Training: Mood and Presentation Trump Content and Information

In its simplest terms, training involves the communication of information and/or procedures and techniques from those in the know to those who don’t know as much. The objective is to make employees familiar with new or different technology or other resources, make them more efficient and productive, and generally make the entire organization fiscally successful.

One of the liabilities of typical training programs is they tend to focus on content rather than presentation. And they often rely on the trainees themselves to sort out and apprehend the significance of the information they’re being presented. Risky business indeed—and as a number of new and emerging workplace books and research reports suggest, much less effective than it could or should be.

HR managers looking to stay up to date on insights that can help them through this muddle have enough on their hands without the frustration of sorting through what’s out there in print or online or on audio. As an aid, we took a trip online and through a new business column in the news magazine The Economist to get a look at where things are headed.

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One thing we came up with is what should be obvious (but too often isn’t): the corporate philosophy and the mood of a training operation are critical aspects that can cause training to be less effective than it could be and sometimes to fail.

The authors of the New York Times-bestselling collection of essays Rework are at it again. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, of the Chicago-based software company Basecamp, are out with a new book that addresses a number of issues trainers and HR personnel would benefit from taking a look at. One compulsive reader invested three hours in the audio version and came out ecstatic about the practicality and common sense embedded in what the authors had to say.

Examples from It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work establish that it is indeed packed with practical advice and not a few irreverent observations. Take, for example, the premise that running an efficient business aimed at a solid bottom line doesn’t have to be built on the backs of employees working “madly” long hours.

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A lot of what the authors put forward is common sense. For example, tired workers aren’t productive because such characteristics as creativity, progress, and positive impact are not supported by the application of the colloquialism that hard work alone solves the world’s problems. Likewise, sleep-deprived managers are inclined to be impatient with their employees—and put this poor woman or man in front of a bunch of new recruits or overworked employees trying to learn something new, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

According to Fried and Hansson, there are a host of traditional motivational training strategies that slip into even the best and most well-intended training programs. The fallacy of referring to a bunch of new recruits, or old hands, as a company “family,” for example, amounts to little more than a gimmick to get workers to put the corporation ahead of their actual families.

Another is that open-plan offices, supposedly designed so employees can brainstorm and communicate, are an ineffectual work environment if what managers are after are creativity and productivity.

Other tried and true liabilities employers build into their training programs include the philosophy that everyone in the corporation needs to know what’s happening everywhere else in the corporation (via the old-style paper memo or company-wide emails). Rather, the authors encourage trainers to suggest employees cultivate what they call “the joy of missing out,” freeing individual workers to concentrate on their particular projects.

Along with the mandate that produc­tivity is a function of hard work and long hours, is the establishment of unrealistic targets for project completion and celebrating the capacity to adapt to changing goals. Better to give employees time to think so they can come up with more thoughtful and considered solutions.

Financial Times of London report suggests an additional training slip-up: the emphasis on collaboration. What employers want from advanced-degree employees, the Times reports, is the ability to work on a team with a wide variety of people and build and sustain networks. (All of which is encouraged and facilitated by modern technology.) On the other hand, other observers have pointed out that pushing collaboration as a value in employee training and development programs can end up in what they call a “herd mentality,” whereby participants whose ideas differ from the group don’t want to buck the majority—and valuable input is lost.

A couple of academics took a look at this question of collaboration and discovered that instead of the constant emphasis on joint goal-oriented activity (supported by all those memos and emails), giving people space to develop a solution to a problem is not such a bad idea. They divided their research subjects into three groups and gave each the problem of determining the shortest route for a salesman visiting different locations. In one group, the participants acted independently. A second group shared the solutions developed by individual team members as they were being developed, and the third group had only intermittent access to knowledge of what other team members had come up with.

It’s interesting to note that while the independent thinkers came up with solutions faster than the collaborators, they were on average less than optimum. The third group, the intermittent collaborators came up right as often as the individual thinkers, but their solutions were far better. (Given that it goes against the current grain, introducing this subtle concept into a training program is likely to be a challenge.)

One of the purposes of good training and employee development is not only to prepare and keep employees skilled and productive at their jobs, but also to reduce high turnover—let’s keep those well-trained people here where they belong. According to research at Boston College, a certain amount of turnover is good for bringing in fresh blood. Anything over 20%, however, can be destructive. Positions have to be advertised, candidates sought and interviewed, new hires have to be trained, and managers and the individuals themselves must invest time in getting up to speed, not only with their job but also the corporate culture.

Which brings us back to corporate philosophy and the “mood” of the training program. It turns out that employee retention rate can be increased when training includes emphasis that the company employees are working for, and perhaps the job they’re training up to do, has a social impact beyond the company’s explicit product or service. That is, helping the community beyond shareholders and customers, or what the theoreticians and the industry often refer to as “inclusive growth.” In a survey conducted by Deloitte, 38% of businesses found that convincing employees that the company they’re working for, and perhaps their own particular job, has a social impact beyond what appears to be an obvious corporate product or service helps increase employee engagement (as opposed to, say, increasing salaries) and encourages trained and experienced employees to stay with a company.

To this point, a study of employees working at a tech firm has fascinating applications for managers and trainers alike. A five-year review of employee emails revealed that personnel who were slow to learn the corporate lingo were more likely to be fired. On the other hand, those who were found to routinely veer away from the corporate culture in their messages were more likely to eventually quit. (Which suggests that trainers need to constantly aim for a zen-like middle ground.)

And what would a column about training be without some thoughts on AI? Helen Poitevin at Gartner in California, a company that focuses on workforce analytics and, among other things, planning data and talent management, looks at topics related to the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning. She reports that some firms are using AI to suggest training possibilities to employees based on the career path of other workers and to identify feedback so managers can identify areas where numbers of employees are disgruntled or less than happy at what they’re doing.

Books and reports about training and management are legion; a lot of them are bad, some are informative. Because keeping up with what academics and consulting firms have come up with is an HR challenge, when interesting material comes our way, we’ll try to pass it on to you. Next up: new challenges in software design and training.