Developing People: The Bane of “Training”

I frequently receive calls from prospective clients who seek “training” of some sort. The requests include Lean overviews, problem-solving workshops, value stream mapping training, and the like. Targeted participants range from the frontlines to executives. But there are typically three problems during these calls.

  • Unclear learning objectives. Much of the time when I ask, “What do you want the training participants to be able to do immediately following the training?,” I’m met with silence. After I probe a bit deeper, I’m usually able to articulate what I hear them asking for. It’s important for both learning providers and requestors to have a clear understanding of what the participants will gain from the learning activity. Without the goal in mind, it’s impossible to create curriculum that will deliver. Seeking clarity in this area often reveals the second issue.
  • Unrealistic expectations. Most people are significantly off-base when it comes to determining what it will take to accomplish defined learning objectives. This is true even of the people in those departments that are dedicated to staff development, such as HR, OD and training. I spend much of my time in the early part of these calls delivering bad news: “What you seek is simply not possible in that timeframe and in this format.”

The education model that we’re indoctrinated into from pre-school forward has created the   paradigm that learning takes place in a classroom. But while people can learn principles, theories, and the mechanics of performing a task in a classroom, the real learning occurs outside the classroom through applying content over and over. This is where practice comes in, which lead to the third problem in most development programs.

  • No coach. Once outside the classroom, people need someone to turn to as they begin applying what they learned in the classroom. Even well-designed classroom activities are no match for the real world and, as the “student” begins experiencing different conditions (people, systems, issue complexity, etc.) than the classroom can provide, he will need someone at this side to provide guidance. Yet most training programs don’t provide for post-class coaching from a person who’s highly skilled is being developed. This is like taking one or two piano lessons and hoping to become a concert pianist with no additional guidance from a skilled pianist.

The following graphic from my book, The Outstanding Organization (p. 115) illustrates the nature of progressive learning from gaining awareness about a topic/skill to achieving mastery – a process that typically takes 10 years (10,000 hours of deliberate practice). So expecting high degrees of proficiency after classroom training–especially without engaging a coach to deepen learning–sets a learner up for failure. It’s disrespectful.

Stairs showing progressive learning from novice to master.

So what do I do with calls like this? And what should you do? First, recognize that classroom training does indeed have its place. It’s an efficient way to expose a lot of people to concepts quickly. But realize it’s limitations and provide “countermeasures” for this reality.  Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Coach requestors to help them clearly define learning objectives. Encourage them to complete sentences, such as: “At the conclusion of this session/workshop/program, participants will be able to….” Encourage them to use the term “development” (the end state) versus “training” (only one of many means to achieve the end).
  • Match the length of the program to the learning objectives–or alter the learning objectives to match the time available for training. (The latter option occurred yesterday–the caller wanted to train improvement facilitators in two days; I helped him narrowing define learning objectives that are realistic for a two-day program (skill development in only 3 areas, not the 7 he originally asked for).
  • Offer content that’s activity rich. There should be FAR more “doing” than “listening.” Application of concepts is key. Use multi-media as well. Project-based programs are ideal for teaching more complex skills such as problem-solving and improvement facilitation.
  • Provide the means for immediate application. Workshop participants who learn the mechanics of value stream mapping in a classroom setting, for example, need to immediately create or lead the creation of a real value stream map.
  • Provide virtual or onsite coaching for a period of time after classroom learning. The coach’s role is to support learners as they build confidence (which is a precondition for competence), answer technical questions, help learners navigate tricky real-world conditions, and challenge learners to deepen their understanding and skills.

I encourage you to comment, ask questions, etc. to get a dialogue going. Learning is THE most important performance improvement and people development goal there is. And participating in that process is the most important responsibility there is. Let’s all vow to get better at it.

by Giselle reply


Thanks so much for this post. It’s timely for me because at present I’m designing a workshop series for 2013 and beyond and what you’re saying makes so much sense.

We all fall into the trap of the seductive – short training period, cram lots in, hope it’s retained. Or the alternative quick fix or quick solution strategy that we feel will get more customers to buy into our solution since we know that they prefer quick versus long and drawn out.

But this is NOT the issue is it? The real issue is whether change was effected and if the recommendation and learning were effective with the right support and facilitation to ensure transfer.

Your suggestions will encourage both sides to THINK through the requirements (the buyer and seller of services) and then if something really would take six months then by George say so instead of trying to do the impossible in one week!

I appreciate your point of view

With gratitude


    by Karen Martin reply

    Thank you, Giselle, for your comment. I’m glad the post resonated with you. By George, classroom training rarely produces the results the unsuspecting assume it will! All the best for a fun and productive 2013!

by Patrick Phillips reply

Great post. I love how you’ve framed this. I would add too that leaders who expect to take the journey will need to practice Gemba or something like it in order to keep the transformation going. Do you find even if they have a goal they look at training as kicking off a change project or do see it as something much larger, cultural if you will?

    by Karen Martin reply

    Thank you, Patrick, for your comment. In my experience, many leaders confuse “training” with “proficiency development” and then are surprised when they don’t realize the results they expect. Many leaders erroneously believe that it’s their staff who are the problem– that if they just learn the tools, all will be well. In reality, leadership thinking and behaving most certainly need to change in order to support transformation. Learning to regularly go to the gemba is only one of the many leadership behaviors that are necessary to support a transformation.

by Tunde Olugbodi reply

Reading this in 2023. Thank you for it.
I am looking to start a People Development programme, educating people on real life practical ways to get their life in order, to become more effective at work & at home.

Any tips?

    by Karen Martin reply

    Hello Tunde – Thank you for your comment. That’s a very broad topic. Before I begin projects, I like to always start with “what problem(s) am I trying to solve?” For whom are they problems? How big are they? How frequent are these problems? Etc. That way your “solution” is far more likely to be effective.

    There are many, many books and online resources re personal productivity. For business, we have an online Academy –

    I hope that helps. Best wishes for great sucdess!


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *