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

Part 2 – The perceptions of leaders’ attitudes towards training in firms

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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 2 of the series below, we 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…

Part 2 – The perceptions of leaders’ attitudes towards training in firms

Unfortunately, within many professional services firms, the following perceptions prevail among the workforce:

Perception 1 – Our leaders are indifferent to the firm’s training initiatives:

In many firms, as long as hours are billed, projects run adequately, utilisation is high and clients don’t complain, then senior leaders have little motivation or inclination to ask people to move from the status quo.

But if the status quo is acceptable, and leaders are happy for everyone to carry on working in the way they have always done, indeed, if they, the firm’s leadership, are not inclined to stop working in the way they have always done, why should anyone else use newly acquired skills or behaviours? As Maister notes:

“Too often junior people are sent off to be trained and they continue to speculate whether their seniors or leaders are really committed and serious about the topics being discussed. As previously noted, they often are not.”

Senior leaders might point to their firm’s values, principles or mission statements to refute this argument.

However, the critical point is: values are what not what you aspire to (“we are truly committed to the training and development of all our employees”), values are what you are prepared to enforce with consequences for non-compliance (as outlined by Maister in this ‘Values in Action’ podcast), which leads us neatly onto the next prevailing perception…

Perception 2: The use of new skills is not only not encouraged – applying them can actually be riskier in the short term:

Within some firms, the overriding perception is that there are no consequences for not using the behaviours, skills or tools learned on a training programme.

Indeed, in many firms – which remain ‘activity driven’ – the consequences of using the newly adopted behaviours, skills and frameworks can be worse than not using them.

Consider the accounting firm employee who runs a successful audit but takes longer because they were adopting a new approach for the first time. Will management be pleased because the employee successfully used the newly acquired approach or disappointed because recovery rates for that client will be lower?

If old ways of working continued to be tolerated, what is the motivation for anyone to change their behaviour?

Perception 3: Lack of alignment on what people are trained in and how they are managed:

In many firms, there remains little alignment between training initiatives and how people are managed or measured. This is most evident when considering the key performance metrics still used in many firms.

Rather than performance being measured on the application of the new behaviours, participants find themselves being judged on traditional ‘sacred cow’ performance metrics – such as billable hours, utilisation and chargeable time.

In many law firms for example, where billable hours remain a key indicator of performance, are individuals really motivated to try newly acquired behaviours that might bring efficiencies and reduce the number of hours they bill?

“What’s the Point?”

In summary, if an employee attends a training programme with the predominant perception that when she returns to the firm her managers won’t use the learned behaviours themselves, that she will be given little opportunity to put the learning into practice and there will be no consequences for not adopting the learning, no doubt she has a right to question “what’s the point of the training programme?”, resigned to the fact that nothing will change.

Firms will continue to waste precious time, money and resources on training initiatives with little impact beyond the initial learning event unless they commit to some fundamental changes.

Professional services leaders need to show they have the desire, influence, clout and motivation to ensure the adoption of newly learned skills and behaviours.

But how?

How can management change employees’ perceptions so that they view training as a vital component of the firm’s success? How can leadership ensure training initiatives lead to behaviour change well beyond the learning event? How can leaders remove the prevailing apathy and snap people out of their malaise towards training initiatives?

For inspiration, we would like to take you back in time to New York City in the early 1990s…

In Part 3 of the series, we will examine the ‘Broken Windows’ strategy adopted by Rudy Giuliani in the early 1990s to reduce the high levels of crime in New York. This novel approach to policing fundamentally shifted the population’s mindset from that of apathy and resignation at the situation to one of unity, social responsibility and strong values by signalling “this is the way things will be around here from now on”…

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