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?


Harold Jarche said...

Perhaps there is no future for corporate trainers because there is no future for the corporation? Is the fact that corporations are ignoring their real source of value (people) a sign that they're eating themselves from the inside?

If this trend continues then all learners will become independent purchasers of learning opportunities, putting into question not only the training function but the entire educational system.

illusions said...

There is more to a Corporate Trainer than training. The training (Learning) teams of an organization is responsible for propagating the core essence of an organization, hence they do participate possibly more than any other teams in Organization Building.

Regarding the data from the surveys, well I do kind of agree with it. But, in my opinion the corporate trainer will evolve to a to participate more in related fields, such as Coaching/Career Manager.

Lastly, I do not think the Instructional Design field will ever die out. But, it'll evolve like like all other fields.

- A Passionate Instructional Designer!

Dave Lee said...
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Dave Lee said...

Godfrey: While you don't call attention to it, your post illustrates one of the major contradictions in this debate. On one hand, training positions will disappear because learning "devolves to the individual employee" which you, and others, attribute to an emphasis informal learning.

Yet, on the other hand, any trainers who do survive will be working for outsourcing conglomerates who will pump out "formal training coming in generic mass-market product form."

These seem to be two very different futures. Might it be our role between now and then to somehow keep workplace learners from doing "virtual learning leg splits"?!?

REDHAWK said...

After reading this article it makes me a weary about heading into this field. I' am only 19 years old but I have always thought being a coporate training or instructional designer would be a good career fit. With the economy on the rise do you think corporations will possible start going back to shelling out the money they once did back in the 70's and 80's on trainging and development? Also a second question would you view this career field as overcrowded? AND Does anyone think their will be a future for corporate trainers?

Anonymous said...

Whta I've seen happening in Canada and Mexico, as well as with many US companies is exactly that, a trend to get rid of the internal corporate trainer and hire external companies to do the job. Even worse, some of those companies ask the HRs to manage their training needs and thus only covering the minimum law requirements like health and safety issues and basic on the job training. This only leads to unhappy employees as they can actually feel the lack of care from the company.

Trainers will become more and more like Languages Teachers (which is another field I've explored), with abusive GC (General contractors), sub contracting the actual trainers with no benefits, miserable salaries and quite abusive agreements where the trainer is responsible and liable for all risks available and in most cases, even more.

Anonymous said...

The only thing that is obvious here, is that you haven't ever had the opportunity to run a real corporation, big or small, yourself. If you did, then you would know about the real monumental tasks that go into getting staff trained, whether it be, soft or hard skills.

Corporate training will take on new facets as technolgy and needs arise, however the article should have read, "The need for higher end technical trainers surpass the standard begginer trainer." Why, well because job encapsulation as well as it is truly evolving into a traner be all situation. ie. We need a trainer to do, 1,2,3,4, as well as a-z. Not just a standard trainer. True, basic training can most likely be done by CBT or DVD, but not the high end technical software.

Obviously, the article write doesn't follow the trend from the trenches, which is, more sophisticated corporate proprietary software is now the big thing, which calls for the same level of trainer to deliver.

In summary, high-end corporate trainers will always be needed.

Unknown said...

As I see it any company that wants to survive in the future must rely on the training and develpoment of their people. If you look at your staff as expendable then thats what they will become short term workers with no real value and you will end up spending more on recruiting and training then if you continue to develope your current work force. As a Corporate Trainer we are left holding the reins and we can decide the future of our training departments we will evolve as the needs evole isnt that what we do?

Godfrey Parkin said...

Just a quick note to Tonymchicago: you are mistaken about my experience level. I'm not a complete theoretician in this field. I spent many years as an international VP of one of the world's largest corporations, helping it to grow from 20 countries to 36. And I ran the worldwide management development operations of another. When I engage with clients right now, it is very much at the "in the trenches" level -- it sometimes seems that the major part of my work goes into helping senior executives deal with politics and policies.

But your point about specialization is well taken. The more training moves out towards the root of the problem, the more expert the trainer needs to be. Which is why, depending on the discipline, training may go outsourced or it may go informal on-the-job, especially where the demand for such training is not enough to justify a full-time trainer.

Lubna said...
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Lubna said...

I agree with the article.Corporate Tainiers are on the decline, but this can be a good thing. An independent consultant will bring a diverse experience to the training. What do you think?