If you were a carpenter, and someone walked up and asked ‘how much would it cost to build a house?’ what would you do? Undoubtedly, the first thing out of your mouth would be on the order of ‘it depends… what sort of house do you want?’ This would be followed by a series of questions aimed at fleshing out the specifications for the job, at which point a reasonably accurate estimate of cost could be made. This is a reasonable approach, so obvious that we would consider the client asking for the estimate to be an idiot for not being more specific in the first place. Yet so often in the training environment, we are asked to give hard estimates for undefined projects. And often, we aren’t even sure that training is required. A couple of cases in point:
A systems integration company is preparing a bid for a major contract to upgrade a client system. The new system isn’t yet clearly defined, in fact, as the project may span in excess of ten years, some of the technologies that might eventually be used don’t yet exist. The training department is asked to prepare a training plan and budget to develop end-user training for this system as part of the proposal effort. Experience has shown that whatever estimate is put in the proposal (despite the lengthy list of assumptions and caveats declared ahead of time), will be taken as gospel and held as ‘the contract’ in the future. What do you do?
An internal performance development consultant is called into a manager’s office. “Productivity is down. We’ve set aside a half-day during the next maintenance cycle for operator training… that’s in two weeks. Deliver a seminar that makes the production folks work faster.” What do you do?
One of the most frustrating aspects of this occupation is the lack of awareness on the part of managers that what we do requires some specification in order to be successful. I’m amazed that folks who wouldn’t dream of asking their carpenter to ‘just build something’ will do this to their training folks – and worse yet, hold them accountable when the results are less than spectacular.
What causes this sort of behaviour? What have we, as trainers, done to deserve it?
Maybe it’s ignorance on the part of managers. Maybe it’s because we’ve accepted assignments like this before. Maybe it’s the mentality of some training departments, the notion that what we do is somehow a black art that must be protected from the unwashed hordes of management, and thus explanations of ‘how/why we do it’ are considered as giving away trade secrets. Maybe we’ve been harping so long on the ‘training can solve your problems’ mantra that managers are starting to believe it.
Whatever the reason, when we accept these sorts of assignments, we set ourselves up for failure. Yet when we demand clarity, we often get resistance from managers who really want to use the training department as a scapegoat. What is the answer?
If you’re stuck with this situation, the short term answer is probably that you take the assignment and pray for Divine intervention. In the longer term, the answer is to have a formal, engineered process for developing and delivering training. In this respect, we are fortunate in that there are a number of structured systems available. It really doesn’t matter which of these you choose, so long as you can make a compelling case for using one and then stick to your guns. Insisting on following a structured methodology, including up-front analysis to diagnose the root cause of performance problems and finding lasting solutions is the key not only to successful interventions, but also to raising the profile and professional stature of training organizations. Trainers in companies with formal quality management programs (ISO 9000, or similar) may find these arguments easier to vocalize because there is already a vocabulary and culture for standardized processes. If you happen to be in a different environment, good luck – you really have your work cut out for you!
Regardless of the environment, you can take some steps. First, if you are of the “training can cure all ills” sect, please step outside now and hit yourself with a stick until that feeling goes away. Now that you’ve got that out of your system, publish some formal processes, and then insist on using them. Ensure that clear mandates exist. Insist on ‘contracts’ with department managers who ask for your services. You may not always win (in fact, you may feel a bit like Sisyphus of Greek mythology, pushing a stone up a hill for eternity). However, the alternative is to collude with our clients to remain ignorant, and that is a dereliction of our duty as trainers. After all, we’re supposed to make people smarter and/or more skilled, aren’t we?