The real purpose of training

I thought the real purpose of training is obvious, but apparently not.  If an organisation is spending a lot of money and time on something you would think that observing what they are doing would enable you to deduce their reason for doing it.

If I were to look at training in your company, what would I see?

Now I know that what I am about to say is not universal, but it is depressingly common. What I would see for the majority of training is people are put into a training room, either real or virtual, with little preparation and often for rather tenuous reasons. They are given, occasionally in an entertaining and engaging way, a lot of information, most of which they forget in a relatively short period of time. Sometimes they are asked to memorise it to the extent they can pass an exam when everybody knows they would be unlikely to pass the same exam a few months later. They return to their place of work with little encouragement to use the information they were given on the training, and except in a few cases, life goes back 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 end result from training. They usually begin to home 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 without 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 in order 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”.