Time to tackle training tedium

In my last blog, I presented recent CIPD survey data which showed that over a third of employees (35%) said they rarely find time for training and development - slightly higher than the 33% who disagreed with this statement.

The 2010 National Adult Learner Survey for England asked respondents to make choices between (hypothetical) learning activities and this data was used to work out the factors that employees think are most important in making decisions about learning.  The most important factor was the expected outcome from the learning but the amount of time that had to be given up each week – the less, the better! – was second and where and when the learning took place was third, with a strong preference for distance learning and work-based learning over sitting in a classroom (especially in the evening).

A 2008 CIPD survey of employees' learning experiences found that just 15% of employees thought classroom/meeting room based tuition was the best form of learning, compared with 46% who preferred to be shown how to do something and then practice, and 29% who preferred one-to-one coaching.  Indeed, a higher proportion of employees (19%) thought classroom/meeting room based tuition was the worst form of learning.

Yet the same survey also showed that training delivered in a meeting room or classroom was the most common form of learning for employees (64% had experienced it within the previous 12 months).

Another result from the 2010 National Adult Learner Survey is that 84% of those surveyed agreed that ‘learning new things is fun’.  Being able to do something new which is either interesting or rewarding (preferably both) is great but, like a Zumba class, the process of learning isn’t pain free.  Apart from the time given up, there’s the challenge of moving outside your mental or physical comfort zone.  And when it comes to classroom/meeting room based training, there’s also the boredom.

I asked CIPD colleagues for examples of training tedium – those aspects of a work-related training course that can all too easily make you lose any enthusiasm you may have had for the topic being covered - and I found no shortage of suggestions.  Here’s a (not at all scientific) top five.

  1. When the trainer reads out the training documentation – that is verbatim – and as if it’s the first time they’ve ever seen it before
  2. Creeping death introductions – special credit for “tell the group something not many people know about you”
  3. Role play exercises – no middle ground here, heavy on the ham or as wooden as Crossroads
  4. The “setting of ground rules” – previous courses clearly have not proceeded harmoniously
  5. Reporting back after “small group working” – let’s all read out (very badly) every word of scrawl on those flip charts!

Faced with a day that may well include at least one of these, perhaps being too busy for training should be seen in a new light?  Yes, managers tend to work longer hours than other employees and they will be pressed to find time for training and development.  But they are also more likely to have the power to avoid training tedium by saying they are really too busy.  And if all else fails, managers are more likely than other employees to have one or more smartphones, laptops or tablets that can be used to catch up on work when the pace drops.

It also makes you ask why classroom/meeting room based learning is still so commonplace.  Well, per head it may be cheaper than one-to-one coaching.  In addition, if the purpose of the learning is to ensure that all relevant employees have a defined set of knowledge and competencies (for example, to meet regulatory requirements), then mandatory training in a classroom environment may be a less risky option than workplace-based learning.  Given the opportunity, employees may skip bits because they (think they) already know them or because they don’t see much value to the learning.  E-learning can deliver consistency of content and flexibility over place and time, as well as testing whether employees have understood what they have been told, but the transition may involve upfront costs.  And there’s also good old inertia.

Recessions are one way of blowing away inertia.  The results of the 2013 Employer Skills Survey suggest that the last recession did lead to a shift in the make-up of employer-funded training, with less externally contracted and more delivered in house, together with greater use of e-learning.
Of course, it should not take a recession before tried and tested (and often trying) forms of training are reassessed.  A learning organisation should be constantly seeking feedback on its learning and development activities (not just training courses) and using this information to evaluate the value obtained.  However, 40% of employees surveyed for the CIPD in 2008 said that no-one had sought their views on whether the training they had received had in fact been useful.

An approach to feedback and evaluation that is rigorous – going beyond ‘happy sheets’ – but not over-complicated might help employers weed out training that is ineffective (in terms of learning outcomes) and focus attention on cost-effective forms of delivery.  Employees might welcome this if the outcome is more learning that they can do when it suits them and in ways that enable them to practice their skills in the workplace as they go along.

The impact of training doesn’t just depend on how it is delivered.  It also depends on whether (and how) the learning obtained is then used at the workplace. There is evidence from the 2006 Skills and Employment survey that employer-provided training delivers more benefits in workplaces with high employee involvement because these environments tend to give employees more chances to apply what they’ve learnt in their work and to share their knowledge with colleagues.

Whatever its shortcomings, surveys show that the vast majority of employees value training and would rather have it than not have it.  According to the 2008 CIPD survey referenced above, 92% of employees said the training they had received had been very successful or quite successful in helping them do their job better and only 17% had turned down training opportunities (most often because they were too busy or because the course lacked relevance).  A UKCES-funded study found a similarly strong commitment to workplace learning among low-skilled employees in the care and hotel sectors.

So the data suggest employees do have an appetite for work-related learning, even if some of it is past its use by date and contains less nutrition and more gristle than it ought to.  So if Gordon Ramsay ever tires of nightmare kitchens and hellish hotels, what about tackling terrible training? 




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