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When Training is Not the Solution

People talking around table

Just about anyone who designs learning experiences has asked for help with the following problems:

“We don’t have enough people to do all this work!”

“We don’t have the right tools and resources!”

“Our employees have low morale!”



And the assumed solution is usually, “Let’s make some training courses!”

Traditional training courses are the solution many organizations tend to default to when trying to solve these kinds of workplace problems. However, training is not always the best option. Without a needs analysis, a design that focuses on what people need to actively do on the job, or opportunities for authentic post-training practice, traditional training often falls flat.

The Association for Talent Development reports that US companies spent $1,200 per employee on training and development last year, amounting to about 30 hours each. The biggest mistakes that companies make when rolling out training programs is failing to evaluate how well employees have learned, assuming technology will solve all training problems, and not providing proper post-training support, according to Eduardo Salas, professor of organizational psychology at University of Central Florida.


Collaborative Learning Network Discussion

At our recent Collaborative Learning Network session, “When Training is Not the Solution,” our group of training and development professionals talked about reasons why traditional training sometimes fails:

  • The organization doesn’t offer post-training support.
  • Training is thought of as an “event” and not a “process.”
  • Needs were not properly assessed.
  • A box is being checked.
  • The business doesn’t support a culture of learning.
  • There’s too much content and not enough practice.
  • The delivery method doesn’t match the learners’ needs.

We discussed how to answer the question, “Is this a problem that training can solve?”

  • Clearly define the objectives.
  • Focus on what to do, not what to
  • Talk with stakeholders about the dynamics of the content.
  • Tie all ideas for learning to the business/performance needs.
  • Evaluate what’s already been done and what the results were.
  • Ask, “If there were no money for training, how else would you solve the problem?”

Our group reviewed Cathy Moore’s “Is Training Really the Answer?” flow chart—a great tool for deciding how to create learning materials that actually address workplace problems.

So what happens if you, as the training professional, discover that traditional training is not the best path? We talked about strategies for managing the conversation when it’s been assumed that a training course is the way to go:

  • Consciously avoid “training” as the default. Start with the problem at hand, and work backwards from there.
  • Compare cost with expected outcomes.
  • Tie possible solutions to the problem at hand; sometimes the solution is much simpler than you think.
  • Focus on behavior change and the stakeholder’s ultimate goals.
  • Categorize “wants” vs. “needs.”


Case Studies

We split into small groups and focused on six different case studies. In the example that follows, this group’s fictitious client was “Delilah’s Catering Company.” In this scenario, the client came to the design team with “We need training!” based on the following reasons:

  • Their current training program is way too long (two weeks) and expensive.
  • People say their training is boring.
  • Some less experienced staff are not showing progress after being trained in their food service class.
  • Their profits haven’t gone up in five years.

We asked the group to consider the following questions. Here’s how they answered them.

What can you ask to determine if training is the right solution?

What parts of your current training are “boring”?
What do your employees need to do after the training?
Why are the employees not doing this now?
What are their knowledge/skills/motivations?
What is there environment like?

Based just on what you know right now, what other possibilities come to mind besides standard classroom or online training?

Job aids
Training broken into manageable chunks

How would you go about digging deeper to make sure your recommendations are solid?

Focus groups
Job shadowing
Learner demographic analysis
Finding how they’re currently measuring success

In all six scenarios, the groups addressed the clients in similar ways: focusing on the actual problems, doing a thorough analysis through discovery, and keeping open minds when proposing solutions.

The CLN group walked away with new ideas and insights for approaching this common issue in our work.


We want to hear from you. Tell us about your experiences when you knew traditional training was not the right solution for your learners. What did you do? What was the result?

Check out our co-founder Jillian Douglas’ interview with Justin Foster of Foster Thinking in his 6th episode of the Bacon Coterie series.

“Jillian is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Idea Learning Group in Portland, OR.  With the growing emphasis on customized learning in the workplace, Jillian and her team are true innovators on creating memorable learning experiences for companies. Jillian is an interesting, funny, smart and driven person who I could visit with for hours!” – Justin Foster

Thanks Justin!

Unlearning What We Think We Already Know About Learning

We’re on a mission to improve the way people learn at work! Traditional training is designed with a distinct start, distinct end, and is delivered over a fixed number of hours. However, learning doesn’t actually work that way.

Our approach is to create conditions for learning to take place over time, allowing learners to internalize and develop new ways to integrate what they’ve learned into their work. Some examples include:

  • Deep inquiry into business culture to effectively align with training material
  • Road maps that outline training strategies into multiple phases
  • Realistic situations that build context and encourage learners to relate to the material and draw new connections
  • Multiple ways to obtain information, such as through eLearning, job aids, and live classes
  • Self-directed learning opportunities to explore and experiment with content

Learning is an experience, not an event—often with multiple starts and stops. By confining content and instruction to a fixed time and space, limits are imposed on the entire learning process. The neuroscience of learning shows that learners need repeated exposure to concepts to process, absorb, and understand information.

Until recently, the common assumption was that our brains, like the rest of our bodies, stopped developing when we became adults. We believed that neural cell generation—or neurogenesis—was not possible after childhood. We now know that neurogenesis can take place, although to a lesser extent, throughout adulthood.

The study of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change as a result of new situations and experiences, is revealing fascinating findings that can be applied to the learning environment. Not surprisingly, these findings suggest that our brains are wired to learn through experience to adapt to our environments.

For the latest articles and insights into brain science and learning, be sure to tune into Jillian’s collection on ScoopIt.

Tweeting live #CollabLearn: Training Techniques for Introverts

New to Collaborative Learning Network this month: participate or follow our live tweets @CollabLearn on twitter.

NEW BUSINESS Contact us with business inquiries or to discuss your project needs and vision.
CAREERS We always enjoy connecting with talented professionals in the learning and development field.
CONNECT 503.208.3256
LOCATION 2701 NW Vaughn St #103
Portland, OR 97210

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