Buck Tradition & Bust a Few Paradigms

Sounds downright subversive, maybe even a wee bit scandalous does it not? Very likely, this title may imply behavior that is a little risky too. Personally, I think it is high time we view risk as a catalyst, not a restrainer…and that could be “too much caffeine” doing the talking. Seriously, it is time to act on the risks that threaten training as we know it. Please do not confuse passionate posturing of an idea with a radical rant, though what you read in this post has earmarks of both. So hang on! What set me off this morning was someone whining on one of the LinkedIn groups I frequent. They wondered why quality training was not respected by top management, and would it ever return to prominence, and how the economy had impacted budgets, dealing training a death blow…etc.…and off I went… .

My thoughtfully constructed answer exceeded the length parameters on LinkedIn, and breaking it up into two pieces ruined the continuity of the response, so I brought it here to the blog to share with you all. I did this because what I postured in my response is something I feel faces every training organization regardless of size or industry affiliation. I welcome dialog, inquiry and interest on this topic as it is central to my future plans.

So…my response…and I will not use the person’s name, instead I will use what my kids have confirmed is the proper moniker for addressing someone who has not yet seen the light. Here goes…

“Dude, this is an interesting question. [Make note of my attempt at diplomatic decorum despite being ready to knock over a table or two…]

I am not so sure quality training ever left. In my opinion, quality training finds itself out-paced by the velocity of business and demands for flawless execution in the context of work. The business environment has changed…not the quality of training. Top management is cutting back on training because what training delivers is not enough to ensure sustained capability. Some training organizations can only boast of “activity” based on “butts in seats”, hours spent in learning activities, volume/units of courses delivered, and high Level 1 scores. None of those indicators can accurately predict or sustain capability in the work context.

So why would top management fund a costly investment that is not validating its contribution to generation of value in the workplace? We need to be honest about being honest. Top management has not lost focus; they have lost confidence in training’s ability to deliver tangible value. With budget dollars requiring tangible return, why continue to fund a cost center that delivers nothing tangible? Dude, that decision has nothing to do with quality.

Back to my first point – the business environment has changed – to an environment where training cannot focus myopically on traditional delivery of quality training – or quality delivery bent on improving knowledge and skills. Neither accurately predicts tangible performance outcomes. The focal point therefore should shift to where tangible performance outcomes are actually derived – downstream from classrooms and on-line course and whatever blends we can think of – and should shift to a “new classroom” where our knowledge workers live…in their work context.

The volatility of our economy has done nothing more than shine the light on how competitiveness in the business world has spiked. Businesses must adjust by wringing contribution that drives competitive advantage from every corner of the organization. Every penny spent much register a return. In recessionary times, the economy dictates that all businesses must do more with less. The departments that make the cut to keep their budgets/headcount/jobs hinge on who among them brings the greatest return. It is simple math. Putting “butts in seats” like crazy and averaging 5’s on smile sheets and graduating workers with perfect scores on Level 2’s “ain’t doin’ it” for us.

This economy has changed the landscape underneath the feet of traditional training organizations and accelerated a phenomenon where we see an active convergence of the execution of work and our need to address moments of learning need. This often leaves traditional training standing in the front of the classroom wondering why their budgets just got whacked. They got whacked because they produce precious little evidence of tangible contribution to the business mission. Demonstration that a training department is crazy busy is not enough to protect budget dollars. The volatile economy and urgent demands of business are moving forward regardless of how high the quality of our training. The time is now for training departments to catch up – to re-invent themselves.

Business is continuous. Why would we serve up learning environments to our knowledge workers where opportunities to learn were not equally as continuous? Top leadership clearly does not see this as the solution. Who is to blame for this disconnect? Hah…we are! They have fully embraced the paradigm we sold them over the years. We convinced them that quality training was the path to high performance. And they bought it. We see evidence of their buy-in every day with leadership throwing training dollars at performance problems. If the performance problem is not resolved, the training must not have been high quality enough. Bull hockey! Maybe training had little or nothing to do with the root of the performance problem.

