The Radicalization of Sales Training Starts @ the Edges

Reflecting on this choice of title, I can imagine some rather extreme images springing forth in the minds of long-time sales training purists. I say this with confidence because the topic of facilitating learning at the edges of the ecosystemhas freaked out both platform trainers and instructional design professionals before. Yeah, and yours truly was that source of disruption – and more than once. Several colleagues actually questioned if the time had come to update their resumes. In my no-longer-humble-opinion, if sales training does not step up…make that…step out to the edges of the learning ecosystem, training budgets will continue to shrink and those resumes will need updated anyway. My thinking around this radicalization of training becomes more urgent by the day, and the only thing that gets blown up is a paradigm or two.

As our economy re-awakens, urgency soon will be routine for many businesses. Some are already feeling it and responding with urgent [and additional] work demands on an over-extended workforce. The velocity of business demands will continue to increase and hiring will likely follow, though reluctantly. These are all good signs, and we have been waiting for them to manifest for a couple of years now. I have to ask though, “Where are we headed with this reawakening?” And another question, “Are we headed back to business as usual…are things going back to normal?”

I think we are going to see a new “normal” characterized by a velocity like we have never experienced. To meet the demands of urgency at the hands of this velocity, new learning technologies are going to play an expanded role in driving sales force effectiveness – and this has nothing to do with the LMS. I’ll get to that in a minute.

While hiring will increase, I am not convinced headcount is going to be replaced one-for-one with pre-recessionary levels. So, here we go with “doing more with less”. And why not? Productivity is up and head-counts are already down. If anyone is going to hire, they want a direct correlation to productivity. So no, work demands will not be “normal” anymore. Why on earth would we think normal might apply to anything else – especially our approach to training? We have already proven we can get the job done with fewer people, and the increase in technology deployments show why.  That leads me to where Training is now and where Training needs to be in the realm of learning technology. When we look at our sales force we have to ask, “Are we equipping them to be effective at their moment of need?”

The answer to this should have Training [big “T”, as in department, not little “t” as in the act of…] more than a little concerned. If the velocity of business operations is going to accelerate – if the rate of hiring and onboarding are going to accelerate – if the introduction of new technology is going to spike training demand – if new products are going to hit the sales funnel – there should be significant concern. This concern is not only a supply/demand concern; it is a question of creating sustained capability in the workforce. From effectively onboarding newbies to addressing constantly changing of product portfolios and evolving competitive challenges, we have every reason to be concerned. Traditional training methods of classroom and/or on-line venues cannot meet the sustainability demands that flow from the need of supporting sustainable, agile, workforce capacity…that translates to “doing” the work…and we would hope for “doing” it flawlessly.

Training will do what training does best – impart knowledge and skills. Imparting knowledge and skills do not translate exclusively to building sales force capacity. Knowing “how to sell” and having the “capacity to sell” are radically different. However, it is absolutely critical that both exist. This co-existence is what those most freaked out by this implied Change in Training mission are not grasping. Training is still important. The reality is, it is no longer enough, and that is because workforce capacity is manifest downstream in the post-training work context. “Downstream” is beyond the scope of traditional approaches to Training.

Moving downstream requires a new “design-think”. I built the PDR Learning Continuum framework to address this expanded scope, where Training efforts facilitate the continuous nature of learning. This continuum concept takes the 5% that we now address through formal training efforts and adds in the 95% of non-training opportunity in the post-training environment where the business stakes are real and tangible. Business risk associated with failure to execute flawlessly in the work context becomes a key driver we cannot overlook when designing learning assets. Why? The rules of engagement have changed!

Learning moments of need have converged with work. In reality, this convergence is nothing new; Training simply concentrates focus and resources [up to 80%] upstream on the formal learning venues like classrooms, workshops, on-line courses, virtual/distance learning, webinars, and such. Again, these are not wrong, they are just not enough if we truly seek sustained performance outcomes. Our existing upstream training paradigms do not have the scope to align with or accommodate the volatile attributes of the workflow. Our learning assets we develop cannot meet the immediacy of workflow attributes, nor do they possess the learning agility necessary to resolve dynamic learning moments of need.

To be honest, Training was never chartered to go downstream and into the work context. Our traditional approaches are going to fall short.  Our approaches do not embrace, nor are they integrated into the concepts of business process. Why not? This is the workflow where we expect flawless execution. When we experience gaps in performance, we train folks. If that does not work, we train them some more, or we blame the training for being less than effective. If we are going to expect effective sales performance, we have a call to action to get into the business processes of selling – not the theory of the workflow – I converge learning assets and those learning moments that surface on the job. For all intents and purposes, we are not training at all – we are guiding sales reps through a work context in real time.

That concept is a foreign paradigm and is a point known to freak out even the best trainers and designers. It has been my experience that advancing the application of learning technology has them fearing their employment status most of all. I do not think we have a choice. The sales force equipped with the greatest degree of learning agility is going to be the most effective in the field – their work context.

