How we shoot ourselves in the foot

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Written by Garry Platt on 1 November 2013 in Features

Garry Platt assesses L&D as a core business function

Training and development within any organisation should act, and be recognised, as a core business function. However it frequently falls at two hurdles. It does not function as a coherent partner to the business and frequently presents itself as secondary and lacking focus.

This is not universal by any means but nor can it be dismissed as hyperbole. Coleman Parkes Spring1 undertook a survey in 2010 of 100 of the top 500 companies (by turnover); the results of this survey speak for themselves:

  • 70 per cent see inadequate staff skills as barrier to growth
  • 40 per cent see employee skills risking being obsolete
  • 55 per cent claim L&D is failing to deliver necessary training
  • 46 per cent doubt L&D can deliver
  • 82 per cent agree that L&D is not aligned with the business.

Does it get any grimmer than this? Well, I suppose it might if you were trapped in a theatre and couldn't get out and Bruce Forsyth was about to regale you with five hours of his greatest hits. But nightmares aside, no, it doesn't get much worse than this, there is no escaping that these are diabolical figures and undermine any claim we might make about being an effective, informed profession. Why? Why do so many human resources departments fail to deliver and frequently present themselves as a kind of third-rate, reactive, low-level function with a strong bias towards entertainment rather than results? Indeed, Siegfried and Roy have more gravitas than some training functions I have encountered.

There are several challenges to which the HR function must respond if it seeks to avoid joining the ranks of the less than adequate and each of these challenges present their own unique difficulties.

Trend driven

"It seems we're always in transition and that it's more about trends than it is about what's meaningful."

Marlee Matlin

Coaching, emotional intelligence, Covey, The Learning Company, they come and they go. Training is fashion-driven and trend-conscious. Too many of us adopt these trends simply because high-profile people or professional bodies make reference to them and successfully promote the issues through various marketing methods. The questions which must be asked of all these issues are how will it help my organisation and how will we measure its success? If you can't pinpoint the outputs, essentially you're practising faith-based training: you have no potential evidence, you just hope it works. That's okay if you want to become a member of a religious order, not so brilliant if you're meant to be a savvy business function.

Don't just go with the flow, question the validity, question the relevance to your business and don't be frightened to say 'no' where it isn't an appropriate fit. Many of these trends are in fact 'old wine in new bottles'; I say wine but it's more like White Lightning cider, £2.50 a 2ltr bottle, oblivion guaranteed. Without doubt there are good things within each of the areas named but, equally, there are many circumstances in which, due to culture or logistics or a whole host of other reasons, they will do nothing.

Sometimes - quite frequently in fact - the latest 'thing', the newest 'thing' , the most current 'thing', may not be your 'thing'. It just may not be appropriate. I know of one organisation, which employs lots of scientists and technical experts, that sent them on coaching skills courses. It was a complete failure. That group of learners didn't respond well to this approach and consequently dismissed this strategy. It wasn't the way they learned, it wasn't what they wanted and it wasn't helpful to them in their current role and function.


"You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."

Abraham Lincoln

We sometimes have a tendency to swallow things hook, line and sinker, and, once again, because our peers are having a feeding frenzy we join in.

I suspect we've all been assailed by Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Do we make sure that, when we present this model to students, we explain that it has been proven to be seriously flawed and is no longer recognised as a fair representational of how people become motivated?2

How often have we been told that, according to Mehrabian, we communicate 55 per cent by body language, 38 per cent by tone and only 5 per cent via words? If this is true, Radio 4 is in serious trouble. Mehrabian3 didn't say this at all, and yet it often gets trotted out as fact.

Or how about Left Brain (analytical) and Right Brain (creative) thinking? It' s fine, I suppose, if it's being used as a metaphor but it frequently isn't. Specialisation of the scale suggested by this bunkum is simply not supported by any research of any value4.

The concept of Learning Styles is extensively used by the training community. In 2004 the Learning Skills Research Council5 published a 182-page, detailed analysis of the learning styles quagmire, which highlighted the absence of any reliable research or evidence to support the theories proposed in this field. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development6 trailed along later with a short seven-page paper, which essentially mirrored this conclusion.

