Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The big issue in training's future

At a recent conference I heard somebody say, without even a hint of irony, “Change management is like so twenty minutes ago.” One of the essential big-picture issues that T&D has to deal with, now and increasingly so in the next few years, is managing change and its repercussions – for the organization and for training itself. It’s oxymoronic, and dangerous, that change has become a cliché.

The fact that change is so talked about should not dull our senses to the rapidly dissolving conceptual foundations on which nearly every job, department, division, organization, and industry is built. Change management used to mean dealing with significant strategic one-time adjustments in an organization, such as mergers, relocating, or “downsizing”. Now change is altogether different. It’s pervasive, relentless, unpredictable, non-linear, and frighteningly fast. Remember the 1970's arcade game Space Invaders? OK, how about Doom3? The more attackers you shoot down, the more come at you, faster and faster, until inevitably you just cannot keep up. Game over. Welcome to 21st century business. Your only salvation may lie in collaborative teamwork.

Because the landscape is changing so rapidly, opportunities and threats are often first identified as they recede in the rear-view mirror. By the time we have configured our business to exploit an opportunity, it’s gone. By the time we have developed a training course to address an issue, it’s no longer important or it has a completely different context.

Training departments used to be able to take the time to do skills audits and gap analyses, put together relatively stable and sound annual plans, and invest in building solid training solutions for identified problems. You could take one hundred hours to develop one hour of training product, knowing that what you produced would be relevant and effective for long enough to generate a healthy ROI. While that may still be true for certain core training needs, it is not true for training in those areas where a company’s differential advantage is generated and sustained. I am not just talking about the “sharp ends” of the business; I’m talking about the inherent smartness of the business.

Individual employees and entire companies need to be better able to anticipate, generate, or react to change. That means making them smarter, faster, more flexible, more synergistic. So training’s role, in part, needs to be more developmental. Identifying and building the analytical thinking, communication, and decision-making skills in individuals at all levels, as well as in teams and business units, is becoming more vital than ever.

It's not enough to re-think training as "learning", important as that shift is. To stay relevant and effective, T&D must itself change its perceptions, processes, and outputs. It has to be pro-active, which means being a formative part of company thinking, rather than an after-the-fact service provider to the business. Training is not a medication to be administered after diagnosis. It’s not a diet or an exercise regime to achieve fitness. It should be an integral part of the organizational DNA that creates and sustains a healthy metabolism.

Training professionals have to be willing to change their perceptions of what they do and of what “good practice” is. The well-designed polished course may not be relevant. Training departments as gatherers, re-formulators, and disseminators of skills and knowledge may no longer be relevant. Adjusting Training’s own processes to be more anticipatory and more rapid in response is critical. Collapse or eliminate the course development lead-time; create dynamic learning processes that leverage the skills and experiences of participants; integrate SMEs and managers into the actual learning process; lose the notion of training as a series of products and recast it as an integrated collection of perpetually evolving processes.

These are not idealistic conceptual daydreams – they are essential, urgent priorities.

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