Before you say you need training…


Marketing email in my inbox:

email marketing

Oh my, I’m probably the wrong person for them to send this to; I don’t believe in quick training solutions for the problems the ad is describing. What can training really do?

The team is failing…are they missing skills? That can generally be taught. But why all of a sudden? This manager has an urgent issue, so why now? It is more likely that there is something else going on with the failing team and I would wager that the problem is due to a system issue, rather than a skills issue.

What do I mean by systems issue?  I’m talking about the processes and practices, the available resources, and the effectiveness of the leadership that is creating some problem that has now become an emergency.

Training won’t fix a disgruntled team that can’t make their sales goals because the products are not sellable. Training won’t fix a cautious team that won’t communicate because they fear retribution. Training won’t help a team that doesn’t really like the change that is happening, and has dug in.

But yet it happens all the time….managers turn to training for a quick fix.  According to the 2016 Research report from the Association of Talent Development, since 2008, the average direct expenditure per employee on training and development has risen from $1,068 to $1,252, or 4.25% of payroll and 8.3% of profit. Total 2015 U.S. training expenditures—including payroll and spending on external products and services – were $70.6 billion in 2015.

I’ve been a Chief Learning Officer for two large organizations, and I can tell you first hand that much of the “training” we delivered did not provide a return on the investment. It isn’t because the training wasn’t good, but because the issue we were engaged to fix was not properly identified.

It isn’t that we didn’t try to help our internal clients realize that training might not be the right answer because we did, and we got pretty darned good at it. But we could only do so much when a leader has no clue about changing human behavior, doesn’t really want to have to bother with the “people stuff,” and wants something to happen right away.

Internal and external human resource development consultants face the same possible hurdle – being “fired” if we don’t provide what is asked for. At some point, and with some leaders, it just isn’t worth the hassle.

So what is the answer?

There is a reasonably trustworthy process that anyone in a leadership capacity should invoke, the moment that they begin to think “I need training.” It goes like this…Stop, Ask, Apply a Solution, Test.


Don’t look for an answer; you aren’t ready. Look for the problem. Sales are down. Use both quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative data (revenue trends, turnover statistics, employee engagement reports, budgets, employee relations statistics) gives you a starting point; qualitative data allows you to drill into the numbers and figure out what they actually mean. More data points provide a glimpse into how the data interact….sales went down, there’s been an exodus of good sales people. Business data and people data combined is powerful.


Is there possible a cause-effect relationship between the loss of talent and the drop in sales? Maybe. You now have an opportunity to look for the whys. The simple exercise called The Five Whys takes you beyond assumptions.

Sales are down. Why? The data says that two top producers have left in the past two months. Why? Discussion with the sales team offers some options: the competitor is offering a more lucrative deal, or the product has a flaw that is causing returns, or they have been telling their manager about the product flaw, but she won’t take action. Any of these can cause a disgruntled workforce.

“Do you think that product knowledge training would help you?” you ask. They quickly respond, “We know the product and we know how to sell it; that’s not the problem.”

So now you have options that can be investigate further, continuing to ask “why.” At some point you arrive at what appears to be the root cause (or causes) for the slowdown in sales.

Apply a Solution

Now it’s time to apply a fix, or fixes, depending on what your questions have uncovered. Some might be quick, others might be more long range. But you have a clear business problem that ultimately impacts on business performance and must be fixed. It might mean sitting down with Operations to identify and fix the flaw. It may mean checking out the pay plans of the competitors and if there is a discrepancy, figuring out how best to address.

Applying the solution is the easy part of this process. Business people know how to fix problems; they often aren’t so good at identifying the real problem. But once you have empirical data that points to a reasonable cause, you’re good to apply the solution.


But you’re not done yet. What if the solution didn’t fix the problem? You evaluated possible causes on the front end, now it’s time to evaluate the solutions. There are a couple reasons why this is crucial.  First, you may not have solved the problem and if it is still a viable problem you need to fix it.

But most important, this is where organizational learning happens. Every participant in every dialogue about the discovery process, the application of the solution and the testing learns, not just about the problem but about how all of the pieces of an organization work together.

That technical flaw in the product? Product management and sales learn about each others’ priorities, and begin to work together. The exodus of good people? This is a chance for operations and HR to work together on a real business problem.

This isn’t about the quality of the training solution

My commentary on the marketing email isn’t intended to say their solutions aren’t excellent; I’ve used them and they are good.

My commentary is for those who think a quick fix will work. Tell me you have a problem that needs training and let me show you what I mean.

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