Thursday, December 08, 2005

Is there a future for corporate trainers?

I recently let slip a comment to the effect that corporate trainers might be due for extinction within a decade, and, understandably, the assertion was instantly challenged. I know that I am sometimes guilty of being provocative in order to move an argument along, but usually there is some substance behind my comments. In this instance, I believe there is a lot of substance, and I am far from happy about it. While I would be happy to see the currently popular career of Instructional Designer burn bright then die, I think in-house trainers still bring a heck of a lot of enduring value to a company.

There is no doubt in my mind that the activity of corporate learning will be around for a long time, but the role of the corporate trainer in that activity is becoming increasingly unimportant. This may not be as apparent in the UK as it is in the US, but since most American organizational evolutions (good and bad) eventually find their way across the pond, the potential demise of the corporate trainer is worth taking seriously just about everywhere.

What evidence do I have to support the contention that many trainers’ careers may be in jeopardy? First, I look at my own personal experience of corporate training over the past three decades, in which I have worked as an outside consultant to dozens of big companies in Europe, the US and around the world. I have seen the scope and scale of training activities of an awful lot of corporations, and I know how rapidly those empires are shrinking. The days of “corporate universities”, residential training facilities, and extensive training support services started slipping toward the end of the 1980’s, and the decline has accelerated ever since.

As more and more training is outsourced, in-house trainers are becoming vendor managers. At the same time, the attitude of large companies toward the development of their employees has turned from nurturing to dismissive, if not outrightly abusive. Once the notion of “human capital” took hold, and employees mutated from people to units of production, it was inevitable that the usually inappropriate concept of ROI would creep in as a simplistic gauge of training’s worth. When the CLO position materialized and training finally got a seat at the table, the Pareto optimization of training followed rapidly, urged on by the false promise of e-learning economies. The marginalization of the in-house trainer is a natural result.

I recall a time, not so long ago, when a company in trouble would seek to re-train its employees rather than fire them. That sense of responsibility, albeit paternalistic, is rare today, with employees seen more as perishable resources than as long-term investments. Satisfying shareholders’ quarterly lust for results undermines the commitment to investment not only in the business, but in its people. Recently, the CEO of General Motors was ardently assuring employees that the company had no plans to go bankrupt and that management would pull the company through. Soon after, just a few weeks before Christmas, he announced that in order to make good on that promise 30,000 people would be fired. No thought of retraining there.

While I am aware that one man’s perception is hardly a body of evidence, I have seen these concerns echoed among many of the people considered to be thought leaders in the learning field. There are currently two relevant growing discussions. The first, and by far most extensive discussion, centers on the future of learning and how to make sure that, as learning becomes less formal and devolves to individual employees, the learning needs of the corporation do not get subsumed by the often conflicting personal needs of the individual. The second discussion is about what, if anything, trainers can do to evolve and stay relevant. Neither of these discussions assumes a future role for corporate trainers, or training departments, as we know them today. It is alarming that as corporations allegedly place increasing emphasis on human performance as a critical success factor, one of their traditional drivers of that performance – trainers – are dying on the vine.

Finally, studies done recently by Ambient Insight (referenced by David Grebow, one of my co-authors in the Learning Circuits blog) examined the role of the corporate trainer and tried to extrapolate into the future. I am inherently skeptical about most studies, since way too many of them are inexpertly designed and executed, and even the best are sometimes badly interpreted. But this one resonates with my own observations, so of course I give it the benefit of the doubt! In a nutshell, the study says that corporate trainers have been in numerical decline for several years. As companies cut overhead, trainers are moving from influential positions within the organization to less influential external vendor positions.

If the study is correct, in the US, the number of corporate trainers is predicted to drop from 75,000 last year to 45,000 in 2008, till by 2012 there will be only 20,000 in-house trainers left in the US. When an occupation is set to lose three quarters of its members in only six years, current incumbents should be a little concerned. Some of those who leave will become employees of, or contractors to, outsourcing operations; those who stay will become vendor procurement managers.

