The real purpose of training

I assumed the training’s real purpose was clear, but it seems not. You’d think observing how much effort and money an organisation puts into training would reveal their reasons.

If I observed training at your company, what would I find?

Here’s a common, though not universal, scenario in training. Most training involves people in a room, real or virtual, unprepared and therefore weak reasons. They get a lot of information, sometimes presented well, but soon forgotten. Often, they just memorize enough to pass a test, a test they’d fail months later. After training, there’s little push to apply what they learned. Usually, everything soon returns to normal.

A recipe for wasting money

Observing the above, I would have to deduce that the real purpose of training is to waste money and time for all concerned.

When I ask people in Learning & Development (L&D) what they think is the purpose of training, they do not talk about wasting money. Instead, they give answers that are about learning, knowledge, new skills, compliance etc. Then the answers start to change as people re­flect on the desired result from training. They usually begin to hone in on a purpose for training that is about helping people develop so they can be better at doing what they do on behalf of their employer. They arrive at something like “The purpose of training is to improve competence and change the way people do things, so they perform better and consistently get better results at work”.

In essence, unless the training is fulfilling some tick-box compliance require­ment, it all comes back to behaviour change. We train people because we want them to change their behaviour, yet when I look at the way people commonly deliver training, it is not a recipe for behaviour change. It is a recipe for wasting money.

How can we deliver sustained behaviour change?

We could spend considerable time navel-gazing and trying to analyse why L&D people are saying one thing and yet doing another. And this incongruence, this mismatch of delivery and purpose is not new. It’s a bit like a smoker who has been saying they should quit for years but still keeps smoking. Their actions don’t match what they are telling the world. The traditional way of delivering training seems to have benefits that hold it in place like a smoker’s addiction.

Rather than examine the incongruence between L&D’s aspirations and actions, it is more instructive to look at the aspirations themselves and consider what you would do to meet them if you were starting from scratch without the baggage, and the addiction. Given the purpose that L&D says they want, the key question to ask seems to be, “How can we deliver sustained behaviour change?” By the way, if you take a step back, this question relates to the purpose of pretty much all L&D activity, not just training.

Here are some more questions to get you thinking…

‘How does someone change their behaviour?’
You might come up with answers like trying something new, practising getting it right and finding out what ‘right’ looks like.

‘Why does someone change their behaviour?’
Well, they want to change due to beneficial consequences if they do, or they are forced to change due to unacceptable consequences if they don’t. Or perhaps a mixture of both types of motivation.

‘What needs to happen for someone to change their behaviour?’
Think back to behaviour changes you have made, or seen others make. What triggered and sustained the change?

Which brings you to, ‘Given a specific behavioural outcome, what circumstances do I need to create around a person for that person to change their behaviour in the way that I want them to in the context they are in?’

When you can answer that question, you are well on the way to fulfilling the real purpose of training.

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Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, learning transfer, performance consultancy, and how Learning & Development can help achieve business targets. He is the author of the Learning at Work Trilogy: “Learning Transfer at Work: How to Ensure Training >> Performance”, “Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times” and “Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle”.