To Train or Not to Train: That Is the Question

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Pat Jannausch

Take One: Line management says: "We need training." Training Department says: "Great! What do you need?" Take Two: Line management says: "We need training." Training Department says: "Wait! Is training what you really need?"

In Take One, it’s clear that the training department is ready, willing and (presumably) able to help line management solve its problem. This ‘alleged’ training need may stem from issues like low productivity, policy infractions, customer service complaints or low sales volume, just to name a few. There’s no doubt that these are real and serious business problems but are they training problems? Maybe. Maybe not.

In Take Two, the training department begins by playing the devil’s advocate and casting doubt on whether or not their expertise is what is truly needed. Could they be talking themselves out of a job with this approach? Probably not.

It’s possible that training (of some sort) may be needed to solve these and other performance problems. It is just as likely, however, that other interventions are also required to support and reinforce the training effort. And in some cases, alternative interventions may be all that is required – no training needed at all. So how do training practitioners determine when and if they should answer the alluring call of "Training, please"?

The first step is to realize that performance problems are almost never the result of a single factor. While there may be a true lack of appropriate skills or skill level, there are likely to be other elements in the workplace or even in the individual’s life that are also affecting performance.

• A clear understanding of the risk and reward equation for substandard performance may be missing or unclear.

• Poor performers may lack the resources, information, support or feedback required to meet expectations.

• Poor performers may not be well suited to their current role but would contribute or even excel in one better suited to their aptitude and experience.

The reality is that any number of these elements may exist or combine to create a gap in performance.

The problem, however, is that line management is very likely to assume that a lack of knowledge or skills is the sole cause of the performance problems of an individual or group and will probably not offer additional insight into any of the areas listed above.

The problem gets compounded when the training department takes this "order for training" at face value and designs, develops and delivers the training program that was requested – a program that doesn’t improve performance or bring lasting change to the workplace.

If providing employees with information and skill practice is what’s called for then a training program, workshop, or on-line activity may do the trick. But if any of the other workplace challenges listed previously exist alone or in concert with the need for improved skills and these additional factors are not also addressed, then training alone will not solve the performance problem.

In order to bring sustainable value to an organization, the training department must take on the role of consultant and lead their clients to discover their real needs. This means asking questions, pushing back, challenging, researching, and partnering with others departments (like human resources).

Most importantly, it means taking a holistic view of the performance problem and creating a solution that addresses all of the factors that are affecting it. To train or not to train? It’s probably the most important question training professionals could ever ask.