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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Corporate training needs to re-think its model; no to courses and assessment, yes to experiences

In 1989, I witnessed corporate training for the first time. We had just started the Institute for The Learning Sciences, which was sponsored by Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). I visited their campus in St. Charles, Illinois, and saw many classrooms full of people who were mostly half asleep or in a daze from being talked at about corporate culture, and Andersen’s core values, and client needs, and so on.

But, they had spent a lot of money on me so they were willing to listen. Early on, they said we could re-do any course they offered there except one, which was the entry-level boot camp. So, that being the one that they thought was already perfect, that was the one I selected.

I saw immediately why they loved it. It simulated the experience of being on a week-long assignment with little or no sleep having to get technical work done with a new team in a role you did not know. That was what life was like at Andersen so they had effectively thrown their new hires into a sink or swim environment. I loved it. But, they were also trying to teach COBOL in that environment. The new hires had no actual job to accomplish other than to learn COBOL. I asked them why they thought learning COBOL under stressful conditions was likely to produce competent programmers.

I have had plenty of opportunity to look at corporate training since then, and my team and I have built quite a bit of it. So, now I want to say something easy to understand about corporate training: STOP IT.

Some things to stop doing:

  1. delivering content

Once a company decides to pursue a global training program and reaches shared agreement on how to define and develop the initiative, the instructional design team can take the next step: deciding what content to offer and how to design instruction to deliver it.

Content cannot be delivered. If it could, you could hire FedEx to do it. Content is usually spoken about as if it were a physical object. It isn’t. But, content is not a physical object.  In a book, the content is the same no matter whom it is delivered to. Socrates warned about this when the written word became commonplace saying that the words can’t defend themselves. But when we talk with one another we say different things to different people and respond to what they ask about and try again. Still content I suppose, but now it can’t be delivered in that FedEx (or MOOC) sort of way.

What needs to be “delivered” are dialogues with individuals. As it is now, training is like trying to argue with the package the Fed Ex man delivered.

2. expecting people to remember what you tell them

Montaigne, the great French philosopher said of his teachers: “They never ceased to scream in one’s ears as if they were pouring something into a barrel and one’s task was only to repeat what one was told.”

But we keep talking at people. If your training includes talking, then it isn’t working. If it includes Power Point it isn’t working. If it includes a classroom, it isn’t working. It has always fascinated me that corporate training looks so much like school (with classrooms!) Did you learn a lot in school? Did you like sitting in a classroom? For those who think they did, I suggest taking any college exam that you took once before and seeing if you could pass it now. School is based on the concept of retention of information. But, oddly, we don’t retain any information if we don’t regularly use that information. And if we do regularly use it, we do not have to attempt to retain it. We can’t help but retain it.

3. creating courses

Now I need to be careful here because my customers think we create courses for them. But we don’t really. We create experiences. There is a difference.

What is the difference? I was once consulting with United Airlines and I got to fly one of their big simulators. I don’t know how to fly a plane and I didn’t learn from 20 minutes in the simulator. In fact, I crashed on my first landing attempt. Could I have taken a course and learned what to do and what not to do? I guess I could have. But a better choice would have been to keep on trying and have a mentor sitting next to me to advise on what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. When I advised the Army about their tank simulators (which are great) I was advising them to how to arrange things so that important mistakes are more easily made. You don’t learn that much from getting things right. You need to practice experiences in which you are likely to fail. These are not courses. They are a very different approach to education than courses. Try things out. Fail. Have someone around with whom you can discuss and get advice.

We often consult with companies about their courses. Here is what we usually find:

Many learners will go through an entire course when they will only do a few of the things taught in the their actual jobs.  One course for everyone is a waste of time and focus. Training people often have an obsession with complete coverage when such coverage is likely to be unimportant. Training should focus, first, on things people actually need to be able to do and, second, within those things on which they make mistakes.

There is often eLearning material. It regularly tries to cover far too much material in advance of when the learner actually needs to know it.  Training departments create videos, MOOCs, documents,  and think this will help people learn.  The critical skills the company wants to teach are lost in the details.  More time and money wasted.  
There are always assessment questions. Why? Because the training department wants to know if the students have “learned the material.” What the training department should really want to know is what the student can do that they couldn’t do before the training. They misunderstand assessment: measure abilities not facts. There is often a misalignment between the business and the training department. The business wants to know if people can do things, while the training department may want things that are easy to measure. 


It is the very concept of a course (and an assessment of facts delivered) that is the problem here. 

