In the late 70s, I signed checks for a total amount of $10 million when I directed a USAID project to train thousands of elementary school teachers in Liberia. Our training efforts slowed down when my local counterparts were decapitated. We hung around for several more months, spending more and more money until the coups and countercoups forced us to evacuate.
From this experiential episode, I learned that training cannot be isolated from the social upheavals in the rest of the world. I learned to look at training in a total system approach. I did not experience other similar disasters later in my training career. But I did experience several other ways to waste large sums of money from training budgets.
Here's a list of ways in which we can throw money into useless activities associated with training.
1. Analysis and Planning
Conventional wisdom. Invest resources in thoroughly analyzing all factors related to the training situation before beginning the design activity. Conduct a needs analysis, task analysis, concept analysis, content analysis, learner analysis, systems analysis, and other appropriate analyses. Come up with a detailed plan that includes objectives, methods, and design specifications. Stick to this plan as you progress through design and development.
Reality. Excessive analysis contributes to dysfunctional paralysis. Eighty percent of your analysis has a mere 20 percent utility. Depending on which specific media and methods you are using, much of the initial analyses become irrelevant. You cannot conduct a meaningful analysis unless you know what media and methods you will be using.
Recommendation. Begin your design activity as soon as possible. Implement rapid prototyping strategies. Conduct just-in-time and just-enough analyses while you actually design the training program.
2. The Finish Line
Conventional wisdom. Emphasize learning objectives and training topics. Your job is to make sure that all learners understand and recall all key concepts and issues.
Reality. As my friend Cal Wick points out, the finish line for training is reached not when the clock shows 5:00 pm on the last day of the workshop but when learners produce business results. The most important requirement for effective training is the transfer and application of the new skills to the workplace.
Recommendation. Focus on business results. Align the training goal with these results. Make sure that all training content and activities are aligned to the business results. Provide suitable follow-up activities (such as coaching, networking, and communities of practice) to ensure transfer and application.
3. Content is not the king
Conventional wisdom. Focus on creating and disseminating significant amounts of content. Come up with more content, the most up-to-date content, and the most authoritative content. Modify the content to make sure that it is relevant to your specific situation. If the original training does not stick or if it does not produce business results, give your learners still more content.
Reality. More content does not produce more competencies. Information overload produces confusion, anxiety, and indecision. Most of the content that the learners need are available on the job in various forms.
Recommendation. Avoid the data-dump approach of presenting an enormous amount of content. Present a few important evidence-based pieces of content and spend training time to ensure that participants can process the information and apply them to real-world situations.
4. Information Please!
Conventional wisdom. Focus on presenting information. Deliver the information in an attractive and attention-getting fashion.
Reality. As my friend Stolovitch says, "Telling ain't training". Being subjected to death by Powerpoint can be hazardous to learning.
Recommendation. Design activities that require processing of need-to-know information.
5. Multimedia Spectacular
Conventional wisdom. Invest time and money in producing slick media materials. Participants are used to watching TV shows and animated computer graphics and reading five-color brochures. They have high expectations for production quality. So use the latest technology and the most attractive layout for your training materials.
Reality. As my friend Richard Clark points out, it is not the production quality but the instructional design quality that contributes to effective instruction. For example, a fancy television documentary may not produce any more effective learning than an inexpensive handout. Also, most non-print media take a longer time to produce and much longer time to revise than paper and pencil approaches. Sophisticated graphics and animation may actually distract people from learning.
Recommendation. Use the least expensive and most portable medium for training. In most cases this turns out to be paper and pencil.
6. Passive Learning
Conventional wisdom. Avoid all activities. Adult learners don't like silly games and interactive exercises. They don't want to waste time in discussions with other participants who are as ignorant as they are. Just present them the important facts and they will figure out how to use them.
Reality. People learn only when they actively process and apply the information they receive. Real learning requires interaction with the content, with cohorts, with the facilitator, and the real world.
Recommendation. Spend your training dollar on designing activities rather than on designing content.
7. Activity Abuse
Conventional wisdom. Use a lot of activities. Load your training program with fun activities. Intersperse an activity during every 20 minutes of your training. As long as they keep the participants engaged and moving around, it does not matter if the activities are of questionable relevance. Spice up your training with icebreakers and energizers.
Reality. Activities are useless unless they are directly related to the training content and objectives. Irrelevant activities may actually distract participants from important learning points.
Recommendation. Align activities with the training content and objectives. Make sure that all the content that you present are applied to relevant training activities. Present just-in-time and just-enough content immediately before an activity (as a briefing presentation) or immediately after an activity (as a debriefing discussion).
8. Testing, Testing
Conventional wisdom. Ignore assessment activities. Don't waste the participants' time by testing their mastery. Adult learners can evaluate their own progress. There is no need to embarrass them with frequent tests.
Reality. Testing should be an integral part of the training process. Participants need continuous and objective feedback about their progress.
Recommendation. Incorporate frequent tests throughout the training activity. Conclude your training session with a final performance test. Provide strategies for participants to assess their own ability to apply the new knowledge and skills to the workplace.
9. Follow the Script
Conventional wisdom. Deliver the training program in a reliable and consistent fashion. Structure all presentations around a set of slides and all activities around a list of steps and rules. Train your trainers not to deviate from the standard script.
Reality. Each group of adult learners is different from every other group. Adults bring different types and amounts of previous experience. They also have different needs and learning styles.
Recommendation. Train and encourage your trainers to flexibly modify all training content and activities to suit the needs and preferences of each group of participants. Select trainers for their facilitation and improvisation skills. Make use of these skills in your training delivery.
10. Beyond Smile Sheets
Conventional wisdom. Focus on Level I evaluation. Make sure that participants enjoy the training session give the instructor a high rating on the smile sheet.
Reality. Anything that is less than Level IV evaluation (that measures business results due to training) is hypocrisy. In some cases, there is no correlation between Level I evaluation and Level IV evaluation. Worse still, there is a negative correlation indicating that courses that make participants happy do not necessarily make them more competent or productive. The only evidence of effective training is whether participants produce desirable and measurable business results.
Recommendation. Plan a level IV evaluation of your training course from the very beginning. Let this evaluation dictate the scope and sequence of your training design. Even if you are not able to conduct this evaluation because of time and cost restraints, behave as if some third party is going to evaluate the return on investment of your training program.