Here’s a challenge a leader I know faced last year. Paul was head of a customer service team for a company that had recently launched a new line of products. Soon after the launch, it became clear that Paul’s team was struggling to provide the same high quality of customer service they normally provided for their existing products.
The team was having trouble because the new products were aimed at a target market that was more sophisticated than the markets the team was used to dealing with. To meet the new customer service challenge, Paul knew he would have to upgrade some of the team’s skills, such as communication and creative problem solving.
So Paul looked for a training solution.
The Confident Choice
After evaluating a few vendors, he chose the one that seemed to understand his needs best. They had the best content. They also used state-of-the-art technology, with mobile apps and gamification, and offered to customize the training to the different learning styles of his team members. They weren’t the cheapest option, but they gave him the most confidence that the training would be effective.
Here’s what happened:
The training workshops seemed to go well. Most participants rated it very highly. Paul himself enjoyed it. But within weeks, it became clear to Paul that the performance of his team hadn’t improved much. A couple people became successful, a few others were doing slightly better, but the vast majority were still struggling.
Needless to say, the results frustrated Paul. He had spent a sizeable chunk of his annual training and development budget on this initiative. When he reached out to the vendor, they offered to come in and do more training…for more money, of course.
I heard Paul’s story a few weeks ago, when a mutual friend introduced him to me at a social event. Because I’d spent 10 years of my career as a principal in a training company, Paul asked for my opinion on what I thought had gone wrong and what he could do about it.
The Sad Facts
As I shared with Paul, my many years spent in the training industry did teach me a few things about training. Unfortunately, one of those things is the sad fact that a lot of training simply doesn’t work. As The Wall Street Journal has reported in an article titled “So Much Training, So Little to Show for It,” “Companies devote a lot of time, effort and money to corporate training—with little to show for it.” U.S. corporations spend over $150 billion in training annually, and many don’t see real ROI on their training investment. In fact, 90 percent of new skills are lost within a year.
As I also shared with Paul, this doesn’t mean that training never works. But it does mean that anyone considering a training intervention as a way to improve performance should be wary of myths that many training solutions suffer from—some of which are enduring, and quite surprising. Here are four that appeared to affect Paul:
1. The Learning Styles Myth
The basic premise of this myth is that there are different styles of learning. Some people are visual learners, others learn better when listening, or doing hands-on activities. While it’s true that people have their preferences, research has shown over and over again that matching training to someone’s learning style doesn’t make the training any more effective. As Wallace Hannum, former professor of educational psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill writes in a report on training myths, investing in learning styles is “a waste of training dollars.”
2. The Technology Trap
Technology makes lots of things better, and it’s easy to see why Paul fell prey to the idea that training that leveraged mobile apps and gamification would work better than traditional training, but research shows that technology-based instruction doesn’t actually improve results. As Hannum writes, “technology in itself adds little value in terms of producing learning outcomes.”
3. The Formal Learning Fantasy
Like many people, Paul equated training with formal instruction, such as workshops. The problem here is that we learn best through informal means, like simply watching and working with others. According to Jay Cross, author of Informal Learning, 70-90 percent of our learning on the job is informal.
4. The “Everyone Is Trainable” Fallacy
There is another myth that I think Paul became a victim of, and that’s the idea that he could train everyone on his team to succeed in the new conditions. While it’s true that human beings have a tremendous capacity to learn, we’re not all built the same. It’s possible that the new skills changed the role in a way that made some of the people on Paul’s team poor fits. To know if this was the case, Paul would have needed a clear understanding of the demands the new skills placed on his people, as well as insights into what kinds of demands each individual was capable of meeting.
These can be challenging questions to answer, but Paul could get the information he needs by figuring out why some people excel in environments where those skills are needed. He could, for example, take a look at the people who are currently doing well on his team. What makes them different from the people who are struggling? Are they naturally better problem solvers? Are they more innovative? More open to change? Discovering these insights would tell him the type of people he needs, and who on his team would likely do well if they were giving more effective training. Paul might, of course, find that some people on his team aren’t built to succeed in the new role. In which case, even the best training isn’t going to help.
Making It Work
So, what could Paul do to improve the performance of team? Part of the answer, of course, is not falling prey to training myths like the above. The other part of the answer is that once Paul is training only the people who are likely to respond positively to the training, he should invest carefully in what makes training effective. For the best and quickest answer on that, I would turn to The Wall Street Journal article mentioned above, in which Eduardo Salas, a professor of organizational psychology at the University of Central Florida, says that the single most important element for effective training is design. Corporations, he advises, should focus their training dollars on designing programs with regular opportunities to practice and get feedback.
Next time you need to upgrade the skills on your team, take heed from Paul’s experience—stay away from training based on myths and focus on training the right people, the right way.
If you haven’t already read What to Why, the free 20-minute eBook changing how leaders build top teams, which I coauthored with ClearFit founder and CEO, Jamie Schneiderman, you can download it here.