Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Billions of Dollars Wasted on Training That Doesn't Work

Over 15 years ago, I was having lunch with a colleague in a restaurant south of Akron, Ohio. We had just spent the morning with the Vice President for Human Resources at one of the biggest corporations in the U.S., and we were reviewing what was said and what we learned. At some point, I looked at him over my cup of coffee. It was one of those moments when I felt that it was important to be honest, truthful.

I said, "You know, Dave, whatever you do there probably won't get the results you expect, or what they think they're paying for. I'm not saying you're a second-rate trainer. Quite the opposite. You're probably the best trainer I know. But I honestly don't think your program will change anything."

He sat up straight and just looked at me with a puzzled expression. "What are you talking about?"

"What I'm saying is, it's rare that this kind of training has the impact it's supposed to. I don't know how many times I've given the client my best stuff, promised a lot and delivered more, and got rave reviews from the participants. Then a year or two later, when I go back to talk with the managers, they tell me that practically nothing has changed. It's frustrating and disappointing to admit that what we do doesn't really have much long term impact. Surely, you've experienced the same thing."

He looked out the window and didn't say anything for a while. I thought I might have hurt his feelings. Maybe I shouldn't have said what I was thinking.

But then he said, "I suppose you're right. Yes, I've been disappointed like that. Yes, probably most of the time. But what are we supposed to do? Stop trying? Go into another line of work? Besides, even if the training doesn't take with everyone, there's always those few who do take it to heart. It helps those few. And the rest, well, if their behavior doesn't change, maybe their thinking does. Maybe it has an impact down the road."

"I don't know if that's good enough, Dave. Companies large and small are spending millions--no, billions of dollars every year to hire people like you and me to improve the skills of their employees. That's the ROI they expect, but it's not what they're getting. It's like some kind of deep dark secret that nobody wants to talk about. The thing is, I know it and you know it. It makes me feel conflicted and uncomfortable with this business."

"So what are you going to do? Stop training? What?"

"I don't know. I've been thinking about writing an article about this problem. I have an outline..."

"Oh no, man, don't write it. A negative article like that, if anybody published it, and if anybody read it, would hurt our efforts to get organizations to invest in their people. It would be bad for all of us. People would come after you. It's a bad idea, Denny. Don't do it."

I wanted to do it, though. I kept thinking about all that wasted investment, all that effort for little or no gain.

But I can tell you today, looking back across the years, that I never did write that article. Why not? I think basically I didn't want to be someone who raises an ugly issue without giving a good explanation for it or without proposing some kind of solution.

The good news is, I did come to understand why most training doesn't work, why billions of dollars of HR money are still wasted every year. I even learned what to do about it. I don't mean to keep you in suspense...but that's another story, another blog post. Please stay tuned for Part 2 of the story...

1 comment:

thementalcoach said...

Great points, Denny. I remember when I was learning TQM (back when) - concepts were great, processes were specific and measurable (my kind of tools). Upper mgmt was on board, line mgt and workers were on board. BUT, middle management didn't like change and stopped it cold (maybe they felt threatened). And TQM at my company quietly faded away. I learned a powerful lesson from that.

I'm looking forward to reading about what you learned.

David Kenward - The Mental Coach