the best way to get your point across. No matter how much those employees learn, there will always be more to learn. Even though they’re getting closer and closer to perfection, it will always be just out of reach because there’s something new that can be learned in all situations.
2. Developing quality content takes time.
So you’ve determined that you need to train your front-line employees on how to support Business Widgets. Great. Now it’s time to create the training content that your training department will be delivering. In a best case scenario, this will likely entail gathering all of the content you need from pre-existing materials and conducting your training. More likely though, particularly if The Business Company is a technology organization or if the company has not created training materials before, you’ll have to create this training largely from scratch. Any learning and development professional will know that this takes time, as you have to consider numerous factors. What’s the best method of delivery for this training? Who is your audience? How long does this training need to be reusable for? How much time are your leaders going to allot to training5Spoiler: The answer is usually “less than you’ll need”.? How will you assess learning and knowledge retention from the material covered in the training6We’ll talk about this point more a little later in this post.?
That said, individuals who don’t have a background in training or instructional design will commonly assume that all that needs done to make a training is to slap a PowerPoint together, get people in a room, and start talking. That takes, what, a couple of hours, right?
Hearing that previous statement happens more often than you might expect. Leaders: making that statement is the quickest way to drive your learning and development staff to insanity. Yes, we could throw something together quickly for whatever content needs taught. But in order to create training materials that will last, that will teach employees well, and that will ensure they’re retaining information, your learning and development staff needs time. This is to say nothing of if that content also needs to be created for a learning management system (LMS), if audio or video recordings are needed, or if there’s other mitigating factors that will delay the content from being created quickly. The creation of learning materials is not instant. If you’re a training professional, be sure to set clear and reasonable expectations with your leaders about this point.
3. Everyone will agree on assessment — until assessment is ready to be conducted.
Assessment, in my estimation, is the most critical part to a comprehensive training program. Assessment allows you get a gauge on how your employees are doing in terms of knowledge retention, as well as the ability to identify areas for future training where your employees are currently struggling. That said, assessment is more than that. Assessment allows you to turn training from a one-way interaction where your training staff teaches employees what to do and changes it into a two-way interaction where both your trainer and your trainees gain valuable insight and provide critical feedback to one another.
That said, the level to which assessment will be accepted within your organization will largely depend on how much buy-in you can generate from your leadership team. At a previous job, I spent a ton of time creating this comprehensive technical assessment for technical support representatives at the behest of leadership. This assessment was to be a three hour long assessment conducted yearly in order to get a full look at what areas an employee may need training on. We went through the design, planning, and beta testing phase of the assessment, getting all the way to our launch date with no concerns from anyone in leadership. Then, three days into our assessment cycle, our director announced that he was changing roles effective immediately. The new director felt that knowledge assessment shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes of a rep’s time, so the project was shelved, only to be rolled out again nearly a year later after a massive redesign. Unfortunately, one hole created by that redesign was that the partial set of data obtained before the project was shelved was no longer relevant, due to changes in the technology the reps were supporting in the time that had passed.
While I don’t have a ton of advice for how to handle a massive organizational leadership change like the one described above, it does highlight the fact that the way assessment is viewed varies drastically person to person. Everyone agrees that you need to understand what your employees are struggling with. But while some folks want to determine that all in one fell swoop, others will want to break that judging up into bite-sized pieces. Whatever length and depth your assessment needs to be will vary based on your circumstances. I will note that no matter how much time I’ve budgeted towards assessment in my training plans, I’ve nearly always received push back from those above me saying ‘that’s too much time’ or something to that effect. If your knowledge assessment for your training really matters, be prepared to fight for it. It’s likely the first thing that non-training professional will look to cut from your training program.
