Critical considerations in training, learning and development interventions

Training and Learning and Development (L&D) interventions quite often generate great debate around efficacy in terms of intended results,  approaches, construct  and methodology, delivery design and content, needs and evaluation techniques, etc. Questions are forever being asked around what leads to desired results and outcomes, and what requires careful consideration to avoid failure? Over the past decade and half having seen many training programmes conceptualised, implemented, evaluated and reviewed across various contexts, ranging from management training, behavioural training, competency based training interventions, teacher training, youth training programmes, etc. I have found the following reasons are generally attributed to sub-optimal results of training if not complete or substantial failure of it

1. Poor structure of training/L&D  programme
2. Lack of accurate training needs analysis
3. Lack of post training support
4. Audiences not connecting with the trainer
5. Poor contextual fit and improbable practical application
6. Lack of individualised focus on participants
7. Poor or incongruous delivery style of the trainers
8. Lack of homogeneity among participants
9. Poor motivation of participants
10. Drawing resistance due to forced participation
There are many factors which impact the success and failure of training, learning and development interventions. But some (ten) of the fundamental factors which often are obscured and overlooked are as follows
1) Expectations – most people expect training to deliver instantaneous and complete transformations and competence, which is almost never the case. Of course if you are very narrowly scoping the intervention focusing on very few details as the case maybe in introducing simple processes or product attributes, you may meet expectations, but for most behavioural, perspective building, competence developing programmes this is generally not the case, especially around short term programmes. One must always remember that to understand the simplest of things often requires the greatest amount of time, experiences and efforts. So a good way of scoping the intervention in a lot of cases may be to aim for what is most important and spend as much time on it.
2) Viewing training as a complete solution for the learning and performance need – This is a mistake most managers make, even though there is growing understanding around the issue. Most people attempting to bring about performance change and affecting learning rely on training interventions as the solitary option, not recognising that there are many more variables involved and approaches required. Learning and performance are contingent upon a supportive and conducive ecosystem which takes time to create and delivers over time as well. This is why while commissioning training most managers make the mistake of defining outcomes and results which are not realistic to bring about with mere training interventions. An understanding of performance and human behaviour is critical for trainers/training and L&D managers.
3) Focus on preparing the learners, contextualisation for the individual participants – This is one of the most important steps that planners and trainers miss addressing. Generally this is a construct error, and is usually also the differentiating factor between great and average to poor trainers/training interventions. The best trainers/training and L&D managers know that it is important to make the participants receptive to the message and content of the training; once they have taken care of that, the rest is very simple.  Most average trainers try to do this on the go if at all, they merely use a very simple activity to tick the box of ice breaking and getting the candidates to think about what they are going to receive. That is really nearly not enough. This is also a part which is most important to remove the resistors to change, bias towards forthcoming content, creating trust and shared purpose and understanding.
4) Pre-structured and inflexible content – Most training programmes have pre-decided content, which is sequentially organised and structured to fill the duration of the training programme. This really means that certain important unresolved issues, which are emergent and require greater deliberation and addressing, are often dealt with and pushed aside. Often the reason stated for doing so is lack of time and it being beyond the scope of the programme. Generally these leave gaps in understanding and acceptance on part of the participants. This undermines the perception of efficacy of proposed applicability as it is not considering the environment and context of operation holistically.  Sometimes trainers/training and L&D managers need to be prepared to junk the training plan and content in order to engage participants and address important emergent issues and therefore even at planning stage this needs to be factored in.
5) Appreciation of diversity and uncertainty – Most training is based on the view that this is what the participants need and need to do or develop or become. The underlying conviction is that we know better, we know what you need and we want you to do this. What is not fully appreciated is the usefulness of the content for the audiences, ‘ours versus theirs’ need and/or priority, alternatives to what is being proposed (which could be as if not more useful), divergent views among the participants and respect for it, right of audiences to be and choose, acceptance of the fact that uncertainty pervades and underlies everything (all models, meanings and attributions are based on assumptions that involve uncertainty), etc.
Appreciating diversity and accepting uncertainty brings about a change in approach of trainers where they move from a position of higher ground to equal ground; where a trainer moves into a sharing mode rather than the sermon mode. This makes the connection to the audiences more real, the discussion more participatory and builds shared perceptions from which people can then move into agreement for action learning.
It is interesting that while in competency based learning especially in sensitive areas of operation where the objective of the trainer is to have zero variance in transmission of learning, trainers often see this as something that involves no uncertainty and scope for diversity of opinion. These are sometimes referred to as pilot checks or surgeons checklist. It is important to know that the underlying fundamentals in these areas also involve uncertainty, but since we have considered risks and choose not to take on those risks especially by people who are not in a position to alter the environment to mitigate those risks. Mostly specialists are the ones who push boundaries and undertake calculated risks based on necessity or to evolve understanding and practices in these areas. Since we don’t want anyone to undertake those risks without considering those in detail we choose to regiment those processes. But yet sometimes we also are introduced to effective new practice and understanding on the same issues sometimes by others with little experience and divergent views and need to be looking out for those.
It is not necessary that the prevailing or more widely accepted views are the best and most reliable. Experts and models are increasingly proving to be wrong as newer views are rapidly emerging and challenging truly entrenched and established models of understanding around almost everything. This is ranging from areas such as healthcare and understanding of human body and mind, to economic models and our understanding of scientific facts and understanding of the universe. It is interesting to see books such as ‘The end of certainty’ (Prigogine), ‘Wrong-why experts keep failing us’ (David H Friedman), ‘Unintended Consequences’ (Edward Conrad),’ The assumptions economists make’ (Schlefer) and a host of other views from various and almost every discipline or area of work which highlight on how the information or models we work with is fraught with uncertainty and prevailing views are partial at best if not wholly expert manipulation of perception.