While trainers may be comfortable with that, does it mean that learners will have to make do with more and more of their formal training coming in generic mass-market product form? And what does it do to the idea of training as an important strategic driver of company performance?

Beyond certification

The recent discussion about professionalism in training has been interesting. I expected strongly held polarized views, but there actually seems to be a muddled sort of consensus that training is not a profession, nor does it really need to be, but it might benefit from having a body behind it with enough teeth to raise its profile and credibility.

Perhaps the semi-consensus is because those commenting, online and off, tend to be established veterans with battle-tested competence in the field. When you know that you are good at what you do, and have been doing it long enough to know you are not deluding yourself, you tend to look askance at outside bureaucracies that profess to be able to pass judgment on your worth. But you also tend to feel an undercurrent of frustration that many in your field, and most of those outside of it, have no idea what value you contribute and have no basis for making that evaluation. Enter certification.

The problem with certificates is that they are invariably pitched at the baseline, and seek to verify that their holder has an adequate grasp of essential fundamentals, at whatever level. Why, for example, would I put an inordinate amount of time any money into getting an NVQ4 (UK) when, at the end of the day, all I have is a piece of paper that verifies that I have done, to a certain standard, some of the things that any experienced trainer should be able to do? Certification says nothing about quality or richness of experience and does not measure or reflect all the fuzzy hard-to-quantify characteristics that distinguish a ‘seasoned professional’ from a rank beginner. It’s a great ‘elevator’ for those relatively new to the field, of course. And while neither experience nor certification guarantees quality, certification is seen by the risk-averse to be less open to interpretation.

Increasingly, employers and clients use certification as an expedient filter or differentiator in their selection process. Those recruiting trainers without having themselves much ability to tell Chateau Margaux from Beaujolais Nouveau find a certificate indispensable. There’s an irony in this, which is echoed in other fields: once certification becomes a requirement, employers can deny themselves access to best-of-breed performers whose time constraints (or egos) have prevented them from leaping through the requisite credentialing hoops. The more widespread and credible a particular certification becomes, the more pressure there is on trainers to acquire the relevant pieces of paper. The only route open to holdouts like me is to “get with the program” and trust that the cluster of credentials that one opts for will have lasting value.

Which is where the other side of professionalism becomes so important. If you have to become certified, would it not be a good idea to have a certification process that results in something of inherent value, rather than a token piece of paper that is useful only as a checkmark in a recruiting box? Though I have looked, I have yet to find such a program. The reason appears to be that there is no body of training professionals – none – that has the advancement of the profession at heart. Even if such an objective appears somewhere in their charter, it is not manifested in their behavior. It may be too much to hope for that any professional body could be anything more than a committee-hampered bureaucracy destined to put all of its efforts into resisting change and preserving the status quo. Dynamism and forward thinking are not characteristics that one associates with such organizations.

Yet here we are, at what I believe is a crossroads for the corporate training ‘profession’, facing diminishing relevance and possible extinction within a decade, without any organized way forward. What are entities such as ITOL, BLA or ASTD doing to help guide companies toward more effective learning strategies? More importantly, what are they doing to help trainers adapt for the chaotic future in which we have to thrive? Certifying that members know how to dress appropriately, design courses, and make presentations is hardly adequate (OK, I know that’s a gross oversimplification). A professional body should be taking a much more strategic view of the learning outputs sought by companies and the changing cultures and climates in which trainers operate. I don’t see that reflected in member education priorities, certification requirements, marketing activities for the profession, or topics under discussion at their various conferences. It pains me that we who are so committed to needs analyses, objective setting, process design, and continuous improvement accept such lackluster myopic thinking from those who claim to represent us.

I know of many who have abandoned the “training” label altogether because they feel constrained by the limited perceptions others have of trainers. I tend to describe my own role in terms much more specific to any project for the same reasons: performance improvement facilitator, for example, or organizational developer (without the capitals), or learning strategist. But these labels are themselves a little grotesque – I would far rather call myself a “trainer”, and would if the term connoted more than the narrow and old-fashioned concept that the profession has become trapped in.

