Friday, September 05, 2008

Moving on...

It's time for me to move on from Parkin's Lot, a blog I started way back when blogging was not yet a household term, and whose focus has been primarily on the fields of elearning and online informal networks. I'm going to leave Parkin's Lot up, because despite not having had much of an update in two years, some of its articles still get a lot of visitors. But I will not be blogging here in the future.

I am now once again working in what has been my major area of interest throughout my career -- digital strategy and online social networks.

My company, Britefire keeps me very busy with digital strategy consulting and training work, and we are doing some major soup-to-nuts online marketing projects for some of our clients which occupy a lot of time and energy. For example, I am now the marketing director of a global distribution company for a range of natural seaweed skin care products that we are now rolling out on the web worldwide. I am also taking similar positions in the holding companies of a number of other high-end or luxury brands that we are e-marketing around the globe, in areas from fragrances to fashion to jewelry to travel and real estate. I'm developing a mobile-phone based business to provide math and science education to high school kids. And on top of this, I have joined the faculty of a premiere graduate business school (USB-ED) where I will be responsible for the programme in online marketing strategy.

I still have a passion for elearning, follow its evolution closely, have a company active in the field, and still do some conference keynotes in this area. But there are only 168 hours in a week...

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Been fishing

I apologise for taking a few months’ hiatus at Parkin’s Lot without sticking a “Gone Fishing” sign on the blog.

I’d like to thank all of those people who were concerned enough at my prolonged absence to e-mail me and ask if I was still breathing, and for all the kind comments from those who missed my posts.

I’ve been busy road-showing the learning evaluation strategy approach and doing a lot of “Marketing 2.0” work (or should that be 3.0?), while simultaneously changing lifestyles, companies, and countries. And no, George, I was not renditioned by the agency for my occasional caustic comments about management in corporate America.

I am also now in a land where access to the web is erratic and absurdly expensive – how does $300 a month for 300kbps “broadband” access sound? You can get it a little cheaper, but you then have to live with the system shutting you down once you hit your total bandwidth usage cap of 3Gb/month. Welcome to the world of state telcom monopoly, where through ignorance, greed, indifference, or complacency the government gets to handicap the growth of the economy and education by effectively denying it access to what elsewhere has become a knowledge utility.

(OK, so it’s not a total monopoly – I can get 100 kbps on my “3G” mobile phone and pay a mere $1 for every 3 Mb transferred either way).

But I have found a way forward at last, so will shortly be back to my usual unpredictable posting regime.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Learning Evaluation: useless without a strategy

In an interview this week with the UK's TrainingZONE, Martyn Sloman of the CIPD (Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development) made the astonishing assertion that it is not necessary to evaluate training. His statement that “If you’re properly aligned to the business needs and the organization recognizes the value of the training and development there shouldn’t be any need to be obsessed with the figures after the event” is a sentiment we’d all like to agree with, but it’s not realistic.

In order to know that you are continually aligned and to get the organization to clearly perceive your value, you do have to measure the outcomes of your activities on an ongoing basis. Even if you are aligned and if the organization recognizes your value, you still need to keep track of that status in order to be able to adjust your performance and keep those perceptions unshakable.

Now it is true that not a lot of companies bother with evaluation. The American Society for Training and Development does a ‘state of the industry’ study every year.

In 2004, 74 per cent of US companies evaluated training at Kirkpatrick’s level one; 31 per cent at level two; 14 per cent at level three; and only 8 per cent at level four.

In my experience, evaluation within organizations generally is not worth the time and effort that goes into it. Evaluation is generally poorly conceived and executed, often measuring the wrong things in the wrong way, typically subject to significant errors in interpretation, rarely producing actionable or meaningful information, and hardly ever being adequately communicated to decision-makers.

On that basis alone, I’d agree that evaluation, as it is normally carried out, should simply be terminated. OK, keep scaled-back smile sheets as an ego stroke for classroom trainers, but ditch the rest.

Unfortunately companies have reporting requirements, and, like other departments, training departments are under pressure to produce any kind of data which demonstrate that the money being spent has some kind of positive payback. You can’t do that with smile sheets. Nor can you do that with the in-vogue assumption-laden ROI approach, which, to anyone who knows anything about statistics, is fatally flawed at worst, specious at best.

As companies start to accept the changing nature of organizational learning, with an increasing emphasis on the informal, the challenge of evaluation just gets greater. Measuring the impact of formal training interventions is tricky enough, but with informal learning it’s hard to get a grasp of both the impact and the cost, to say nothing of the difficulty of knowing who was even involved.

