Buck Tradition or Risk Being Crushed By the Scope of Your Paradigm

Yikes! Sounds downright subversive, maybe even a wee bit scandalous to launch right into something at the outset, does it not? Very likely, this chapter 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 is not “too-much-caffeine” doing the talking. Seriously, it is time to act on the risks that threaten training as we know it, and I am not so much talking about Training –the “action” – as much as I am referencing the discipline of it – those of us who design, develop, and deliver it. The risk, as I see it, is clinging to traditions as the annual budget boat floods with disappointing training outcomes. If your response is, “Disappointing to whom?”, you may need to do a little bucking yourself.

Hope that was not too metaphorical for you, but I am seeing…and have been guilty of…rearranging deck furniture on the LMS Titanic myself. And yes, LMS stands for Learning Management System; often, the boat anchor we invested a million bucks in to ensure flotation of our training efforts. Sorry, I may have just crossed the line with that, but there is a point to my bluster. Too often we have hung our hopes on an amazing piece of technology to improve our training outcomes, when all we have succeeded in doing was improve our access…our ability to track…our ability to test…our ability to organize…and our ability to report on…training that still did not sustain improved human performance in the workplace. My point…technology is not a solution to a restricted paradigm.

If you look back and reread that really long sentence in the last paragraph, the key phrase is not “improved human performance in the workplace”; though, who among us would argue that that is indeed what we promise our business stakeholders and our senior leadership? And therein lies that “risk” I mentioned at the beginning. I see it as a “risk” because there comes with it implications of delivering something we cannot. My position is that we need to deliver more. What, you say, could be “more” than the lofty goal of improving human performance? I am finally [and it took some time] convinced that our deliverable should be “sustained” human performance outcomes. We need to deliver more than a spark of performance improvement and instead stoke a fire of performance in the furnace that keeps on burning.

We have all seen evidence of a positive spike [spark] in performance after a training event. How many of those “spikes” are sustainable? I have seen more tail off than the ones that hang in there and maintain performance at a high level. Was that the fault of poor quality training? Did the million dollar LMS investment fail us? Were the classroom instructors bad? Was the Flash development in the on-line course crappy? How could this be the outcome when Level 1 evaluations were averaging near fives across the board? Level 2 evaluations confirmed every participant “got it” when they passed their final test, survived an intense role play, nailed a demonstration, and smoked the simulation. How could training with success metrics that good, that visible, and that consistent be guilty of not sustaining performance?

The questions I put on the table above are the wrong questions. Why wrong? Because to answer them we wind up hunkering down and reflecting a paradigm that we [Training] have built, positioned, postured, sold, justified, defended, and reinforced in the eyes of our stakeholders for so long that they actually bought it. Unfortunately, we bought it too. The really sad part is when we are as stunned by human performance dropping off after an amazing training program as are our stakeholders. And when that happens, stakeholders look at us and ask, “So…why does your training suck so bad?” Hey, wait a minute, did they just get all up in my face and call my baby ugly? Yup…and your paradigm is about to crush your employment status too.

Hah! Yeah they did call our baby ugly, and what does that trigger in us but to hunker down in the mode of posturing, justifying, and defending and yada…yada…yada. Who knows we might even consider re-writing the training to make it more effective. We might even consider delivering more of it. No, wait, here is a better idea, we need to convert it to e-learning and plug it into that million dollar boat anchor we just bought. Shorter transaction. Easier access. And hey…we can track the crap out of it. Now that shapes a strategy that will certainly be better for everyone. Not.

Sure, my sarcasm is way obvious, but trust me when I say I drank that same Kool-Aid for many of the years I have been in this corporate learning business. So…now that you have my confession, you must know that I am not picking on you or condemning you in any way. I am trying to make a case for Change, and that is going to take bucking a tradition or two and busting a few paradigms along the way. As a matter of annual training budget viability, we have no choice. We are as wrapped around our training paradigm as the stakeholders we support, and we have done it to ourselves. The cost of perpetuating this paradigm can be more than any of us are willing to pay.

