Thursday, November 09, 2006

Special Feature - Is Training Snake Oil?

Note to readers: Sandra Welsman's article on the future of Australian higher education pointed to a rapidly changing environment, the key trends and what they might mean for the Australian University system. One of those trends is the growing importance of vocational training to the system. This starts with short courses and then extends into the full hierarchy of training offerings. This trend is clear. Yet, or so many would argue, it coincides with a malaise in the training arena itself.

On 16 November 2003 Sam Adkins and his colleagues published a long post on the US Learning Circuits blog ( Written from the perspective of corporate training and the corporate training department, the post looked at some of the reasons for the decline in the relevance and validity of the corporate training function. The post generated a huge response. This Ndarala staff paper reviews the debate. End

Sandra Welsman's provocative article (11 January 2006) on the future of Australian higher education suggested that by 2016 the highly structured Australian higher education system as we know it today may no longer exist, collapsing under the combined pressure of technological change, demographic change, global competition, regulatory change and changes in student demands and needs.

In its place, there would be a more complex system with a multiplicity of providers of varying sizes linked through alliances providing a wide range of options in terms of courses, content and delivery mode to an increasingly sophisticated student marketplace no longer prepared to accept previous educational shibboleths.

As she had intended, Sandra's views gerenerated debate, including debate among her fellow education and training professionals within Ndarala. A driver in that debate has been the problems, some would say malaise, within the training sector itself, problems that have direct implications for higher education changes.

This Ndarala staff paper draws together some of the threads within the on-going debate.

"We are the Problem. We are selling Snake Oil"

On 16 November 2003 Sam Adkins published a long post - We are the Problem: We are selling Snake Oil" - on the US Learning Circuits blog ( Written from the perspective of corporate training and the corporate training department, the post looked at some of the reasons for the decline in the relevance and validity of the corporate training function.

Sam began by noting that he had read the long tortuous posts bewailing the malaise of our educational systems. In his view, the problem was not there but lay with trainers themselves. Sam argued that there was now ample data to show that:
  • Training did not work. Around $US65 billion was spent every year in the US for training that had a dismal knowledge transfer ratio (2%), a dismal learning transfer rate (20-30%) and only accounted for 10% of the way peopleᅠacquired knowledge.
  • eLearning did not work. Trainers had been in denial about this. The drop-out, no-show rate was peaking at 70-80%. Users hated it because it was a learning product that was fundamentally incompatible with the workplace. Just-in-time really meant do-it-in-your-own-time. Work always trumped any other activity.
  • Blending Learning did not work. How could it? If snake oil did not work, how could bottling it in a variety of different containers increase its effectiveness? Look at the messaging of any vendor using the term Blended Learning - these were thinly veiled efforts to sidestep any complaint over a specific form factor. Customer complains about one and the conversations shifts to another. Clever
  • Knowledge Management did not work.. File management systems worked. Content management systems worked. Knowledge is not housed in hardware or software. It is a product of wetware.K M and eLearning will never merge. It is too late and doomed to failure. KM is now anathema to customers and eLearning is being replaced by collaboration, simulation and real-time workflow products. Merging two mythical creatures just gets you a hybrid mythical creature (shades of Chimera).
Collectively, this meant that trainers had been selling snake oil. They had to recognise this and directly address the problems if they were to halt the decline in corporate training.

Reader Response.

The post generated a huge response. Sam's views and the nature of the responses form the core of this paper in part because of the issues raised, in part because they provide an interesting counter point to the internal Ndarala discussion. Of importance here is the fact that the current geographical distribution of Ndarala professionals means that our discussion focus falls more within the Commonwealth and - to a lesser extent - European than the US streams of thought.

This leads to considerable differences in emphasis and focus.

This point can be illustrated by taking Australia as an example. The Australian education and training system is far more centralised and unified than the US system. So thoughts and concepts drawn from the combination of UK/Commonwealth and Australian experience are applied in a cross-system and unified way very different from that applying in the US.

A second interesting difference is that the majority of Ndarala's professionals interested in education and training have come to the area from different professional backgrounds whereas the majoirty of those responding to Sam in the original post appear to be first and foremost training and development specialists. Again this leads to interesting differences in perspective.

Education versus Training

Sam made the point up-front point that his data related solely to the corporate market. Accepting this, there was surprisingly little reference in discussion to the differences between education and training, to the evolving role of higher educational institutions in vocational training or to the changing relations between training and other parts of the education and training sector. Yet all three are important to the broader discussion.

