WHY DOES IT APPEAR THAT BAD TRAINING WORKS?

Does this sound like you? You are a manager. You’re looking for new and innovative ways to build your organization to perform at higher standards. You just came off an average, mediocre or even less than stellar year and the associated pressure to perform in the next fiscal year falls on your shoulders. You are motivated to find a new and compelling approach to ignite your organization to greater heights. You’re looking for the edge, something new, a structured approach to predict and achieve greater performance.

The good news in this scenario is that many structured training programs will yield a positive return. As a matter fact, ANY structured training program will yield a short-term positive return. You see, at any given time, all training programs provide similar results. Arguably, the associated skills, attitudes, and behaviors that these programs suggest are all similar as well.

Why do I suggest that any of these programs will seem to succeed? Below are two main points that suggest any training program will be beneficial to your organization — at least for the short-term.

Structure in an Unstructured World
There is something to be said for bringing structure into an unstructured situation.  We often see a positive trend towards greater performance when a structured program is installed in an organization. The organization is looking for improvement and, therefore, is soliciting multiple training programs to increase the lift. Presumably it does not have a successful program in place. If it did, it would not be experiencing the unsatisfactory results it currently has.

Once the program gets underway, the organization will usually see early signs of “success.” As the change curve would suggest, any change often brings an associated euphoric feeling. "Something’s being done," "management cares," "we will soon be out of this situation." (see The Hawthorne Effect). There is an aspect of overall common belief that this program will indeed solve problems. This is where organizations see their lift in performance.

However, this approach is rarely sustainable as this euphoric state often dissipates over time since it’s based in artificial solutions to real organizational issues (see The Change Curve). The real fact is that organizations have character, culture, and conviction that are unique only to themselves. Culture is often defined as a shared set of norms, experiences and symbolism that are comprised by a certain set of people over a period of time. If that were the case, then it’s easy to see that every organization has its own unique set of values, beliefs and associated culture. It is only in understanding that and responding in light of it that real sustainable improvement and growth in performance can be achieved. It is rare that on off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all program will achieve lasting performance improvement, in large part because it cannot account for the unique culture of a particular organization.

Synthetic Insight
Another reason training program seem to work, at least early on, is because misreading and misrepresenting data is all too common. In this age of big data and analytics, many sales programs attempt to link training efforts to performance. Unfortunately, many of the associated algorithms contain a self-fulfilling calculation, which presupposes success. For example, much research suggests that being satisfied with one’s job results in higher levels of performance. This may be the case; however, the reverse is also found to be true: performing well at your job creates greater levels of job satisfaction.

Here is where the age-old issue comes in, “correlation does not imply causation.” Implying that correlation means causation has been a statistical myth that continues until this day, often propagated by those who would like to claim success based upon their efforts. As an example, a consulting company boasted that 42% of their customers were Fortune 500 organizations. Simply leaving that statistic in place, one may draw implication that this particular consulting organization was instrumental in companies achieving a Fortune 500 status. Unfortunately, this particular statistic is obviously false and the only real implication is that only Fortune 500 organizations are profitable enough to hire this specific consulting company. In essence, this consulting company is very expensive. This is the only statistically sound conclusion we can draw, since the F500 company in question was already a F500 organization before engaging with the consulting company. The supposed conclusions violate the first rule of causation that A must come before B.

Training programs often utilize positive correlation statistics to induce others to engage in their efforts. They assert that correlation does imply causation.  Therefore, when performance reports correlate in a positive manner to associated training programs, these particular training programs are then listed as being effective. However, in a true set of analysis, we do see a short-term lift in performance (see my first point), as well as other factors that potentially are not measured, attributing to this gain in performance. Such external forces may also be, but are not limited to, an employee’s positive sentiment based upon managerial care, associated compensation programs.

All of this can be a slippery slope for the L&D professional since they are often called to help increase productivity and one of two things happens.  If productivity does increases, then the accolades goes to the recipients of the learning; however, if productivity does not increase, it is often seen as a failed L&D programs.

So, as you look around at your learning and development programs, do you see some of the same issues?  Stay tuned for my next post where I decipher both of these issues.  Happy Learning!