In short, many trainers present participants with half-truths, bad research findings and, in some cases, just rubbish. It's easier today than at any other time to go out and check what is valid and what is spurious. And it is increasingly essential that today, with so much being asked of the people we train and develop, we at least exercise this responsibility.

No wonder trainers and training departments that use and promote this junk are relegated to the organisational backwaters as 'wacky but harmless'. We need to increase our critical analysis of every idea and concept presented to us. We need to make sure there is legitimacy behind what we teach and, sometimes, we need to act upon it if there isn't, regardless of what everyone else says or does.


"Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so."

Galileo Galilei

HR departments that evaluate their training by only collecting the results of end-of-course feedback sheets should be taken behind the bike sheds and... well, let's just say it wouldn't be pretty.

To be a core function of the business we need to look for, and make sure that we contribute to, what the business is trying to achieve. The discipline of focusing on our organisational contribution causes the training function to operate as an integrated partner to the business. That's one of the primary reasons for doing this - because of the discipline and control this approach places on our attitude and position within the business.

The question for every piece of training before it takes place is simple: why? Why are we doing this training? What is going to get better, faster, reduce or increase? If you don't know the answer to these questions, why are you doing it? And the answer 'it feels right' sounds faintly dirty and isn't good enough in an organisational setting.

I have one major German-owned client that is currently focusing some attention on 'diversity', which frequently goes unmeasured and attempts to do so are dismissed as impossible. But this company has some very clear metrics against which it is going to measure success, some financial and some not. Metrics such as the ones set out in the box below:

Now that, to me, seems like a simple and fair combination of factors to determine whether diversity training is actually worth it financially (leaving aside the ethical issues) and delivers. It also makes our content and approach more targeted, clear and unambiguous.

Training issue or a management issue?

"Confusion of goals and perfection of means seems, in my opinion, to characterise our age."

Albert Einstein

We are frequently asked by managers to provide training for issues upon which we can have very little effect and we collude with those requests. A manager may complain of an individual's performance and output, and sometimes immediately presumes that training of one form or another will address the issue. It often won't.

When requested to deliver training to address poor performance in a particular area, we should pose a series of simple questions to the manager:

Have you given the individual/s feedback? If the answer is 'no' or a derivation of the term 'sort of', which also means 'no', ask the manager to provide feedback to the individual. This is a prerequisite before we consider undertaking any training. We then ask:

Have you given the individual/s clear objectives for them to work towards?If the answer is 'no', ask the manager to give the individual/s some clarity about what they are to achieve. Then:

Has the manager reviewed progress towards the goals? If the answer is 'no', suggest that this is important and, coupled with feedback, is essential to promoting performance. Finally:

Has adequate progress been made? If the answer is 'yes', problem solved, no training necessary. If the answer is 'no', undertake a training needs analysis.

This process is captured on this flow chart, which should, in fact, be tattooed on the inside of the eyelids of every manager in your organisation.

The challenge this process addresses is the reluctance or inability of some managers, through either fear or ignorance, to act when confronted by poor performance. And, rather than take action, they send people on training. It's almost as though some managers see the training function as an extension of the Catholic Church and that, by sending their staff on training courses, they are absolved of all their sins.

We must educate managers to stop them corralling people onto training courses for which they are neither prepared nor orientated. By adopting this approach, we begin to streamline the kinds of individuals we encounter on development programmes. There are generally three types:

  • political prisoners These individuals attend training courses not knowing why they are there or, in extreme cases, not even what the training is about
  • tourists A day's training is better than a day's work. These individuals just want a day off work
  • explorers They know why they are there, they want to discover and learn something new.

What we want are explorers on our courses.

In order to become a core function within the business, we must begin to address the issues outlined in this article. It is only the starting point but it is a great first step.

By dealing with these issues, you immediately begin to position training and development within the strategic framework of your host company and we would soon begin to reverse those terrible statistics that I mentioned at the start of this piece.

It would also raise our reputation and respect in many organisations, which in some cases resides somewhere between Robert Mugabe and the Ebola virus.








About the author

Garry Platt is training and development consultant for the EEF. He can be contacted on +44 (0)114 268 0671 or at


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