Training in China for the AP1000 reactor. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

How Do You Know If The Training Was Worth It?

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While reviewing training literature recently, I stumbled on Daniel R. Tobin’s The Knowledge-Enabled Organization: Moving from “Training” to “Learning” to Meet Business Goals through some serendipitous web searches. My enquiry first led me to his website that dealt with “The Fallacy of ROI Calculations for Training“. An obvious ploy to perk up my ears. The article is an abbreviated version of the points he makes in the book and full of Forrest-oriented goodness.

You just know that I’m going to like a training book that has “business goals” in its title.

I have spent a great deal of time with Organizational Development (OD) people and reading OD materials in the last few months. One of the things that bothers me most about them is their focus on their profession rather than on meeting the business goals. They have a very tenuous understanding of what the business does in their company and seem to have an arrogant bastard’s attitude toward meeting needs.

That’s not true of everyone: I met a woman who works solely for the IT department of a Minneapolis-based farm supply firm who had a very firm grasp on her department, partly because the CIO has told her that her days will be numbered when he leaves since no one else seems to think that what she does has value.

I know that training and development have value but have a hard time justifying what passes for it in most companies.

As I mentioned, I started my career as a trainer. I did environmental, safety and health (ES&H) training. We had to achieve a change of behaviour in our trainees. If we didn’t, we were the ones who were at fault. OSHA doesn’t look at a worker who has circumvented two safety guards to put his hand in the rotating blade as at fault: the fault lies with management, who should have made sure that the employee was trained properly. The training I led had big consequences if it didn’t stick. Environmental non-compliance could lead to damage to our natural resources and bad safety training can lead to someone dying.

Which happened before I got there: they trained a chemical plant on the safe handling of phenol, the basic component of Lysol and an incredible nerve killer. An employee got phenol splashed down the front of his pants but he refused to strip due to embarrassment. The phenol wicked through his clothes and into the very absorbent skin on his genitals, wicking up into his nervous system and shutting it all down. He actually died of asphyxiation: his lungs stopped responding because the phenol shut down the nerves necessary to operate them.

It was frightening, this mighty responsibility, but perhaps this is why the safety training of chemical spill responders is not done by the Training and Development department but by the local safety managers or experienced responders. OD people could do for a job with this type of accountability in their jobs. Having to make sure that people changed their behaviours meant that we did not simply use training sessions. The entire workday was a classroom. Lessons could be found throughout the day as we walked through the facility.

Tobin has a similar beef about training in the modern organization. In his article, he approaches it through discussing the question asked by so many training managers who are in trouble with their companies: How do I measure the Return On Investment (ROI) of our training efforts?

Tobin goes to pains to explain the obvious: when you get to the point where the CEO is asking for ROI numbers on training, you have already lost the battle and your budget will be axed. No one can really measure the ROI of a training effort because training is just one part of a larger change program. The time spent in the classroom is small and must be immediately followed by time spent putting what you learned to work on your job. And pretty quickly, too: in Feb.’s HBR, Herminia Ibarra of INSEAD points out that you have only a very brief window of opportunity to make a real change from any break in your routine (pp. 24, 32), possibly only days. Tobin agrees and argues that most training is seen as simply a reward for workers, time spent not-working, instead of seen as learning, which is an integral part of the job.

When I approach the managers over at BIG, I know that what they have asked for and what they want are different. They asked for a highly experienced professional who can help them measure the training that they are doing, and help them plan training for the next five years. But this begs the question: what do they want to accomplish? What they want is someone that they can trust to help them continue to work through this problem. They obviously do not trust their own training and development staff, nor do they trust their training consultants currently working with them.

IT has a large problem and needs help in transforming their group from the mainframe maintenance staff they had to the proactive development professionals they need. What if training cannot do this? What if their staff simply cannot be trained to be at this level? Training does not replace talent or make you value certain work. No amount of training will make me even a decent softball player. No amount of training in high school would turn me into Dan Gable, no matter what Coach told me about Gable’s maniac training regimen. No amount of training will transform these people from Str-II to Str-IV (Elliott Jaques again!), no matter how much the managers may want it.

I get to ask hard questions of them and get to listen. I am not sure what the result will be. I don’t even know that I will get the work. But I found Tobin, which is pretty cool.

Image Credit: Training in China for the AP1000 reactor. Public domain image from U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Via Wikimedia Commons

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