It will take an in-touch, dynamic, and courageous professional body to change both the perception and the reality of what training is, and can be. Do we put 40,000 volts through one of the existing bodies and transform it into something useful, do we create yet another new body, or is it a case of everyone for themselves, certificates in hand?

Original in TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 2 Dec 2005

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Training - Profession or Occupation?

Whenever I use the terms “training profession” or “training professionals” I do so apologetically. I use those labels as an expedient shortcut to describe those involved in facilitating corporate learning, be they trainers, managers, instructional designers, or consultants. But I am not comfortable with all of the implications of the word “professional.”

The debate as to whether or not trainers or instructional designers are really professionals raises its head from time to time, and while some see it as irrelevant semantics, many get rather passionate about the subject.

To some, if you make your living from it and you are pretty good at what you do, you can wear the label of professional with pride. To them, professionalism is a state of mind, an attitude to achieving results, quality and customer satisfaction that raises one above the hacks, charlatans and well-meaning-but-inept people that so often infiltrate the field.

To the purists, a profession involves lengthy academic education, proven expertise in practice, and formal accreditation by an acknowledged association of your peers. It may also involve being licensed via some formal, non-trivial process, adherence to a set of standards, behaviors and ethics, and a commitment to a continuous education process that keeps your license current. Typically, a profession has a body of peers that oversees the interests and the reputation of its members. When you tell a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant that you are a professional, this is what they expect to be behind your assertion.

True, trainer certification is available from various vendors, but passing such exams is hardly a guarantee of any breadth or depth of competence. I know many people who call themselves trainers or instructional designers who are extensively certified but incompetent, and many who are outstanding in their roles but have no formal qualification behind them. Most people in the field fall somewhere in the middle.

Getting a certification may help you get a job interview, if that is one of the filters employers use to short-list applicants. There is certainly no harm in taking a certification program such as the CTP or CeLP or the CPLP that is provided by the American Society for Training and Development, particularly if you are relatively new to the field. But I am not a great believer in the value of formal certification processes, largely because those that I have seen (or, in moments of weakness, have been involved in creating) are trivial – commercial opportunism thinly disguised as rigorous training and evaluation.

So, by the empirical standards of the purists, I fail the professionalism test. But (dammit) I am a professional – I have the experience, knowledge, reputation, competence, body of work, attitudes and integrity that collectively make me very comfortable with that label. The key question, however, is this: if the field in which you operate is not a profession, how can you call yourself a professional?

I don’t think that there is much question that training is not (yet) a profession, simply because it does not have the formal underpinnings of other professions. Training industry bodies, where they exist, do not fulfill the same role as say the General Medical Council or the Legal Bar. For that matter, there is no industry association, at least not one that has an omnipotent purview that even approaches those in the medical or legal fields. Training associations are more akin to trade associations, providing primarily the ability to network and in turn exploiting their internal market to sell publications, courses and conferences.

There is much apathetic complaining about training associations treating training as an occupation or vocation and failing to elevate the field as a profession. But it is the members themselves, the trainers, instructional designers, and managers who should determine how their representative body behaves, instead of complaining impotently about their association as though it were an independent entity. (There are parallels here with the way trainers view the senior management of their companies – we yearn for “a seat at the table” without ever expecting to have to make that happen ourselves.)

We need to stand up and make a little noise. If we insist on certification, we need a really “professional” certification process, involving education, training, experience, referrals, rigorous testing of knowledge and performance, managed by a truly dynamic and credible training association. In addition to being expensive, it would be elitist and exclusionary, both politically incorrect, but that does not seem to phase doctors or accountants. I would be willing to get involved in creating something like that, and in promoting it.

Until that happens, you can keep your token certifications. I’m happy to be a self-satisfied self-certified professional.