In putting together evaluation strategies, you have to look at the “desired business impact” end of learning and work back down to the activities that are supposed to cumulatively result in that impact. Typically, trainers seek to do evaluation the other way around: measure as much as you can at the training activity end, then cut and run, leaving someone else to cobble together some aggregate ROI number a year later if it is really demanded.

This leads to the systemic unnecessary collection of huge amounts of irrelevant data with massive disconnects between what is measured and what needs to be measured. The hidden costs of badly-done evaluation are enormous. Trainers and ISDs are simply not qualified to evaluate training, nor should it be a part of their responsibility.

Depending on the training priorities of a company or department, I will usually advocate a strategy that minimizes conventional in-class, all-learners, questionnaire-based data collection, and makes use of well-established market research methods instead.

Use samples instead of evaluating everyone, use bigger collective impacts instead of evaluating every course, and use your results to diagnose problems worthy of more detailed investigation. In order to do this, because you are stepping out of the classroom and into the business, you need to expand the mandate of the training department. This means you need top-level commitment to your evaluation strategy.

You can, for example, get very actionable information about at-work application from a couple of dozen learners in focus groups, rather than having hundreds fill out Likert-laden questionnaires. You can use mystery shopping techniques to confirm actual implementation of, say, customer service skills.

For a very convincing job of demonstrating business impact you can simply “data-mine” already collected information. For instance, in evaluating selling skills training, using small samples of salespeople you can look at before-and-after sales performance and at changes in performance between a control group and a group who has been trained.

Arguing the business case for training is like making a case in court: you assemble the evidence and present it in such a way that it makes a very convincing argument.
You don’t need to produce a smoking gun, and an ROI number can easily be discredited. For those C-level reports in which you justify your ongoing existence, you can select the above plus an array of key performance indicators that reflect, in whole or in part, the impact of the work of your department.

Present your evidence graphically in a dashboard, so that everything is on one page. If you set up your systems to update the dashboard monthly or quarterly so that trends can be established, evaluation can rapidly become an essential ingredient of senior management decision-making.

Far from being unnecessary, evaluation is strategically vital to the ongoing health and success of any training endeavor.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Why Trainers Need Selling Skills

Everything we do in business involves collaboration, problem solving and negotiation, and you can’t do any of those without understanding the perspective of your counterparts and helping them all to get on the same page. Establishing a common perception of and agreement to the needs, constraints and solutions is what vision building is all about. It is also a central skill in selling and in training.
Many skills, and knowledge itself, are depreciating assets – whatever I know today, and much of what I can do today, is likely to be irrelevant tomorrow. That doesn’t mean these things are not worth learning, because we all make a living in the present.

But there are certain core skills that serve us well throughout our lives because they are valid, irrespective of context. Those skills include many of the so-called soft skills that senior management dislikes spending money on because they are so hard to pin to a particular project: communication, analytical thinking, problem solving, decision making, leadership and selling. These are the skills that have the broadest impact and longest payback period in any organization, and for any individual. Selling skills in particular should be an enterprise-wide requirement.
Before I became one myself, I used to think that salespeople were about the lowest form of life in the enterprise pond. And there is a reason why so many salespeople are abhorred by their prospective customers – they do not understand their role and have not learned the skills needed to fulfill it.

One of the best ways to learn is to teach. I am forever grateful that my first manager, decades ago, was perceptive enough to make me put my money where my arrogant newly-graduated mouth was. If you are such a marketing know-it-all, he said, you can put together a training program to get all of your more experienced colleagues up to par.

That is when I started learning how little of real value I actually had in my head, and discovered how complex the real world can be. We were in the business of providing long-term market research and consultancy. The conventional wisdom in the company was that the more you knew about marketing and the markets the better able you were to sell, so training had been focused on developing that knowledge. But the business results were mixed. Level Fours are easy to gauge in sales training – if you are not signing contracts, your training has failed.

After accompanying a number of people on sales calls, it slowly dawned on me that the people closing deals had an intimate understanding not of the markets in which their prospects operated but of the prospects themselves. They sought to understand the people and their concerns and motivations, as well as the needs of their companies, and were able to comfortably hold penetrating conversations with them about those issues.

And often it helped to not know much about the particular market, because then the quest for understanding was real. Those who “knew it all” were less successful – they were show-and-tell salespeople, intent on impressing the client with their expertise, and focused on talking them into a buying decision. The best salespeople intuitively used a customer-centric process, had an unquenchable interest in learning from their clients, and sought to craft solutions that would work to mutual advantage.

