The False Promise of Training as a Driver of Performance

Certainly, this title may sound like blasphemy to some of us in the training business. On the other hand, it may be even more of a shock to those who depend upon those of us in the training business to drive performance in the organization. Following is a deceptively simple formula that illustrates why a successful training solution may render a false promise of improved performance:

Value of Training  =  Performance Concept  –  Tactical Application

Okay, I confess to making this up, but from a level 3 & 4 evaluation perspective, the logic is surprisingly sound. I actually proved the formula’s viability through acquisition of a significant road scab and minor internal injuries while using roller blades. Trust me; this one is evidence-based. Looking back on that fateful day, I can laugh at that lesson in learning, but at the time of actual learning, it was not nearly as amusing.

The Pain of Knowledge and Skills Falling Short

Christmas that year was a joyous occasion for all. Yours truly was especially pumped as Santa heeded my wishes and delivered brand new roller blades. To credit his wisdom, I also received (thankfully) a helmet along with protective pads for knees, elbows, and hardened plastic wrist guards. With all that gear strapped on I looked very much like a rotund Robo-Cop and stood nearly seven feet tall from wheels to the top of my shiny new helmet; quite an imposing image to be sure.

Now that you have that visual in your mind’s eye, consider another variable – at the time, I weighed just south of 270 pounds. There is more to add to the impending doom by considering the attributes of the environment in which I learned my lesson. Add to that bulk an innocent looking five degree incline, wheels, and gravity. That my friends, is a recipe for disaster. Turns out it was, but not right away.

I gained the necessary knowledge and skills on how to skate earlier in life. Never mind that the skates had four wheels per foot and a key to attach them to my sneakers. The conceptual reality in my head logically surmised transferring the same tactics required for successfully using four-wheeled skates to a similar experience on inline skates should be an easy leap. Not so. In addition, the concept of “leap” took on a completely new dimension, as you will soon see.

Fully decked out in my unnecessary protective gear and a belly full of Christmas dinner, I decided it was time to make like a speed skater and whisk away into the night to work off the meal. The strategy of skating at night, mind you, was intentional to reduce the chances of anyone seeing me dressed in all this unnecessary safety gear. Skating up the incline as I left my cul-de-sac proved to be encouragingly uneventful. So far so good, I thought. Prior, self-taught knowledge and skills were still equal to the performance concept I had envisioned on my new skates. In addition, my tactical application was nearly flawless. I failed to factor in that going uphill facilitated controlled, locomotive movement and that particular application had little in common with streaking downhill and a completely new knowledge and skill set. Despite being a bit jerky at first, my uphill progress blinded me to the consideration that there was anything else to learn. My progress simply confirmed I knew what I was doing.

At the top of the hill, I turned to catch my breath and to revel in reaching the summit in one piece – not a nick on any of my unnecessary safety gear. The transition from what I remembered skating to be like to mastering these new inline skates proved seamless. Life was good. The climb left me a bit out of breath, and my heart pumped hard to digest a belly stuffed full of Christmas turkey. No matter, I rationalized, the ride home would be an easy process of skating…make that coasting…back down the grade to my cul-de-sac. Did I mention 270 pounds, wheels, and gravity?

I stepped to the edge literally and figuratively, and the laws of physics where force equals mass times the acceleration of gravity re-validated themselves in less than 200 yards downhill. Unfortunately, the cul-de-sac was about 200 additional yards away. This is where I learned that my performance concept (my expected performance) and the proficiency of my tactical application (the capability to perform flawlessly) were two variables I had never before considered as separate entities…at least not while I stood at the top of the hill admiring my inline skating prowess. To that point, the value of my onboard knowledge and skills matched the expectations of my performance…at least through the uphill part of my journey. Full of confidence…and turkey…I started downhill – enter Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein with another physics lesson.

I soon learned than an incline of 5 degrees, plus or minus a degree or two, was enough to invoke the acceleration of gravity on my 270 pound self. The wheels became lubricant between my highly mobile bulk and the slope of the asphalt surface of the darkened street. The first fifty to a hundred feet were glorious. I stood tall – hands on hips, shoulders back, and head held up high. Seven feet of fat man began to roll, picking up speed, though slowly at first. I thought to myself how cool this was and how cool I must look standing so tall on my new inline skates, wind blowing my jacket and scarf. This had to be a Norman Rockwell moment. Well, Norman’s moment lasted for about two hundred feet into what transitioned from a slow roll to a downhill plunge of panic.

