Thinking Beyond the Course

A client bought some of my time, and we’re working with a series of regular meetings with me serving as a guide. One of the activities is looking at a suite of courses that are currently offered, and considering alternative approaches.

The situation is that there is a job task that’s an additional load upon a variety of existing roles. Being involved with finance, there are requirements for scrutable behavior. It’s currently run as a training that a small staff has to travel to deliver, and regional employees similarly have a likelihood to travel. Can there be a way to achieve the outcomes while reducing travel?

Opportunities for learning

Opportunities for learningTheir initial thought is train-the-trainer. That is, take some of the folks who receive the training and train them to deliver the courses, so there are regional resources available. My initial reaction to this is negative, since I think teaching subject matter experts (SMEs) to be instructors is generally not the best idea. There are times when it makes sense: when either the training doesn’t have to be top notch, or you have eager SMEs with available bandwidth.

It could work, if you made the content essentially ‘instructor-proof’. In the case of another organization, they were working with SMEs, and generally doing what those SMEs wanted. Yet other experts than the initial SME could actually be the instructors. This suggested that the activities in particular should work with minimal pedagogical expertise. This requires considerable initial work, of course.

I naturally considered traditional eLearning; this is the poster-child for running a course online, removing geographic barriers. You’ve got material that’s cut-and-dried, about the process, and you can develop it once and launch it. And, at times, even if there are complexities, you can do a blended online approach and have some synchronous online time as well.  However, I found out, it was tried and discarded. The reasons are instructive: the approach they took was a spaced series of webinars. While this makes sense pedagogically, it was challenging for the instructor to switch practices, and so was abandoned.

Barriers to learning

And this particular issue was a signal of the underlying problem. While undoubtedly good folks to begin with, they were familiar with training. If you needed to address a requirement, a course is the solution. The learners like going off-task and spending some time away at a course, and the trainers know how to go and deliver the courses. Efficiency isn’t as important as familiarity.

A second problem is a lack of evaluation. There is no data on the typical problems these individuals find in their regular performance of the task. Worse, there’s no data on the performance of the task at all!  The only way it’s known whether there’s a problem is when an unknown audit identifies a problem.

One of the ways to make a case for a change is to show that the current approach isn’t working. Data suggests that only 10% of training is effective! Yet to make that case, you actually have to measure the outcome and then see if it’s changing with an intervention. Here there’s no data.

It’s a form of complacency. “We know how to do this. And that’s a problem; it’s a faith-based approach (and here I’m not talking religion): “if we build it, it is good.”  How do you go about changing that?

I recommended one other thing, given the barriers. I said that maybe he should play the long game, and just start seeding these ideas for now, and continue to look for opportunities to make small changes. He thought that might’ve been the most valuable suggestion I made.

Training to improve performance outcomes

The fundamental issue is that there’s no performance consulting around the training unit. There’s no question of “what’s the core problem?” Instead, it’s that it has to be done. In that sense, it’s CYA rather than a real outcome. They don’t view it that way, but it’s where you end up. “If we’ve done it, then if someone has taken the course and still misbehaves, they’re a bad person, it’s not us.”  I recall (but can’t find) where someone suggested that eventually, someone brought down will defend themselves that the course wasn’t effective. And they’re not. They’re not focused on the right things.

So, what to do? Reflecting after the call, I started thinking about some alternatives, and then decided to go all in. That is, what are all the alternatives that we can pull out of the performance ecosystem? Here were some things that emerged:

  • For one, emphasize measurement. “Hey, let’s get some idea of what the needs are; the biggest problems that need to be addressed.”
  • How about, instead of formal learning, we see how much information we can put ‘in the world’. Can we create and make available guides like decision trees and checklists?
  • Instead of train the trainer, how about train the coaches? This is what Jane Bozarth reported in the case study she wrote up for the L&D Revolution book. Rather than have set times to learn about it, have some on-demand help available.
  • Or, ala Roger Schank, maybe regular challenges and some expert videos telling stories that are captured and can be indexed into depending on the problem you have. The videos, of course, can be available any time.
  • Given that there are folks who’ve had the training and are doing this, could you make them available from a directory, or build a community with and for them? That’s what Mark Britz did in his approach that he shared in the book.
  • And, of course, a combination of these.

The point is that if we stop thinking about knowledge gaps and training, and start thinking about performance gaps and ecosystem solutions, we get new ideas. In particular, a much richer alternative of potential approaches.

That’s what innovation is intended to provide, generating as many diverse ideas as possible, before converging. This prevents you from settling for a local minimum/maximum, and increases the likelihood of finding a solution with the best tradeoffs. And that’s the outcome you want.

It occurred to me that he could run a session in his forthcoming meeting something like: “The performance ecosystem recognizes that there are other elements that can lead to success: performance support, resources, community.” And then start brainstorming session where he asks everyone to come up with as many alternatives to training as they can. When ready, they share them, then ensure they’ve generated as many ideas as they can. This could open them up to greater thinking ‘beyond the course’.

When you’ve a performance issue, you want to consider performance solutions. In this case, there’s not a known problem but just a concern that things can go awry. Still, training is only one of the possible performance solutions. Considering them all is an important step towards building organizational capability. And that, ultimately, is what it’s about.