Special Report: Why (most) training is still useless and what leaders can do about it

Part 1: The continued scepticism of participants towards training


Report Summary

In 2006, David Maister argued that “the majority of business training is a waste of money and time, because only a microscopic fraction of training is ever put into practice and the hoped-for benefits obtained.” Over a decade later and research suggests his assertion still remains worryingly pertinent.

While it might be hard to admit, the ineffectiveness of training in many professional services firms is often a direct result of the perceived attitudes and behaviours of the firm’s leaders towards training.

In this four part special report, we begin by examining participants’ continuing scepticism of training based on their overriding perceptions of leaders’ attitudes towards the training programmes they attend and the perceived value – or lack of it – often placed on what they have learned once they return to the office.

The second half of the report will suggest how leaders can turn the situation around in their firms, by adopting a ‘Broken Windows’ strategy as famously used in New York in the early 1990s.

In Part 1, we begin by examining the prevailing scepticism and apathy towards training that exists among many professional services employees…

Part 1: The continued scepticism of participants towards training

Over a decade ago, David Maister made a damning assessment on the state of training in professional services firms.

Mostly, he argued, it is useless.

The uncomfortable truth for those of us responsible for learning and development is that many of training’s shortcomings highlighted by Maister still appear to ring true today.

Despite enthusiasm during individual training programmes, many working within professional services remain sceptical regarding the effectiveness of training in general.

As Maister predicted, participants still see training as a standalone ‘tick box’ exercise, a nice opportunity to learn new behaviours and concepts, but for the most part a redundant exercise – unlikely to be something that firms who have invested heavily in training initiatives want to hear or admit.

And here is something else they probably don’t want to hear or admit: one of the main reasons Maister believed (most) training was useless over a decade ago and why participants still believe they won’t be able to apply these ideas back in the workplace is the perceived attitude and behaviours of senior leadership towards training[1]

“Our managers haven’t been trained in this new approach”

“We won’t have time to use these ideas or behaviours back in the office”

“Our Partners don’t follow these processes”

The result of leadership’s perceived indifference is that people who have attended training programmes simply accept that they will “go back to the way they have always workedresigned to the fact that’s just the way things are around here.”

What leaders of professional services firms often fail to recognise is that when it comes to changing behaviours – the aim of most training programmes – then perception is everything.

Whether training initiatives are successful (or not) comes down to employees’ perception of which behaviours the firm legitimises and whether the leaders of the firm have the desire, power, appetite or willingness to coach, model and ultimately ‘police’ the adoption of the newly trained skills, behaviours and frameworks.

In part 2 of this report, we will examine the negative perceptions of leaders’ attitudes towards training held by many in the workforce and why these prevailing beliefs might beg the question “what’s the point of training?” in many professional services firms…


[1] Following each of our training programmes, we ask participants “What difficulties do you anticipate in applying what you have learned?” These are some of the answers we have received from the last year.

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