That there are communication skill processes that can be defined, taught, and applied irrespective of context was a revelation to me at the time. Soon afterward I discovered commercial sales training packages that did a good job of helping people internalize and habituate those processes, and I have been a selling skills advocate ever since.

It is baffling to me that, in most companies, selling skills training is considered to be relevant only to sales people. Other employees may not be selling products, but they are selling ideas every day. In those companies where I have implemented programs for non-salespeople (for example project managers, creative teams, ISD people, or IT staff), the impact on their ability to achieve their own objectives while delighting their internal clients has been immediate. But often these programs have to be positioned with care, because most people do not see themselves as needing to learn how to sell.

Trainers (other than sales trainers) tend to be the last to want to develop their own selling skills. There is an almost visceral aversion to the very notion of trainers selling their services. This is based on the perception that selling is all about arm-twisting and pushing product.

But consultative selling skills are a long way from the techniques employed by sleazy used car salesmen and over-eager LMS vendors. If trainers, and training departments, were better skilled in dealing with their clients we’d see a lot less order-taking, more effectively conceived interventions, and a better class of service being provided. This would build the respect, credibility, and perceived ROI of the training organization. In turn, the role of the trainer as consultant would be reinforced. That is an upward spiral that can only be good for any organization.

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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Mystery shopping at Level Three

I have recently been running a training evaluation project with a financial advice company in the midst of the global battle for share of the baby boomer bubble market.

There have never been so many people on the cusp of retirement, and financial advisors are circling them like sharks around a sardine run. The normally staid and sensible financial advertising imagery is giving way to flower-painted VW microbuses, long hair and lava lamps, richly underpinned by the evocative music of the 70’s. We are urged to believe that the person in the dark suit who wants up to 4% of our liquid assets annually in return for helping us to buy a stairway to heaven is just a grown-up hippie at heart, man, who can really relate to our values.

The training challenge is significant if the advisors’ behavior is to synch with the marketing message. Does the repositioning taught in class actually make it through to discussions with potential clients?

The nature of the business makes it very difficult for managers to observe and objectively evaluate those reporting to them. Training effectiveness can be inferred from actual sales results, prospect conversion rates, and before-and-after data mining studies. But if advisors are losing a lot of potential converts, such empirical data do not help to diagnose where (if at all) the training may have been deficient. So how can you be sure that the training is actually leading to on-the-job application?

One solution is to “mystery shop” for financial advice. Using mystery shopping to test customer interaction skills is a widespread approach in industries ranging from cars to cosmetics to coffee. The concept is simple: send someone in to do business and have them report back on the behavior encountered. It is typically used to target and remediate poor behavior in specific sales/service individuals, or to check up on the quality of management of establishments such as restaurants and retail outlets. It is rarely used to evaluate the effectiveness of training. That’s because mystery shopping tends to fall under the control of sales, marketing, or customer service departments who simply assume that training has done its job, and see implementation is a matter of personal choice or supervisor diligence. A direct link between individual on-the-job competence and training is rarely made by such departments, and training departments are reluctant to raise it.

For a wide range of customer contact skills at Level Three, secret shopping can tell us a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of our training and its impact on behavior. It gives us unbiased feedback, from the perspective of a customer, on how well desired behavior patterns or skills are adopted. It can also tell us a lot about the environmental and systemic obstacles to application of the learning.

Yet trainers don’t often use it as part of their continuous improvement process. There are several reasons:
  • Conceptual confusion: Beyond Level One, trainers are more accustomed to checking the learner than the learning. The frame of reference is typically testing and opinion surveys, to see how each individual is doing, and such studies are seen to be vast and intrusive. But you don’t need to look at every learner to get a useful indication of the impact of any particular course or curriculum – a small sample will do.

  • Cost: It’s a lot more expensive to have a shopper talk with an ex-learner than it is to simply e-mail out a link to a Zoomerang questionnaire. Depending on what behavior you need to observe, a mystery shopper can run you anything from $5 to $50 per visit – and that’s in the simple retail customer field where no sophisticated observation is called for. In sophisticated scenarios, such as seeking financial or legal advice, a “shop” may require an hour or more of sustained credibility through complex discussions. You may have to pay qualified shoppers up to $500 per visit, even if they are current staff on your payroll. Add to that the investment in training your shopper squad in observation skills, plus the potential travel expenses involved in getting a national representation in your sample, and the cost of your training QA project can rapidly get into the tens of thousands.