The rapid acceleration startled me. I sensed an unseen force push me much harder than gravity should have pulled. The skates felt like they had motors on them because of how quickly I gained speed. The increasing velocity became a little disconcerting, and I quickly learned that disconcerted fat men tend to hunker down by instinct when they feel threatened. In so doing, I turned into five and a half feet of speeding fat man. Shortly after enacting the hunker down strategy, I realized I had just become more aerodynamic. Certainly, I moved closer to the ground, but sure as heck showed no signs of slowing down. Fear became my co-pilot. Never in all my years of skating had I achieved such velocity. Panic had not yet set its grip, in fact, I cannot be sure it ever did, because I rationalized that speed would eventually reduce as the road flattened out as it neared my cul-de-sac. Just hunker down and be patient. Good strategy. Poor implementation.

The skates began to shimmy, so I tightened the muscles in my lower legs in an attempt to control the rapid harmonic motion. No dice, it continued to increase. Then, the logic in my left-brain kicked in with a brilliant idea – if I could just jump up and re-align the skates parallel to the direction of my travel, the shimmy would stop, and all would be swell. That was the moment where I feel confident that I confirmed a definite gap between the performance concept (as my brain had figured it out) and the tactical application (the far from flawless execution of what I though would be a remedy). So, I leapt up into the air and did a quick mental assessment that so far was so good. It did not last.

When I touched down both skates made an immediate, angular left turn. Folks, you do not change the direction of a speeding, hunkered down, fat man abruptly under any circumstances. The abruptness of my skates darting to the left without the rest of me invoked yet another law of physics called inertia with a side order of momentum, and yes, gravity was still there too. Oh my, was it there too. What happened next would have been awesome to capture on super slow motion. My body rotated clockwise around the axis of my bellybutton. When the asphalt finally embraced my stupidity, I landed wrist, elbow, and head – in that order – followed by my rump. The belly full of Christmas turkey wrenched violently inside of me when my rump joined the first three body parts. If I had been equipped with an airbag, it would have deployed. Trust me when I say I came to a very sudden stop. Some of the skin off my right hip lay smeared on the road only six inches from the initial point of impact – a very sudden stop to be sure.

The asphalt felt cool against my cheek. The pain inside of me was one of those dull throbbing sensations that indicate something really, really bad may have just happened, and I wondered if I had ripped something loose. Unsure of my condition, I decided to just lie there for a while and see what else started to hurt. Damage control systems began to report in, and I mentally determined nothing had been broken except my theory that prior knowledge and skills about skating would be enough to get me home. My performance concept was indeed my own, and, theoretically, sound given the knowledge and skills I held confidently. My tactical application was way off the mark – far from flawless execution. The value of my knowledge and skills fell short as well.

Summary Thoughts

I share this (now funny) story as an illustration of a phenomenon many of us confront every day when our stakeholders ask us for training to drive improved performance. In their heads and hearts, training – the transfer of knowledge and skills – represents the solution to most any performance gap. I suppose, as training professionals, we have only ourselves to blame from all the training requests we have responded to so willingly. Do not get me wrong, being responsive is a good thing, but we cannot count on expertly rendering knowledge and skills through training as a promise to improve performance.

Knowledge and skills alone were enough to get me up the hill, but they were not sufficient to bring me back down safely. There were different environmental attributes within which I had to perform (my work context) the act of coasting back downhill at a high rate of speed. That work context introduced variables of urgency and risk that were not part of the plan. That is a perfect example of the fifth learning moment of need – when things go wrong – and not covered by my prior knowledge and skills.

To cover those unplanned moments of learning need, our jobs extend beyond the training role to that of supporting informal learning downstream from formal classroom or online transactions. Our design must consider tactical application in work context conditions beyond what we may be hard-pressed to simulate in the classroom. Our design must support tactical application in the actual work context where the learner must execute flawlessly including and/or anticipating the variables of risk and urgency that are nearly impossible to replicate in training.

Training is an essential component to continuous learning, and it always will be, but training, in and of itself, is no guarantee of sustained capability. It does us little good to train our knowledge workers in the knowledge and skills to reach the summit and not consider how to equip them to get back down safely. Until we, as professional trainers, can address all five moments of learning need, our design, development, and delivery efforts are at risk of falling well short of the cul-de-sac of flawless performance.

Gary G. Wise
Workforce Performance Advocate, Coach, Speaker 
(317) 437-2555
Web: Living In Learning