Why Training Doesn’t Work

Funny, I just finished up a training session today on Value Stream Mapping when the following showed up in my mailbox. Myth Busters: Why Training Doesn’t Work By Suzie Price on Monday, January 23, 2006 Why training doesn’t work. A blasphemous title, especially if you’re in the training and development business, as I am. But training alone does not work. In truth, only 5 – 30% is learned in the classroom. 70 – 95% of what we learn is learned through practice and experience. Even with great instructors. Even with great curriculum. Even with motivated learners. Only 5 – 30% is learned in the classroom. Why? And what can we do to eliminate wasted training dollars?

Fast Company Magazine featured part of the answer recently, when they addressed the challenge of change. They reported that if 10 people were given the ultimatum…change or die…only one would make long-term behavior change. A good example of this is when a person suffers a heart attack. Immediately after this frightening experience the person changes his habits. But most revert back to old habits within a year. We see the same thing in corporations. Leaders determine that there’s tension in the department. Morale is low and turnover too high. Managers are not doing a good job of communicating. The company decides to bring in a top-flight leadership program. The program and the talented instructors make a great splash. The participants love the program and feel motivated to make changes. They want to change. For a short while after the program, some of the participants actually make changes. But, within a year almost every manager is back to their usual style. A lot of money has been spent, but not much has changed. Resistance to change is related to how we learn new skills. Learning is a physical thing that happens in the brain. With continuous repetition, over time, brain cells are stimulated to physically connect into a pathway that enables the new skills. A new neural pathway is formed and that pathway is now the new habit. When famous golfer, Tiger Woods, tried to learn a new golf swing in 2004 from the best instructors in the world, he had a hard time making the shift. It took an entire year before he got his game back. His old patterns were competing with the new learning. He had to practice until a new neural pathway was formed and then, he began winning again. When a new skill is introduced, the old patterns compete with the new learning. We want to do it. We know it makes sense, but the new way feels uncomfortable, and when something feels uncomfortable, we often give up and revert to old patterns. Personal skills (the skills we usually teach in leadership classes, sales training, customer service training, time management and more) are even harder to learn and change, than learning technical skills. Why? We’ve been practicing personal skills our entire life. These patterns are ingrained within us. These patterns can be changed, but in order to change old patterns we need more than classroom instruction. To make changes, employees need:

  • reinforcement through repetition
  • ongoing feedback and support
  • to be held accountable for the change

To address this natural resistance to change, we recommend organizations do three things:

  1. Increase hiring accuracy. Hire people who are naturally the best fit for each job. Now, less dramatic change is needed for success in the position.
  2. Measure skills before and after all training programs by gathering feedback on the participant’s skill level by surveying peers, direct reports, clients and colleagues for input. Feedback helps class participants gain real insight into their strengths and development needs from multiple sources.
  3. Get out of the training ‘event’ business. Provide reinforcement after training through: online courses, development plans, mentors, coaching, accountability partners, brown bag luncheon discussions and more.

Imagine this scenario: You’ve promoted Larry to a new leadership role in your company. Larry’s online hiring assessments revealed that he has the aptitude and is intrinsically motivated by the same things that the position rewards. He is a good match for success in the position. Before sending this well-matched employee to your leadership training program, you conduct a short online skill survey, gathering input from peers, direct reports, bosses and, if appropriate, clients. Feedback from multiple sources provides Larry with a clear picture of his leadership and communication strengths and development needs. Larry shows up at the training session motivated and armed with a development plan based on the survey feedback. After Larry completes the training program, reinforcement is offered through: brown-bag lunch and learn sessions, online classes, in-house mentors–follow-up programs that are based on Larry’s development plan. At three months and at nine months, after the training class, the online skills survey is offered again. Through the survey feedback, Larry receives input and is held accountable for using the skills covered in class. Imagine leadership training, sales training, customer training, any training program…that ensures that participants understand and use the skills being taught. Isn’t that why you scheduled the training program in the first place? In summary:

  • People struggle with making change in their behavior, because changing habits involves real, physical change in the brain.
  • New neural pathways must be formed in the brain for the new skill to become a habit.
  • To create new neural pathways, you must provide ongoing reinforcement, ongoing support and accountability.
  • Personal skills are the hardest to change, because those habits are formed over a lifetime.
  • An improved hiring fit between the job and the employee’s strengths makes sense because less dramatic behavior change is required.
  • Look at training as a process, not an event. If you treat training as a one-time event, you have 1 chance out of 10 of seeing changed behaviors.

“The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people.” -John Kotter, Harvard Business School, Fast Company, May 2005

Suzie Price Priceless Professional Development suzie@pricelessprofessional.com

2 Replies to “Why Training Doesn’t Work”

  1. This is a very good article and especially now as I am busy structuring a ‘best deployment plan’ in my organisations procurement devision. The plan is to deploy Lean Six Sigma with the supply base to generate benefits for the organisation from a VALUE perspective and not from the old ‘beat them up for a better price’ ways procurement is used to operate. The current debate is about a structured classroom training across the supply base leading to bespoke programs within each supplier and giving some support to this program for a while.

    I am going to have this debate soon, and would like to take this article as leverage to get my point across about structured training followed by intense mentoring, and I suppose the old saying that “5 halves does not make a whole”.

    Good to get the info now, and thanx for putting together such an interesting site for the Lean Six Sigma practitioners. I will be back for more!!

  2. This article makes sense. Only the element of time is missing from the list of employee’s needs. Anyone who has changed a golf stroke, or learned a new style of skiing, or changed a key member of their sailing crew, knows – a loss of performance inevitably follows, but is replaced by better performance in the long run. How often does lack of patience for the initial loss of performance, or lack of priority to allow practice, result in the failure of change.

    I believe businesses committed to change need to plan for, and except the inevitable time and cost to practice.

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