I am one of many poster children not willing to pay the price and yet having to face it head on. I am a product of a down-sizing event that happened out of the blue, and at a moment that made absolutely no sense. Being in good standing, I was not a victim of failures; rather, I fell victim, along with several other highly-evaluated performers, to the persistence of a traditional training paradigm badly in need of an evolution. Blame for what happened cannot be directed at a person, a department, or an organization; instead, it falls squarely upon the limitations of a restricted learning mindset.

Why did I choose to use the word “evolution” over using “change”, especially when I will often suggest that Change […and I will capitalize it because it is that big of a deal] will be a constant companion? I used “evolution” because it respects the current paradigm enough to avoid trying to change it completely. That position is not evidence of me having a pro-training bias as much as it is confidently making the statement, “Training doesn’t suck – it’s just not enough!”

Permit me to set a little more context around this concept that we have an evolution before us. Before I do, I must reiterate the point that I am not anti-training. If I must carry a label, let it be that of being pro-performer outcomes. That said; let us go back to the training conversation. Take heart. Our LMSs are doing exactly what they are supposed to do. Our training programs are as effective as training can be. We are as good on platform delivering training as the best trainers can be. Our Flash programming sizzles with the best, and our Level 1s and 2s speak an undeniable truth and that truth we can defend to the death…or to the moment of an unanticipated down-sizing…whichever comes first. We can honestly say this – “Training delivered!” No puns, please. This is our truth, but it is simply not enough to save our bacon…spoken confidently by one who has recently had his bacon drop-kicked through the window of opportunity.

Our training did not suck. Trainers did not fail. Designers and developers did not render an inferior product. The LMS fulfilled its technology role. Within the domain of what Training was scoped and chartered to deliver – it did – and it did it with flying colors. The impasse we are confronted with is by our own doing. We sold the idea that training was going to improve performance. Well…it did…for a little while. Our training did not appear to suck…at first, but somebody needed to take the blame, and Training gets the nod because we told our stakeholders [with conviction] that taking this training would improve workforce performance. We did not say anything about sustaining workforce performance, plus, our stakeholders did not ask for sustainability. So whose fault is that?

Sustainability was not part of the promised outcome. Ah, but wait a second, neither was a short-term spike in performance. While it is true it was not part of the request, should we consider sustainability as an unspoken implication? My position is that we absolutely should, and unfortunately, that deliverable is out of scope for Training outcomes. Why? Sustainability manifests well downstream and well after the point where our current charter draws our line of completion…and a job well done. We delivered, we evaluated, and we checked the box of completion. Done. Next?

We need to look closer at where that line of completion is drawn because it plays the dual role of both hiding and exposing the fallacy of our paradigm. I say sustainability is out of scope not because it is irrelevant, but because it does not happen during training, and, to be perfectly honest, training is not and cannot be designed to deliver sustainability when the scope and charter are so restricted. Sustainability cannot be “in scope” because it is not part of the training transaction, and it is not a direct outcome of training either. Sustainability is an outcome that is a process of attainment over time, it is an evolution from incompetency to mastery-level competency, and that is a process that no training class or on-line event can deliver as an end-product.

Certainly, we contribute to that evolution with top drawer training events, and million dollar LMSs that provide company, regional, or world-wide access to sizzling hot e-learning courses. We need to recognize that we only deliver formal learning transactions via events whether through live instructors, or self-paced e-learning, or some exotic blend.  Those deliverables are tucked firmly within our scope, and we nail them consistently. The problem is that consistent delivery at a transactional level happens in a safe, controlled, structured, pre-meditated learning environment that is over and done with before any human performance has the chance to take place in the work context. Work contextwhere real, tangible, performance impacts operations and generates bean-counter-accepted evidence of sustainable business outcomes and value.

What does an evolved scope need to encompass results that far downstream and “out of scope“? Hang in, that is exactly where we are headed. Before we leave this chapter though, take note of that bold-faced phrase in the last paragraph. If there were only two words I could use to define the foundational premise for what is driving the need to evolve training, they would be – Work Context. When I speak at conferences, this phrase is often the only thing I will silently write down on a flip chart page in big letters, and then I turn and encourage those who really do not like to take notes, “Do me a favor and write these two words down because they are the point of destination for all the changes I will spend the rest of my time talking about.” So…to my readers, break out the highlighter and burn two words worth of highlighter juice. Work context will hopefully become part of your lexicon and fuel your evolution.

Thoughts?  This might be Chapter 2…

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