4. Your leaders need to learn too. And not just leadership training.
One of the easiest sells I’ve ever had to make when pitching a training program was to say that organizational leaders/managers/leads/supervisors/etc need to receive the same attention in training that front line reps do. Everyone wants to feel like they’re getting attention from other groups, so hearing that training had an interest in them made the managers I’ve pitched training to ecstatic. What was a much harder sell, however, was to tell them that the training they needed was not solely management exclusive training.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of leadership training topics that are critical components of any leadership development program. Whether it be teaching your managers how to coach more effectively, how to be more discerning interviewers, or even how to apply their interpersonal skills more successfully to work with their managerial peers, you’ll find there’s a lot managers want to learn about7And this isn’t even when considering common managerial courses like sexual harassment training, legal compliance like Sarbanes-Oxley, or IT security training.. But in most cases, your leadership team likely needs a limited amount of training in the skills, product or process knowledge, or even job-specific functions that their direct reports need to know. Getting your leaders to sign onto this training is challenging. Getting them to show up — or to take an online course, if that’s the modality you’re using — is likely just as challenging, if not more so.
Although there will be a certain subset of leaders who will feel like any training not directly made for them is beneath them and is not worth their time, the best way I’ve found to present this type of training is to push it as a way to further a connection with their team members. Seeing their manager in a training with them can foster conversation on the topics covered in training with the employee’s manager. It serves to show that even though an employee may report to a manager, that manager is still human and looking to learn just like the employee. For online courses, managers can take advantage of the self-paced nature to allow themselves time to complete the training, take notes over whatever they’d like to discuss, and potentially review in team huddles or meetings. It’s a great way to make managers part of the training process, as well as to reinforce content while you’re at it.
5. Someone with a higher title than you will make you redesign your training and make it worse.
This is just reality. While learning and development professionals often have some level of creative control over the content that they’re creating, designing, and facilitating, these professionals do reports to someone higher on the corporate food chain than them. And occasionally, someone higher up on that ladder is going to force you to change your training in some way and it will make it less effective. This could mean you’re not training the full cohort of people you intended to train. It might mean that you’re now forced to train a module that is much more effective online in a classroom because that leader doesn’t want to have to do the training at a computer. There’s a chance that the person above you has decided to fully change the program you’re designing.
While these changes are rarely, if ever, meant maliciously, it can be frustrating, particularly when you’ve dedicated a lot of your time to making your content the best it can be — only to have that program changed by someone who doesn’t have the same expertise as you. My best suggestion for dealing with this problem is to go with the flow and try to accommodate these requests the best you can. After all, such changes are generally coming from someone higher up than you. While you certainly can (and should) make an effort to explain why you’re conducting your program in the manner that you are, it’s often better to lose a single battle and make a few small changes on a single training than to jeopardize your entire training program8I’d love to say this isn’t the worst case scenario, however I’ve seen it happen first hand before..
6. Someone with less experience than you will give you ideas that’ll make your training better. Listen to them.
I recognize that this point is essentially a corollary to the previous point. That said, it’s also a reality that took me a long time to learn once I started doing training in any capacity, be it internal employee training or external customer training. You’re going to have ideas thrown at you on how to do your job better in nearly any role, however these seem to come at you faster and more frequently in training than in nearly any professional role aside from customer service.
As you might expect, some of this advice is going to come from those above you, regardless of their experience level with learning and development. That said, they’re not the main focus of this point, as we’re more likely to take advice from those who have influence over us (and reporting to someone is by its very nature, a form of influence). Where the ideas you’re most likely to ignore are coming from are from those that you, as a trainer, would be viewed as being the expert towards. Said another way, your trainees, your customers, or even your co-workers that aren’t training professionals may give advice as to how to improve your work. Be willing to listen to them. While not every idea you’ll be presented with will be beneficial to your training — and if you get enough feedback, some of it is bound to be contradictory — having an open mind to the ideas you’re presented give you the opportunity to grow within your role. If nothing else, examine each idea for what it is, determine how you could (potentially) take that advice to improve on your work, and then choose to act on that improvement you’ve identified. This can work well even if you’re choosing not to act on the idea itself.
I might do more columns like this in the future for the blog, as this was quite fun to write. That said, I’d like to know what those of you who read this blog thing, especially if you don’t have a training/learning and development background. Let me know your thoughts on this post — or even your own experience with training and development in your career — in the comments.