It goes back to that concept of convergence I mentioned earlier. New technologies enable convergence of learning with Business Process Guidance (BPG). I must quickly add that frameworks like BPG and technologies are not the answer in and of themselves. The secret sauce is Training recognizing the expanded role they must play in the downstream work context. No other business entity is better equipped to go there. But, and this is important – do not go into the work context to TRAIN. What our sales force needs is not training down there. They need a Learning Broker. Training’s mission becomes one of discovery – learning where a sales representative is going to have a learning moment of need. Is it across the desk from a prospect where a six-figure deal hangs in the balance? Is it during a phone conversation where an inside sales rep must resolve an issue in order to retain a long-time client?

In either of these cases, training is not the solution, and yet Training needs to have a presence at ground zero [the work context] if they have a prayer to understand what is impeding flawless performance. Maybe my passions around performance consulting have poisoned my well of thought, but this is not a knowledge or even a skills issue – it is the effective application of one or both in the domain of the work context.

The mission and scope for Training has to change to meet those rules of engagement.

The mission expands to include identifying root causes behind performance gaps and sorting out what is trainable from what is not.

The mission is putting the power of learning into the hands of the learner by supporting a continuous learning environment.

The mission treats the sales environment holistically [edge-to-edge] as a dynamic learning ecosystem.

This truly blows up existing training paradigms. Now we are defining expanded “edges” that extend well beyond current scope of training charters. This is an expansion, not a replacement. In reality, a learning ecosystem is and always has been right under our noses, but our focus has only been on the formal learning components of it. We are now addressing the informal learning components and they often have little, if anything, to do with typical training methodologies. And then there is the implication of what technology do we use.

True, we may or may not have our million dollar LMSs tracking training, and they may or may not yet integrate with HR talent subsystems like performance management, or competency management, or succession planning. And yes, all of those systems are mission critical for the larger organizations. Before dropping the first dime on a new LMS, I find myself prompted to position two downstream questions that beg for an answer:

  1. Where is Training down in the work context where performance failures carry a price tag of business liability, excessive costs, material waste, redundant efforts, and loss?
  2. Why is there such an acute absence of Business Process Guidance (PBG) and Performance Support (PS) technology in this work context domain?

The first question sets up the premise that the second question solves. I am dumbfounded as to the answer to the second question when you consider BPG/PS technology and similar alternative solutions are a mere fraction of the investment of even a low-end LMS. When we look at ROI, we have to consider the role of revenue generated by actual human performance plays in the equation. We cannot make the connection between the LMS and the fact that no sales rep closes business in the classroom. No sales support person retains an at-risk client during an on-line training course. Return on investment is tangible when we see results generated downstream in the work context. That is where Training needs to be. Heck, bag the off-the-shelf technology and build a cheesy web services front-end that performs as a learning broker and can search a stash of learning objects purposefully designed to support workflows as they manifest moments of need in discrete downstream work contexts.

More confounding – if we make the investment, most BPG/PS investments provide positive payback in less than a year. I think back to all the pain and agony I went through to manufacture ROI for a new LMS for a company that never had one before. We managed to do it, but I must admit there was a little voodoo involved, and we cooked a few subjective numbers to get there. Conversely, BPG/PS has enough documented evidence of positive impact that it is astounding that Training continues to ignore this concept of downstream support where we render positive business impact – or we lose it outright.

Funny thing, vendors who sell this technology make it a practice to bypass Training and go straight to the operational and sales side of the business. Why? Because the operational side of the business understands…lives and dies…by minimizing or eliminating things like business liability, excessive costs, material waste, redundant efforts, and loss. The sales side of the business knows that the generation of revenue demands flawless execution in the sales work context. Training’s charter does not include playing in that sandbox. We may try sometimes, but we are not close enough to the edge. We need to be. The business needs us to be in that sandbox that is located at the edge of the ecosystem. Workforce capacity and sustained capability can only yield valid impact measurements when they are effective in that downstream sandbox.

If we holistically cover the entire learning ecosystem, including the edges where sales are closed and serviced; we have an environment where:

The right learners have seamless, frictionless and ubiquitous access to/from the right learning assets – at their moment(s) of learning need – in work context-friendly amounts – in compelling, readily-consumable formats – to/from the right devices.

That environment I just described is larger in scope than the limits of our current training paradigms. Methinks it is going to take some radical moves, some “blowing up” of training paradigms to get beyond where our responsibility ends today – finish your test – complete your evaluation – and then return to your workplace and hopefully do not screw anything up. Yeah, it is time for the radicalization of all training, but for Sales Training in particular, because performance in this sandbox makes or breaks revenue generation for the company.

What are you doing out on the edges of your learning ecosystem? Say what? Not sure where the edges are? Do not feel badly, as you are not alone. This is after all a new paradigm, BUT if your edges are defined by what learners  consume off the LMS and/or consume what is live delivery in brick and mortar classrooms or via distance learning – well…it may be time to get radical and blow something up, because you are leaving flawless performance and tangible business outcomes on the table.


Gary Wise

(317) 437-2555