So, if we shouldn’t deliver content, or expect people to retain information or create courses, what should corporate training be?

Think about this:

When you went to summer camp, or boy scout camp, or anything similar, did you learn stuff? Did you think you were attending a course, or that content was being delivered? Or were you just doing stuff that was fun and learning new skills as you went along?

When you hang out with friends and decide to do a project together, or have an adventure together, do you learn stuff? You certainly learn about how to get along with each other, maybe how to work with each other, and maybe you learn to do things from one another. Is this a course? Is content being delivered?

Now let’s reconsider Accenture’s Boot Camp. Why did they have it? Because they needed people to understand how to work together under certain kinds of stressful conditions. This is what the Army does when it teaches new recruits how to be soldiers in simulated combat situations (when they aren’t marching and listening to speeches.)

When EPA coordinators realized they didn't know how to run a public meeting we built a simulated meeting for them to run. We didn’t build a course. When ISO realized it didn’t know how to train new people to be capable of dealing with ISO standards in a new country, we built a fictional country for them to operate in and multiple situations to deal with. When we were working on child development we had people run a simulated day care center so they deal with a variety of situations, problematic kids, and annoying parents. When we heard that cancer doctors didn't know how to conduct difficult conversations with their patients we created situations where they needed to advise colleagues who had just done it badly.

None of these are courses. None of these delivered content.

Corporate Training Departments need to adapt to the real world. Here is something I read the other day. At first glance, it looks entirely reasonable.

1 Guiding participants through data gathering with their team, structured assessments, learning, application, and reflection.

2 Ensuring accountability by forming a partnership between participants and their direct managers.  

3 Integrating deliberate practice into the journey, making on-the-job application a structured and tracked element of the program.
4 Providing technology that makes it easy for both participants and managers to play along with the journey, track progress, and share realizations and insights.
5 Providing results so that business leaders can see how skills grow as participants move through the program.

What is this? This is part of an announcement by a company in the corporate training space saying what their wonderful new product will do. I noticed it because it was written by a former PhD student of mine. He is a smart guy and I am sure he didn’t get dumber since he worked for me. But the world of corporate training has gotten dumber. As I pointed out in an earlier Outrage if we don’t say assessment, gamification, or social media, in every sentence, no one is happy.

On the surface, what he wrote doesn’t seem that bad. He is trying to sell stuff that people probably want to buy, so I can see that the average reader would think he is offering good stuff. Let me explain why I don’t think that is the case.

The underlying theme is assessment driving learning. “Ensuring accountability,”  “providing results to see how skills grow,” “tracking progress,” and “structured assessments,” are what he is excited about. Now I doubt he really is excited about that. In fact, he co-authored a book with me on how to get rid of assessments in education. Here is a quote from that book:

School cannot be changed in any important way until fixed curricula are eliminated.  But fixed curricula will not be eliminated until we change the way we assess progress. Bear in mind that adults take courses in subjects for which they pay money — courses in photography, weight loss, yoga, home repair — there is no test at the end. There isn’t a need for a test because students are their own masters. They set their own standards and rather than having themselves be judged, they judge the teacher. 

Corporate Training has to stop doing what school does, namely looking to provide numbers so that some other part of the business can say that someone learned something. Give your employees opportunities to really learn to do things and then you can report on actual accomplishments. Remember the real reason schools give tests and grades. It is because the parents are obsessed with their kids getting into college and colleges do not want to look at each student as an individual because they have too many applicants. So they demand tests about the quadratic equation or physics formulas that simply don’t matter to the average student. Corporations need to be smarter  than this. They can treat students as individuals and not as numbers. They don’t have to deal with choosing from tens of thousands of applicants. They just need to help the people they already have perform better. They have adopted the school model and they are suffering as a result.

Corporations can do this by providing employees with things they would really like to learn to do. Treat your people like grown ups. You can measure grown ups the way we have always measured each other. We promote employees we think do a good job. We are friends with people we think are fun to hang out with. We select as mentors people who always seem to give us good advice. Look at your people and help them do their jobs better. Mentor them. Stop assessing them.

We need to get rid of the corporate training mindset that has taken some of my best students and corrupted them.  The system wants to make training boring and wants to constantly measure progress. How sad.  This doesn't work in school and it doesn’t work for business.  

So, enough with our current corporate training model. Create situations that are like ones employees will need to deal with and have them try them out in a simulations (live or on a computer) before they try them out for real. Create experiences not courses.

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