At least in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, the delivery of various forms of vocational training has been the major growth area in higher education leading to an increasingly complex suite of offerings. This growth has been paralleled by a decline in interest in traditional non-vocational educational offerings.

At the same time, both subjects and approaches from the training arena have migrated into the education sector at all levels. There has been a rapid increase in the number of vocational subjects taught at school level, a significant growth in the degree of articulation and overlap between the previously separate school, technical training and university sectors, while approaches developed in vocational training (competencies, learning outcomes) are now applied from primary school up.
The broader implications of these trends lie at the heart of much of the internal Ndarala discussion about education and training. Some key threads in the discussion can be briefly summarised:
  • Structural change: The on-going convergence between sectors lies at the heart of Sandra's arguments about likely changes in the structure of Australia's higher education system.
  • Impact on down-stream curricula: Concepts and subjects once the domain of later university or technical training including that provided through corporate training departments are now widely taught at primary and secondary schools. Examples include process techniques such as project management or mind-mapping as well as subjects such as business studies whose curricula essentially mimics courses previously the domain of the universities or business schools. The educational value of some of this may be open to debate. However, what is clear is that the school level changes will force (are already forcing) changes in down stream offerings including corporate training.
  • Education vs training: One vexed and much debated issue in all this is the educational impact of the increasing overlap between education and training. Education focuses on critical thinking, whereas training is concerned with acquiring or enhancing the capacity to do a particular thing. The distinction between the two has always been a little blurred. Basic skills such as reading, writing or arithmetic have to be aquired, and indeed the perceived failure of the school system to give students the necessary skills has been a topic of public debate within countries such as Australia. Again, universities have long played a major role in particular types of vocational education. But today, or so many Ndarala people would argue, the overlap has become so great that education's traditional role in teaching critical thinking is in danger of being lost.
Fitness for Purpose

Many of the responses to Sam emphasised the need for training to properly meet needs. For example, failures in eLearning lay not so much in the system (here many argued that Sam's definition itself was too narrow) as in the innapropriate application of the approach. Many people also made a distinction between training or teaching - the process from the viewpoint of the trainer or teacher- and learning - the process as seen by the participant. A number suggested that in fact eLearning should be called eTeaching to make the distinction clearer.
The need for the form of training to be linked to the type of need to be met would be accepted by most if not all trainers. However, one surprising feature of the discussion in this case was the apparent absence of any structured way of linking different training types to differing training needs.

This has been a subject of some debate within Ndarala.

Most training involves some mix of knowledge (how & what to do), skills (the capacity to do), judgement (when to do) and attitude (willingness to do). Individual elements in this mix are better suited to different training modes.

Knowledge, for example, can be acquired via self-study with the acquisition measured through oral or written test. This allows for a variety of delivery modes including eLearning. By contrast, skills acquisition requires practice, practice that may need to continue after the formal training has been completed if the skill is to be really internalised. Certain types of skills may be capable of being taught, practiced and measured via simulators. Others, the softer management or communications skills are an example, require direct oversight and group interaction.

A key debate in the Group centres on the issue of just how far one can push the boundaries within delivery modes to accommodate different requirements within individual modes dictated by on-ground clientᅠrealities. Recognising that boundaries do shift with time and experimentation, our experience suggests that there remain certain types of training that cannot be delivered effectively in an on-line environment.

Competency Based Approaches

In all cases, however, you cannot define the most effective training mode until you have defined the learning outcomes, the exact results to be achieved from the training. This links to another important issue, the role of competence or competencies.

In this regard, one interesting feature of the debate from our perspective was the absence, with the exception of one disparaging remark, of any reference to competency based approaches.
To us, the importance of competency based approaches lies in the way they provide a structured approach to the definition and analysis of learning outcomes. In turn, this provides a base for the development of the best training approach in terms of content, delivery mode, assessment technique and subsequent evalation of results.

We would be the first to agree that Government mandated competency structures can create institutional rigidities. Indeed, some Ndarala professionals have withdrawn from the development and delivery of certain types of vocational education and training for just that reason. At the same time, our experience suggests that competency based approaches do provide an effective bridge between the definition of the need to be met on one side, the training approach to be adopted on the other.

Individual vs Organisational Needs

Another interesting thread in the debate was the potential conflict between individual and organisational needs, with many arguing that training failed because it failed to meet the needs of individual participants in the training.
From our experience, there are three sets of needs that have to be taken into account if corporate training is to be effective:
  • the organisational needs (objectives) of the organisation.
  • the needs of the trainees' work area or areas.
  • individual trainee needs.

The problem is that these needs can conflict. For example, an organisation wide program to upgrade general management skills may fail because of resistances at workplace and individual level. These conflicts need to be identified and managed as part of the overall training activity.

