Training won’t work until we learn to change our ways

Every L&D professional knows that measuring and assessing the impact of training is tricky. Will Doherty argues that’s because too much training is based on false premises to begin with.

Back in 1981, the Manpower Services Commission defined training as “a planned process to modify attitude, knowledge or skill behaviour through a learning experience to achieve effective performance”.

This resulted in the creation of learning objectives that focused on the inputs such as knowledge and skills required. US learning and development (L&D) consultancy Rummler & Brache called this approach “left to right training”. This is becoming more ineffective and out of date.

In 1993, research findings by US academics Detterman and Sternberg reported that “90% of all training is a waste of time and money”. I’d argue that in 2008 it is more like 95%.

Their later research and findings argue that it is more effective to initially address the outputs required such as performance criteria and standards that fulfil customer and business expectations than the inputs, ie, work from right to left.


This means that performance is the key word that the L&D community needs to embrace if it is to maintain its credibility. Performance is what counts.

As Sir Alan Sugar regularly points out in his BBC1 programme The Apprentice, it is what people get hired for, get paid for and if they do not perform it is what they are fired for.

As L&D practitioners, we need to focus on, understand and relate to this key basic business metric:

Performance data = Quantity of work done x Quality/Time taken x Cost.

Several flawed assumptions are made that training is the panacea solution to support and improve performance. But it is only one of many factors that can affect performance. In my view, business leaders want less training and more performance improvement coaching more focus on the job and less off-the-job didactic delivery in the training room.


Indeed, the words ‘trainer’ and ‘training’ need to be replaced with ‘performance improvement coach’ or ‘business improvement specialist’. To do this, we need to retrain and increase our skill set to include problem solving, project management and process improvement. This way we will keep our jobs and increase our credibility.

How training and L&D professionals go about training and the way they deliver it is becoming part of their downfall. They must realise that what happens pre- and post-training is more important than what takes place during training. Nine times out of 10 it is the line manager sending the delegate who is responsible for the training process failing.

For example, by setting inadequate pre-course objectives, by setting unrealistic expectations that training will address performance issues, by abdicating performance management to the training department and by failing to liaise with the trainer before and after the course.

Therefore, HR and L&D management must review their organisation’s training culture and make changes to align it to performance.

They should also consider whether didactic delivery that involves a trainer reading out bullet points from a PowerPoint presentation is really acceptable these days. Far too many sessions are based on PowerPoint. I’ve been told that the average presentation in the UK has 30 slides, 28 of which will be full of bullet points – truly death by PowerPoint.

To paraphrase my old maths master: We can do better and we must start today. For, as US polymath Benjamin Franklin once said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

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