Is that the right question?

In a recent conversation with executives of a major corporation, one asked me what must have seemed to him an appropriate and reasonable question. He had checked and knew of my extensive background in education and training as a university professor and Dean, as a senior manager responsible for corporate education and as an experienced manager of a variety of business operations.

His question was, "Based on your background and experience in education and training, as well as operations, what training do you recommend?"

I replied: "I recommend cardiovascular and weight training. It is better to alternate training days between the two. I also recommend some stretching at the end of each workout to help your muscles."

The looks on their faces were of shock and nervous embarrassment. They thought I had lost my grip on reality or was not as distinguished an expert as they had been led to believe. Before they had a chance to respond I added, "I am not kidding. I recommend this training to anyone on the planet irrespective of age and gender, except those with a medical condition that limits them. I am absolutely certain that this regimen will help."

I continued, "I don't think this is really what you were asking me, though. The question you ask...’what training do you recommend?’... is impossible to answer until you tell me what you hope to accomplish through training -------- your goals and objectives. Training alone is useless."

"But Dr.," one of my listeners challenged, "how can we possibly improve and compete if we don't train our people? Training must work. We spend millions on it every year!"

"And spending millions means it works?... think about that for a minute", I replied.
"The question you should be asking is one about business results, not training. Once you have defined your business goals and objectives, we can talk about training and the appropriate content of that training."

They were beginning to listen differently and cancelled the call to security that had been discretely placed.

"Training the right content, alone, is equally useless, even if you have very carefully determined what your people need to know, based on business goals. Very little is accomplished simply because you ‘know’ something."

"But if we don't increase/improve people's knowledge, how can we improve?"

"Ah, but does knowledge alone bring improvement? Look at all the time and dollars spent on past training that has not produced much in terms of measurable or sustainable results. Why not? I would argue that until you fully understand the system that is expected to deliver your business goals and results and understand the barriers and failure modes that get in the way of sustainable results, training will produce very few results. It's like dropping seeds on asphalt. If one happens to fall in a crack, you may see a brief sprout of green for a little while but you will never see a field of wheat."

I could tell that what I was saying was beginning to sound familiar to some of them and that they were thinking about their own experiences. They too had been disappointed with the short-­‐lived impact of a myriad of training fads.

"Shall I explain further?" Vigorous nodding of heads encouraged me to continue. "If I take a simple view of the process, going from ‘what I need to know’ to the desired end result of ‘sustainable business results’, I can identify a sequence of steps. I need to translate knowledge into teaching, teaching to learning, general learning to specific actionable items. Then I can roll up my sleeves and implement those actionable items, properly reward and recognize those who implement and replicate the process for other problems. Then and only then can I hope to achieve any sustainable business results. Any failure or even partial failure at any of these steps will break the chain. For example, there is no guarantee that teaching automatically results in learning. If it did, every student would be an A student. So you see, your question and the answer you ultimately receive must be more complicated than ‘what training is needed?’ You must approach it systemically."

A woman in the group probed, "So you are saying that until we consider all the steps and get them all to work just right, don’t bother training?"

"Basically, yes. But there is rationale for this. Let me expand on a few more points that will help support this idea. Earlier I explained that you must focus on the right knowledge. But remember, knowing the theory or concept, is not enough. Here’s the part most organizations miss.

To get anything done well you need "Knowledge and Experience." {Academic research divided this into three parts: ‘Explicit Knowledge’, ‘Implicit Knowledge’, and ‘Tacit Knowledge’. Research tells us that the distribution of knowledge is 10% explicit, 20% implicit and 70% tacit.} Every one of us who does anything well incorporates all three levels without even realizing it. In reality, for the rest of us non-academics, we can call implicit and tacit "Experience." Yet when we talk about knowledge we want to teach, we are almost always talking about explicit knowledge only, book learning, and we ignore the 90%, which is experience.

It takes all three kinds of knowledge to get things done. Explicit knowledge is all the stuff you can write in a book or teach on a Power Point slide (codified). So anything that is not explicit is either implicit or tacit. Think about these examples. You cannot codify (simply write down) how to ride a bike, swim, play piano, or perform surgery. You can read about how to do it but when you are done with the book, you will not be able to play Chopin. You absolutely must have experience (practice) to build implicit and tacit experience. You will never acquire it without practice."

"Tacit and Implicit experience is the skill and talent beneath the surface that makes playing the piano, or doing anything really well, an art. Knowledge alone does not produce results, but practice turns knowledge into an experience. Experience has a very long and useful shelf life. The trick is finding a safe, accelerated practice field so that it doesn’t take twenty years for people to learn."

They were with me 100% at this point and nodding to each other as though they finally found someone who expressed what they had always known!

"Let’s assume that you have identified the right training content needed to deliver business results and that you have a method of training that allows for a practice field. Your employees know what to do and how to do it. Now, the critical question becomes, ‘How do you make it stick?’"

The group nodded in agreement while one younger gentleman confessed. "You know, you’re right. We come out of training raring to go. We do lots of great things for a few days, weeks, or maybe months. Then one day, I look around and realize we’re not doing it anymore. The bulletin boards are still there, or the process sheets are still posted but somehow we have all gone back to the way we have always done it. Why is that?"

"You have just hit on the most important aspect of ANY training or change initiative. To implement and sustain any improvement you need a structure. The structures for implementing and sustaining may be different but the principle is the same. Every success you achieve will eventually fall by the wayside without a deliberate structure to sustain. I could go into great depth on this, and will, if you like, in our next session. But for now, think about that training question that started our conversation."

My conversation partners leaned back in their chairs and scratched their collective head. "Wow, training content, focus on the right goal, training method, practice and experience, then sustaining the change… sounds like we have some work to do."

"And if you are willing, it can be done. Take a break. Then, we’ll tackle the next question."

Hossein Nivi, Ph.D.

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