The Illusion of Training

I recently had someone tell me about all the people he has trained. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that what he thinks represents training, is just a lecture.

There’s a big difference.

As technology expands in an almost exponential manner, there’s an ever-growing need for training, but a shortage of people who truly understand how to properly train.

A good rule of thumb is, if the trainer is speaking for more than 50% of the time, then the trainer is most likely giving a lecture and really not actually training anyone.

What differentiates training from a lecture is when the participants can explain the concept that is being conveyed. If they can give an example of how the concept will be applied and why this is a benefit or improvement over an existing system, the trainer has connected with the participants.

I often hear the argument “I only had an hour and I had all of this material to cover” describing what was discussed in the lecture and the 75 powerpoint slides that were used to make the presentation. When that happens, the problem is not in the allotted time, but in the volume of material that is being presented.

What do I mean by that? If the trainer is not interacting with the audience, by constantly asking constructive and provocative questions, the audience is usually going to appear to be listening, but not engaging with what they are learning.

Its common knowledge that people learn in different ways. I personally learn best when I’m physically doing ‘hands-on’ work. I’m terrible in lectures, I’m that proverbial daydreamer. It’s not a focus or an attention thing, it’s purely a mind that is anxious to be more engaged. My mind will come up with scenarios all on its own, to stay entertained. Before I know it, it is busy solving the current problem with my vintage car project.

So how can this be avoided? By the trainer becoming a better listener and questioner, a trainer with a passion to teach will develop a sense for questioning that will expose where the students are stuck in a knowledge gap and then filling this knowledge gap becomes rewarding for both student and trainer.

Since a large majority of training involves replacement of existing automated systems, to newer technologies like touchscreen panels, a sequence of questions for that scenario can include:

“Give me an example of how this will make your job easier?” Will get participants thinking in terms of how they will interact with the new technology

“Where can you foresee this technology creating problems?” Will expose where participants have concerns and these concerns can be addressed before they ever manifest as problems

“Is this technology worse or better than the existing technology” might fall into the category of ‘never ask a question if you don’t already know the answer’ but again this can expose concerns and fears that exist, so the trainer can understand the participants fear of change.

“Tell me what you like most about what you are seeing today” is a great way to get confirmation that the material covered so far has connected with the audience. If the room falls into a deathly silence, then the trainer knows they have not conveyed the message successfully and this will open the door for even more probing questions.

In a hour-long class, a good trainer should be able to identify four or five points in the training when a series of question can be introduced. This is four or five times when the knowledge is reinforced so that new knowledge keeps building on a stable foundation.

What makes a great trainer? Ironically, the best trainers are the people that struggled to learn a topic. If you are someone who could attend a lecture, attentively take notes and always get an “A” on the test, you might not be the best person to be a trainer. You can’t relate to learning styles that require more participation and interaction.

As a rule, the super-smart can absorb material, then regurgitate that material, but the super-smart can never understand why people struggle to learn. They excel at impressing an audience with facts and statistics, convinced that this display of absolute ownership of a subject will miraculously cause the knowledge to transfer to the audience.

If you are someone who can comfortably converse in acronyms, it is a fairly safe bet that training is never going to be your forte.

The biggest, single mistake made when organizing a training event, is to present a class so that one more item can be checked off the project ‘to-do’ list. Training needs to be modularized with measurable results. One of the best examples I know is to give a test before class starts, then present the same test after class and let the participants experience immediately, where they have gained knowledge. The single biggest mistake after the training is complete is not allowing the participants to apply this knowledge and not having systems in place (job aids, pop quiz tests, ‘train-the-trainer’ exercises) to reinforce the new knowledge.

If you only take one thing away from this message, it would be that training is not an event. Training has to be an on-going process.