6) Understanding of and sensitivity to human beings and behaviour – most trainers/training and L&D managers are subject matter experts with variable expertise in training delivery and related areas. They are generally limited by their understanding of the complexities of human behaviour. The best of these personnel constantly expand their understanding of human behaviour and use that to inform their practice. This has to be factored into both design and delivery elements of the training. It is interesting that an even more important omission made is the sensitivity to humans, quite often as trainers we have a job to do and that is the paramount objective, in that role as in management or any other job role we often forget that we all are human first and people ought to first be respected and understood as that before we decide to start discriminating them on the basis of their experience, job roles, attitudes, background, knowledge, receptivity to training and the trainer and behaviour.
7) The evaluation of training and the ROI approach to training – The perception of why training has not worked can often be created owing to how we choose to evaluate and communicate the results of the evaluation. Most training evaluation attempts to quantify impact through recording changed behaviour, impact on business results and ROI approaches (easily manipulated by those attempting to isolate the attribution to training), audience reactions, evaluating change in knowledge and/or competency (testing). In the end all of these in themselves or put together rarely ever capture the impact of training in relation to eventual performance. We are of course still free to choose any combination of these to satisfy or criticise stakeholders for it.  The reality is that the more we move from the realm of procedural to behavioural to beliefs and attitudes the more and more we deal with dynamism and interconnectedness of variables involved and the larger the number of variables with which we work; therefore the more indiscernible the impact of training. The game we actually end up playing is of building perceptions of and around training. This by no measure is indicated to undermine the importance of training and other learning and development initiatives the critical role it can play for growth and development of individuals, teams, organisations and society at large.
8) Appreciation and understanding of constraints of training interventions –Every intervention has a number of constraints; these may be in terms of scope, resources (time, funds, materials, space, etc), support and buy-in from others, training construct, etc. These are generally key factors while designing the intervention whereas is lost sight of while evaluating the impact and effectiveness of the training. It is important to keep track of the adjustments and compromises made at the outset and develop a shared understanding of the final design and expected outcomes and then use the intervention as an action research model to inform and modify subsequent approaches. This one is particularly interesting because it is greatly influenced by the paradigm you operate from, “is it one of achieving a result or of expressing and sharing?”
9) Alignment between various stakeholders – Training results are often viewed as successful or under-achieved based on different views of people involved. This again is predicated upon what paradigm one is operating from. A shared understanding and alignment is critical where it is more important to satisfy those decision-making or evaluation focused stakeholders whose perception at the end is important for the trainer or training company. Whereas training interventions which look at being more accountable to participants and are more driven by trainer conviction to share and express may not consider this as important for wider group of stakeholders, but are still important for those involved. In the latter case what becomes paramount is that the trainer belief, values, interests, convictions, words and actions are aligned and in harmony. It is very noticeable when trainers, also other people, are performing in areas which they feel passionate about they are in greater if not complete alignment and usually perform to a much higher standard than in areas which they don’t feel as passionate about and are delivered as a routine or job-demand.
10) Focusing on what doesn’t work or what does – While fear is considered to be a greater motivator for change many people believe desired results have a greater chance to be achieved if we focus on what does work. It is also considered better by an increasing number of trainers to focus on techniques like appreciative enquiry, using the ‘what you focus on expands’ maxim to bring about desired change. Of course while we are considering the ‘what’ it is equally if not more important to consider the ‘why’. Why do we even want to achieve what we want to achieve, a common technique of 5 whys to arrive at a deeper understanding is a good place to start I think, though I am not sure there could not be more than 5, especially since quite often you’ll find yourself jumping between the same sets of answers a couple of times at least.
The positive and the negative are usually two sides of the same coin; if we consider one, inevitably you will consider the other. What works usually will also mean you will develop the perception that the opposite will not work. If you learn how not to cut your finger while chopping onions you do learn how to put it at risk, when you learn the ‘right’ word pronunciation, you also learn of what in the world is not it.  Therefore lets for the moment put it at rest. We have in life to deal with the negative as much as the positive; likewise in training, learning and development interventions right-wrong, good-bad, desirable-undesirable, approved-unapproved, go hand-in-hand. But once we have learnt about both sides we develop the choice to focus our being and what thoughts we want to hold in our head. Mindfulness and meditation are techniques now being globally explored to keep oneself calm and positive for the effect on body and mind, but we are only aware since we know the effects of anxiety and fear on us. But then what we reinforce as practice is a choice we make and ‘we are what we repeatedly do’ so it probably makes sense to practice the right, positive things as much as we can then. At least until we know any better.
Most personnel involved in training, learning and development work in a complex area that involves driving change in attitudes, values, beliefs, perspective, behaviour and performance. There are many variables involved, as there are approaches, pitfalls and risks. It is important that people who are in these areas develop themselves as they undertake a great responsibility attempting to influence and steer the development and being of people in a particular direction. They are taking people’s time, quite often money and attention in doing so. While they may not think or feel themselves to be responsible for others state of being, they do impact on it. It is important that they do so conscientiously and while developing their own perspectives, values and understanding with an ever greater commitment to respecting, assisting and collaborating with others, to bring about positive change in self, others, organisations and society.
Authored by S Manish Singh
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