Why Most Training Doesn't Work

Most “case studies” presented at conferences are sanitized into meaninglessness.

We spend a lot of money on training. Most of the time, that money is wasted.

Let's start with the conferences, retreats, and weekends out of town. This includes Ted Talks, SXSW and all that other good stuff. Mostly it's a lot of crap from an actual learning perspective. Because officially approved case studies, no matter how compelling the subject matter, are normally sanitized to death. Because, of course, we don't embarrass ourselves; we're here to tell a positive story; we don't want to burn our bridges; the organization would have a massive fit if they found out you were telling us about that disaster; and so on.

Mostly these things are about big companies selling stuff, by getting smart and moneyed and influential people together. It's about saying, "I was there and I met XYZ and heard that." Of course it's about trying to network as well, and get a better job.

I remember one training conference in particular, one session in particular, where the speaker had so much to say, clearly. But it was equally clear that we would never get anything substantial out of him, because of confidentiality issues. Frustrated, I listened to the other audience members ask difficult questions, only to see the speaker do a kind of thrust-and-parry.

After the session I sat outside in the luxuriously decorated convention area and watched people form a line for little pastries, ask where the restroom was, flip up their laptops and mill about the vendor tables looking for free trinkets to take home.

Life-Changing Exceptions

Of course, some speakers will turn your entire career around. They are so dynamic, and they don't give a damn about sanitizing the story. They have the wonderful ability to actually tell you the truth. When you get to witness a talk like that, your life will never be the same.

For me one such experience was a 2003 "boot camp" sponsored by Ragan Communications. I had just started working for the government as an internal communicator, and my main job was to help write the monthly newsletter.

The main speaker at that event was employee communications expert Steve Crescenzo. Like many brilliant people he came off as absolutely crazy, this bald guy waving around really bad newsletters from various Fortune 500 companies and saying they were winning his "C.R.A.P. Awards." 

The one thing that stuck with me from that training event was Crescenzo's passion for the subject matter. I think it is fair to say he was on a kind of moral crusade against bad writing and fluff writing—writing that wastes people's time.

A dozen years later, it is Crescenzo's ethic that informs my work as I write for the U.S. government. The writing here has gotten better, but the tendency toward C.R.A.P. remains. What Crescenzo helped me see is that fighting useless garbage words is a kind of war, and that even a single compromise of the keyboard has a domino effect.

We can't afford to let up, not even for a minute. Because then we've drunk the Kool-Aid, and even a little bit spreads through your body and to others, poisoning everyone in the system.

I also had the good fortune to attend a solo seminar by Shel Holtz, Crescenzo's one-time training partner at Ragan, on social media communication. When they use the word "guru" they are talking about him: He told us what mattered and why we should care about it, and then he told us what to do based on time-tested best practice. Many years later, his words are as accurate as they were when he uttered them.

The most important lesson I learned from Holtz was that in social media, you do not control the conversation but can only hope to be a valued part of it. The second most important thing is that you aren't required to tell everything, but you must say as much as you can. And then tell your audience explicitly, "we simply cannot share any further information at this time."

Every single minute of that seminar was vital to my professional life, and I burned those words into my brain like they had been applied by a branding iron.

The Limits of Online Training

But life-changing teachers are few and far between. And the training business—like the higher education business—is potentially very lucrative. So just as in higher education, online training has become a popular alternative to in-person events.

Theoretically, you can see where this makes economic sense. The problem however is that few people are actually going to learn anything by listening to the equivalent of Siri for an hour. So you've taken work time and exposed people to words uttered by a computer screen. It feels like progress, but is it?

Most of the time, I don't think so. That is, unless:

  • You genuinely want to learn the subject matter and can't get to a live training class.
  • Your job requires you to learn the information or get penalized in some way.
  • Your professional advancement requires that you master new and unfamiliar subject matter, and you need to use online resources to teach yourself.

Take Six Sigma, for example. In my environment they use Six Sigma terms a lot, and so I found a free training class online that offered an introductory "white belt" in exchange for viewing the modules for a few minutes. I was motivated.

Unfortunately however, I did not have any specific tasks at work that I could tie the unusual jargon to. And the history of the discipline had no meaning to me. But I was invested intellectually in this journey, and so I read the information—again and again. 

Will I get an advanced degree as a result of taking that class? No way. But do I have a somewhat better understanding of the subject, why it matters and how to apply it? Absolutely.

And when it comes to technical subjects like computer programming, online training is in my view an absolute must. I can't begin to count the number of people I know who are self-taught on coding, Web development, and graphic design, generally through a combination of work assignments and supplemental self-guided courses.

Disaster: Where Real Learning Happens

Even with all of this said, we haven't touched upon the most important way people learn stuff applicable to jobs, to relationships, to anything important in life. Most of us learn as a result of crisis: Failure, screwups, just plain getting it wrong and embarrassing ourselves in the process.

I'll never forget my first fashion faux pas in summer camp, when I approached the rich girls from Long Island and complimented their designer clothing. "You can't even pronounce Benetton," said one of them. "Ewwww you."

There was the pain of transitioning from a private-sector, self-promotional environment to the low-key, conservative world that is a government agency. "Where did you come from? Are you aware that this is the government?"

The realization that my assumptions about being a parent have very little to do with what is actually necessary for parenting, and everything to do with making up for the mistakes I perceived my parents to have made. "Mom, do me a favor, would you let me cross the street by myself just once in a while?"

Learning Techniques of the Resilient

Each of us, of course, has a large collection of failures and it's up to us to decide what we do with the impact they have on our lives.

Here are the tactics that don't work:

Some people put their heads down. They get depressed. They hate themselves. They remind themselves what losers they are, how they never have been any better and how they probably never will be better.

Others just don't really think about it. They continue in their routines, trying to avoid making another similar mistake in the future—effectively crossing the street because they tripped in a particular spot.

Still others assign blame to the people around them, to their bosses, to their parents, to their significant others, to their life situations, to the placement of the moon, or to the weather—anything as long as they don't have to be responsible, figure it out or fix it.

But the people who survive and move on do something else.

They are the ones who fail but have the capacity to stop and break the problem down. Because it is through crisis that they come to understand the problem. It is through a rupture in the system that they can retrace their steps, and ultimately find remedies.

What were the steps that got me into this mess? They ask. Never mind who's at fault, how can I fix it?

They make a list—Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 and this is how I got here. And then they take a look at all the resources available to help them fix it.

They read. They talk to friends. They make a game plan for change. They establish small milestones for progress as part of the game plan. And they ask other people for support.

Every single day, every person faces crises big and small. Every single day we fail and fall and are embarrassed at the smallness of our minds, at our limited capacity. And every single day we have the choice. We can learn our way through the problem. We can get up.

Copyright 2016 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.