When it’s just so obvious no training is needed, it hurts to watch.

Training is a certain and unquestioned component of every business strategy and plan, particularly when faced with the rollout of new systems and processes.

Rolling out a new Finance or Business Suite, or a new CRM system?  Training is required, naturally.

Have a new set of processes to implement across the organisation?  Of course, we need training.

This article addresses the challenge that organisations around the world face simply because they answer these two questions in this way.


Corporate learning and capability-building needs to grow up. For any organisation trying to stay competitive, conventional training is no longer enough, or even the answer in many cases. The world of systems and process training is an important case-in-point.

Even where system training may have had some impact in the past, increasing complexity and the high velocity of change in today’s world is simply outpacing the training solution.

The cracks are showing.  Learning professionals need to broaden their minds and change the learning cultures of their organisations to create successful, modern strategies and address some major flaws in preparing workers for new systems and processes in their work environments.

The first flaw of the traditional training approach is that of the “same old”. Lack of innovation and the ability to keep up with the times is slowly sinking some organisations in a sea of mediocrity.

Billions of dollars are spent across the world each year on system and process training. Every project plan for a rollout or upgrade includes a ‘training line’. Every project budget includes a training element. Naturally. This a huge amount of money for training typically fails to deliver real value.

Evidence and logic place a huge “No go” sign over the training route, yet many organisations continue to ignore the warnings and proceed, regardless of available alternatives that are both more effective and incur less cost.

This begs the wider question, “Why is training the primary offering when organisations want to improve workforce performance, yet we know it often doesn’t work?”

There are two main reasons underpinning the training response.

Firstly, unfortunately many HR managers, L&D and Training professionals are still happy operating within their comfort zone.  They’ve always followed the training route and fear change because of a lack of open-mindedness at higher levels in the organisation and the attention it may place on their own department. If there’s a training budget in the new Finance System rollout plan, who are they to challenge its purpose and rationale?

Business managers ask for training courses and they’re delivered – no-one really evaluates the root cause of the (potential) business problem the training is trying to solve, no-one measures the performance outcomes (although everyone measures the “training satisfaction” levels) and no-one is held accountable for the results. This training mindset is still ingrained in many organisations.

The second flaw in the system and process training response displays when the default focus is simply that, training. This is often due to uncertainty about alternative approaches – if training is eliminated, or used to only a limited extent, what takes its place? How do we know that something else might be better?

To begin to better understand alternatives it’s necessary to get a grasp of some of the problems with current approaches.

One of the major underlying problems on which the the training response is built is a long-gone logic – that we’re in a world of information paucity and the only way to overcome its lack is to train. However, we know that using formal training for detailed tasks and processes, undertaken before the actual need to carry out the task or process, has been shown to be essentially useless and flawed. Humans simply can’t retain large amounts of detailed, task-based information for any length of time. We’re forgetting machines. That’s why checklists and guidance tools are so prevalent.

Reasons the ‘training response’ often fails include:

  • Information overload: The traditional training approach is often ineffective due to our inability to deal with information overload. Most training courses are content-centric and simply contain too much information to be memorised. Without the context of use, most is forgotten rapidly. Courses with slide decks of 200-300 slides for delivery over two days are not uncommon. Trainees won’t remember a fraction of the content, and are unlikely to ever re-open a training manual.
  • Absence of practice: A second problem with the training approach is its focus on short-term rather than long- term memory. Ebbinghaus and other researchers over the years have shown the moment employees walk out of the training room, they begin to forget. Practice and reinforcement are key requirements to build behaviour change and long-term retention, which is what ‘learning’ really is. Practice is almost always needed for people to do their jobs well. Unfortunately, most of the system, process and product training currently provided in organisations offers only cursory practice opportunities. There’s usually not enough time for practice as there’s so much ‘knowledge transfer’ required, or there’s no access to the live system/product prior to rollout and any practice that does occur is often on a cut-down system of ‘training’ servers or a simple simulation environment that’s likely to represent a snapshot of the rollout system at some point-in-time.
  • Ignoring alternatives: The third flaw in the training approach is ignoring alternatives. We know that the clear majority of learning and performance-building happens outside formal training environments. It occurs informally in the workplace. Learning comes about through experience, by practice, and through by interaction with others. We learn by asking a colleague, talking to others, looking up reference information, watching an expert perform a task or collaboratively solving problems. Few plans for new systems and processes take this into consideration beyond some cursory ‘quick reference guides’ distributed after training sessions.

A way forward

The first step in adopting a more effective approach to building workforce ability to use new systems and processes is a shift in thinking. Don’t focus on simply providing the most convenient solutions that are familiar. Refocus on the best ways to achieve outcomes and performance. Research the options. Plan for the easiest, fastest, and most cost-effective route to help people do their jobs better.

This requires HR and L&D professionals work more closely with business managers to understand business issues to be overcome. The potential areas of sub-optimal performance, the major challenges people are likely to face. Then identify potential solutions with stakeholders, and take joint responsibility for them where learning or performance support is involved. This ‘performance detective’ work is critical.

Each solution will depend on the characteristics of each specific scenario and all options need to be considered. Those HR and learning professionals prepared to think outside the training box, ask questions and open their minds to creative solutions and innovative approaches will find that alternatives to courses and curricula abound.

For many, technology is an important part of these new approaches. A powerful concept that’s been taking hold in organisations recently is that of business process guidance (BPG). BPG is a unique combination of technology and services that provides real-time support for employees when and where they need it. BPG has emerged out of electronic performance support systems (ePSS), a concept championed by Gloria Gery amongst others 30 years ago.

BPG tools and environments support performance improvement through an ongoing cycle guidance and support for workers at the moment they’re completing a process or task. With BPG, the learning emerges from the task, not the other way around.

This is the antithesis of formal off-the-job training. Rather than trying to learn how to navigate a myriad of enterprise applications, polices, procedures and regulations with prior formal instruction, BPG helps out when the worker needs guidance.

It also shifts the focus from courses to resources. From what has traditionally been the rather hit-or-miss approach of many training courses that delve into every possible avenue that might, or might not, be encountered, to one where employees are supported in the tasks they need to carry out while they carry them out.

Building support and resources into the day-to-day operation of a business is more important than ever. There is a vital need for understanding that learning is no longer something that employees do separately from their work, or necessarily in order to work. Learning should be part of the work. In fact, in the knowledge economy especially, learning is the work and the work generates learning.

This is no more apparent than in our world increasingly reliant on workforce ability to use increasingly sophisticated system and processes. In this aspect of our enterprises, system and process training need to become things of the past.

(This article is based on one written in 2009. The challenges are as pertinent as ever.)

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Charles Jennings is Co-founder, 70:20:10 Institute, and Director, Internet Time Alliance & Duntroon Consultants

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