If Training is Lipstick on a Pig, At Least Make Sure They Aren't Hogs

Forrest Christian Learning Leave a Comment

Michelle Malay Carter over at Mission Minded Management recently wrote a post asking “Is Training Anything More Than Putting Lipstick on a Pig?” She raises some good points there’s more to the problem than she admits. Although the solution may be similar. Training class content matters. As does the student body.

You gotta make sure you don’t mix your hogs with your pigs.

Red River Hog

A few years ago, I worked with America’s largest P&C company to help them create a more effective way of retraining their large (over 3,000) staff of mainframe COBOL programmers to object-oriented programming (OOP) in Java. The problem was that they could not put people into different courses, so the person who programmed in his spare time was in the same room with someone who did simple program corrections. They had people capable at work levels 1-4 in the same class.

If they wanted to help their students, they needed to separate people into different courses based on their capabilities. Which they couldn’t do because the legal department had forbidden it.

Of course, what this really shows is this company’s inability to manage its technical staff properly. All of these people were officially at the same level: the bottom.

Technical work often starts higher anyway. (Warren Kinston has an unpublished paper on this that is brilliant in its analysis, and would rank as one of the most important articles for the management of software development.) But that may make it even more important to separate out work levels in training. The questions that a level 4 developer (designer or architect level capable) needs to ask are boring for the level 2 developer.

Management often denigrates the work of technical staff — whether engineers, developers or lawyers — partly because these folks don’t manage anyone (and in some companies, the insurer included, that’s the only way to be seen as doing higher level work). But it’s also because the staff participate in a discipline and contrary to lots of people’s perceptions, most managers don’t. (I owe this insight to Kinston, but the use of it is my own fault.)

When you have too many work levels in one room, no training can be adequate. Good developers talk about the need for places to get together and talk, but also emphasize the need to keep “certain people out”. It’s not racial or ethnic: these are propeller heads for whom the only thing that matters is the hack. They mean, although they don’t have the language for it,

So, when you design your next training class, concentrate on what work level you are training. And try and keep the wrong work levels out, whether too small or too big. If you don’t, you will be wasting everyone’s time.

Which is too bad, since the killer app is us.

Comments 0

  1. I generally agree with Michelle’s assertions regarding dysfunctional systems and their relationship with dysfunctional behaviours. I would qualify however that this relationship occurs among those who are affected by and employ the system in the execution of their work. It is also appropriate to say that dysfunctional behaviours are a precursor to a dysfunctional system. Somewhere in the executive ranks of an organization are a set of behaviours that are reflected in the system. It would be correct to say that these behaviours are transposed into the system and that the system in turn influences behaviours; functional or dysfunctional, (whatever that may be). A reasonable definition for a system might be a set of predictable, replicable, and improving behaviours that result in a standard output and that said output is predictable and replicable and improving in respect of quantity, quality, and the resources and time required to generate it. From this premise there are a considerable number of variables that upset the predictability and consistency of the output – equipment breaks, people don’t show up for work, the cost of raw materials increases or decreases, supply and demand fundamentals change affecting the sales price, etc. Some of these affect the strategic direction of the company. In some cases the significance then shifts to the ability of the individual to employ his or her discretionary judgment to compensate for the unforseen variables. No system will ever be perfect. Build too much redundancy into the system and it is inefficient. Set the system boundaries too tight and unforseen circumstances will paralyze the ability of the employee to utilize discretion in the execution of his work. Set the boundaries too loosely and quality might suffer.

    The significance of Requisite is the full liberation of every employee to exercise her full discretion in the execution of her work. The human propensity and desire for control and power are deterrents to the achievement of this. When we think of systems in the pejorative sense we conjure up images of control, predictability and replication. People simply are not liberated within that context. Systems should enable employees in the efficient execution of their work and not disable them. The latter is often true.

    Work is only defined in the context of execution and preferably its unencumbered execution. In order to have work executed it needs to be assigned and requires resources for its achievement. The role of managers is to effectively assign and resource work to their subordinates and to measure, analyze and improve the capability of those subordinates in generating their assigned outputs. In doing so the employee is increasingly liberated to deliver the outputs for the purpose and within the context specified by her manager. This requires trust between the employee and his manager.

    Implicit in most managerial systems and management behaviours are the assumptions that employees cannot be trusted and that left to their own devices they would cripple their employers with idle behaviours, theft, truancy and other dysfunctional behaviours. The irony is in designing and employing systems that by their very nature attempt to discourage these behaviours they attract more of them and unintended consequences and systems such as collective agreements and trade unionism that further support the systematic erosion of trust and the ability of employees to apply their full potential capability.

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