Individual Responsibility, Individual Needs

In discussions on ways of meeting individual needs, many participants pointed to changes in the way people learned with a particular emphasis on the on-line environment.

We would agree that younger generations who have grown up with technology respond to it and use it in different ways. We would also agree that the way people process information has changed. However, we would also argue that there has been a fundamental shift in developed countries in people's attitudes to work itself, a shift that has had a direct impact on individual approaches to training.

The end of life long employment together with constant corporate restructuring has forced individuals to change their attitudes to work. Whereas they were previously prepared to consider things that would aid their career within the individual organisation, people's focus has now shifted to things that will assist their career beyond the organisation.

This has had a significant impact on individual attitudes to training. People are simply less willing to do training unless there is a definable individual payback. Will it give me a marketable skill? How will it look on my CV? Will it build my network, give me new contacts? These changing attitudes need to be taken into account in the design of training activities.

Impact of Technology

Discussion on the impact of technology on the training function formed one one of the most interesting elements in the Adkin's debate. Of especial interest were the comments on the way that new technology has challenged the traditional training function, reducing its role and value.

Education and training has traditionally been the primary vehicle - the gate keeper - for the acquisition of new information and knowledge. We can see this in the old concept of the autodidact - the self taught man - as compared to those who had undergone formal education.

Today the web has made us (or at least those with access to the technology) all autodidacts.
This has had a significant impact on the traditional training function in that certain needs have diminished or even disappeared. This process will continue. As it does, training systems whose primary focus is in fact giving students access to information are likely to come uinder further challenge.

We see this as a real opportunity for the training profession. Increasingly, part of the role of the trainer is likely to become facilitating access by information overloaded, time poor trainees to required information when and as they need it.

This does not mean, however, that trainers will cease to be trainers becoming instead information management specialists. The trainer's focus will remain on the acquisition of information, knowledge for specific training purposes. In simplest terms, the on-line environment will provide an increasingly rich resource from which trainers can select the appropriate menu.

In turn, this will free the trainer to focus more on the purpose of training, including the skills enhancement component.

Assessing the Returns from Training

This final section of our discussion looks briefly at the returns from training.

Accepting that returns from individual training activities can vary greatly from negative to very positive, we have no doubt that investment in training is positive in aggregate terms. However, there is a problem here in that the returns from training can be divided in at least three ways:

  • There is the return to the individual participant. From an individual viewpoint, this may be negative, neutral or positive.
  • There is the return to the organisation. This return can be broken into two parts. There is the direct return from the training itself. Then, with good training, there are also spin-off benefits over and beyond those directly associated with the training. Again, these collective returns may be negative, neutral or positive for any individual training activity.
  • Finally, there is the broader national return. The skills acquired through training are carried on beyond the organisation providing the training to benefit others, creating externalities. This category of returns is likely to be positive in a national sense so long as the training has been of reasonable standard.

Much of the Adkin's discussion on returns focused on the return to the corporation and especially the direct return. We would agree that this return needs to be measured in a more rigorous fasfion. However, we would go further. We believe that:

  • Measurement should also generally take into account the return to the individual participants. If this is negative then the training is less likely to be of value to the corporation.
  • As much as possible, measurement at corporate level should attempt to assess the broader spin-off benefits to the corporation from individual training activities.
    Corporations should also look at and take into account broader national spin-offs from their training activities.

We have included the last point for two reasons.

First, this type of assessment can offer broader potential PR benefits in regard to both staff and external stakeholders.

Secondly and more importantly, aggregate changes in corporate training activities can have significant effects on the supply of skilled people within the economy. If each corporate limits its measurement of training returns to direct returns and thenᅠrelates training spend to those returns, the presence of externalities means that overall industry training spend will necessarily be lower than the optimum case.

To illustrate by an Australian example. The Australian electricity industry went through a process ofᅠrestructuring, corporatisationᅠand in some cases privatisation. As part of this process industry participants cut back on their recruitment and training of linemen. This subsequently led to very major shortages, imposing substantial additional direct and indirect costs on the industry. These costs exceeded the previous savings.

In making this point we do recognise the problems involved in overcoming this type of situtation, including the difficult free-rider problem. However, we believe that if firms do attempt to measure broader costs and returns, then they are going to be in a better position to respond proactively.


The paper is copyright Ndarala 2006. However, it can be quoted, copied or reproduced with due acknowledgement. The following should be included for citation purposes. Ndarala Staff Paper, Is Training Snake Oil?, January 2006.

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