  • But it need not get higher than that, because you are looking for a diagnostic indication, not a statistically valid sample. You may only visit three or four dozen individuals, the same number you might pull into focus groups. And you may be able get your sponsoring department to help with the costs.

  • Ethics: Unlike marketers, trainers feel that there is something underhanded, invasive, or unethical in collecting data by subterfuge. But your focus is the training, not the trainee, and the identity of anyone “secretly shopped” should never be divulged to any of his/her management. It may not be retained at all once relevant demographics and training history are appended to the performance observation study.

  • Liability: Do training departments really want to expose weaknesses in the quality of their training, particularly where each lost sale or disgruntled customer equates to a great deal of lost income? Level Three is the third rail of training evaluation, and most trainers want to stay away from it. The benefits of showing that training produces improved performance may not be significant enough to justify the risk of demonstrating that the opposite is true.

  • But when the time comes for organizational cut-backs, mystery shopping at Level Three might buy trainers a stairway to heaven; relying on Level One smile sheets may just be a highway to hell.

    Can trainers learn fast enough to stay viable?

    It seems to me that these days the hard-working trainer gets maligned by just about everyone, including fellow trainers, not for doing a bad job but for not attaining a Renaissance Person status to which few other corporate functions aspire.

    I may be more guilty than most of doling out the criticism. I constantly berate those in the training profession for not continuously evolving at the pace of their environment, for being complacently stuck in outmoded paradigms, for defining their roles too narrowly, or for jumping from ineffective low-tech ruts into high-tech ruts that may be equally ineffective.

    But when I look at what I am asking of training professionals, I can’t think of any other corporate field in which the desired changes are so broad and so deep:

    • Comprehend, master, and stay ahead of strategic implications in emerging technologies.
    • Anticipate the direction and performance needs of corporations whose strategic and tactical navigation is in accelerating flux.
    • Understand, relate to, and accommodate a wave of digitally savvy employees whose world view, technological competencies, instincts and modes of operation are radically different from those of the established employee base.
    • Customize your service to the individual, reducing your operating costs at the same time.
    • Continually improve effectiveness, cutting time to market, time to competence, and time away from task.
    • Demolish or at least plasticize your formal processes, making them more flexible, more adaptable, and more workflow-snug.
    • Develop skills and competencies with constantly evolving tools (personal, group, and enterprise) that span administration, web authoring, testing, evaluation, presentations, databases, scheduling, collaboration, networking, globalization, project management, and communication (broadcast, podcast, mail shot, synchronous, peer-to-peer, mobile).

    I could go on, but you get the idea. What about those in other corporate functions? It is true that innovation is called for everywhere, and the impact of e-business touches the goals and processes of all people throughout the organization.

    Marketing and sales have gone through significant revolutions in many aspects of their work. Obviously, IT people have different systems to deal with. Customer service people deal online with customers who bought online. Administrative departments have to integrate their operations online with those of suppliers and business partners. Strategy groups are (hopefully) building new visions for the future of the organization. Legal people are rethinking contracts, intellectual property issues, and management of privacy. HR systems are becoming real-time, and more recruiting is done through the internet. And financial people are transacting online.

    But I doubt that as individuals there is anyone who has a broader front of continuous change thrust upon them than those with a training responsibility. Nor is there anyone whose fundamental personal operating processes are challenged so deeply. Marketing people may disagree, and trainers have great deal to learn from them about making non-linear change happen rapidly, and about understanding and responding to individual customer needs. But most marketing people specialize in one aspect of the process – training people are expected to be competent across the spectrum.

    In most companies, it is not unusual for individual training people to have to set strategic direction, conceive, architect, build, deploy, administer, test, and review everything that they do, with a little help from those in IT. Instructional designers are supposed to help, of course, but too often their only pedagogical qualification is some fluency in Macromedia’s tools – and their ability to provide broad strategic input is limited.

    In an environment such as this, there is a tendency to withdraw, redefine our responsibilities within narrow confines, and hope that all that external change will eventually settle down. But it won’t. In a technology sense, and in a workplace culture sense, trainers have to get out more. We have to foster the curiosity and find the time to become more au fait with what is going on in the world of applied technology, e-collaboration, workflow learning, and those aspects of corporate strategy that hinge on knowledge and skills. Trainers need more training themselves, not in task-specific skills but in the environment in which they are going to have to operate.

    It is ironic that this “development” part of T&D is the hardest to get budget approval for, yet it is fundamental to the future success of everything we do.

    Original in TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 28 Oct 2005