Key point: The failure they seek to fix did not take place in the classroom; it took place in the work context. Why then should anyone expect a solution to blossom outside of the work context? We [training] are constantly at the wrong dance. If we do not understand what is broken in the work context, we have no prayer of rendering a solution intended to impact performance. Second key point: None of this happens in the classroom. Doing what we have always done can be expected to give us what we have always gotten – and it “ain’t doin’ it” for us.

Yes, the economy has changed, and not just the financial maelstrom we face. We are in a knowledge economy. We need knowledge workers who can think and act based upon using good judgment. Where do we need this performance to take place? The classroom? Well…yeah…at first blush role play time…but where does it really matter? Bingo, in the work context…and where are training resources then? Oh yeah, they are back upstream in the classroom turning out the next batch of knowledge workers that cannot retain the training concepts long enough to apply them successfully. [Wow…that sounded very rant-like didn’t it?]

So what does training need to do differently? We need expanded skills and different competencies if we are going to venture downstream into the work context for answers. Discovery methods change and expand – ADDIE becomes quicksand with antiquated design methods that distract us from fully integrating attributes of the work context – ignoring drivers and restrainers of physical space and workflow proximity – ignoring influences of urgency and business risk that create human performance gaps and render less than flawless performance. Throw in awesome new enhancements to technology that efficiently and effectively support work context-based learning, and we quickly see that we are not only behind with our abilities and methods to appropriately apply the best technology, we are about to get lapped.

Training is NOT dead! Never will be, but it represents such a small piece of the total package – a holistic, dynamic learning ecosystem. Please hear me, this is not just new jargon to replace old words. To survive and thrive, the training organization must consistently contribute tangible evidence of sustaining capability in the workforce. Supporting the workforce in the work context implies a different approach where a Learning Continuum serves as a foundation requiring expanded skills and competencies and prudent application of Web 2.0 technologies and Learning 2.0 methods.

Dude, you have asked a great question that clearly highlights that we all are at a decision point. My answer may be more than you bargained for, but the wounds are fresh, and the momentum you feel is purely mine, and I am convinced now is the time for re-invention to take place. Do we work harder and hope quality training regains prominence in the organization, or do we re-invent our deliverables to move downstream and into the work context where our knowledge workers generate true value? Methinks it is the latter. Everything we knew and counted on for job security is in the rearview mirror. Our past glories will not sustain us as individuals or as training organizations. The future is in front of us. Are we willing to buck tradition and bust a few paradigms along the way? I am convinced we have no choice.”

And there you have it. Was that a rant or posturing an idea with a little passion mixed in? I admit that sometimes it is hard to tell the difference with me and the things I write. Quite frankly, I find it difficult to shake this vision of what it takes to build a learning ecosystem. Did you ever see “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”? I am the guy building the mud tower in my living room. Yeah, it really is that bad, just ask my wife. However, I am not alone with the visions of this innovative madness. Key vendors who are approaching critical mass of their own in this regard agree that I am spot on with this “speak”. So the tower only gets bigger…

This is a new day for traditional training organizations, and it is standing squarely in the grill of long-held traditions. Design methods and linear learning paradigms are not excepted from this new day either, standing fast with heels dug in and fingers wrapped tightly to storyboards as though flotation devices. I suppose that may be a good thing if their plan is to go down with the ship.

Oddly…well, maybe not so much…I speak often at conferences with clients across many organizations that resonate with this thinking about evolving to an ecosystem. Here is the odd part…the most likely contingent to turn a deaf ear are the training departments. It baffles me as to why this evolution is such a mystery within the very vortex where one would expect the most logical and effective implementation. Part of me thinks it is the stigma of introducing transformational change. I say this because the training organization’s paradigms are not the only ones that need “busted”. Corporate inclusion of an evolved training organization has to be part of the culture before an ecosystem can exist. I am convinced that this evolution cannot happen with the current portfolio of thinking, methods, competencies, or skills in place in some of our training organizations. For some, this evolution to a dynamic learning ecosystem will truly be a transformational change. For others it may only be a little fine-tuning. The question becomes one of discovering where your organization falls on that continuum?

The first step is defining your readiness to evolve. Being ready is a good thing, but being at a state of readiness makes good intentions actionable. If you or your leadership team would like to discuss this further, my calendar has suddenly opened up…hopefully for just a little while.

Take good care as we live in learning!

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