Will more training really fix that problem?

When things go wrong, it is common to see training proposed as the first (and often only) response. I can understand this — training courses come with an obvious KPI (number of people trained), they can often be cheap if provided internally, and they are readily procured from external suppliers if necessary. Most significantly, if the organisation provides training, the blame for errors (or just poor performance) can be placed more securely on the shoulders of the people doing the job.

But, often, people commit errors after having been trained. They perform poorly even when they demonstrably know and understand what they are supposed to do. More training cannot fix this problem. Something else is needed.

Enlightenment on Calton HillThis is not a new issue. Oddly, though, very few organisations seem to want to grapple with it. The default response, again and again, is to lay on a training course.

Some years ago, Harold Jarche provided clear guidance to those facing this situation. In a post dating from February 2005, he turns the issue on its head. Rather than concentrating on the manifestation of a problem (people performing poorly), he advises looking more closely at the system itself — what is the cause of poor performance. The post includes a really clear (and simple) flow chart to help diagnose the appropriate response. Tellingly, it concludes that “only a lack of skills and knowledge warrants training.”

Harold’s flow chart also contains the reasons why organisations fall back on training unnecessarily often — the alternatives require at least a small amount of change. Those include changes to the way jobs are done (tweaking processes or removing obstacles) or to performance regimes. Ultimately, there may be repercussions for the individual, but only once organisational changes have been tried and the results tested.

Harold expands on the need to address barriers to performance in a later blog post (together with a number of resources linked from it). Whenever I hear someone demanding training to fix a problem, my mind turns to Harold’s advice. As long as training is seen as a cure-all, the fundamental problems underlying poor performance are unlikely to be resolved.