Why most up-skilling programs fail. And what to do about it?

A practical primer on ensuring that your investment in up-skilling programs will pay you back.

Deja vu.

We have been over this so many times. A well-defined skills training need appears. An appropriate trainer is found. The training program design looks good too, with a workshop for the group of learners, followed by multiple coaching sessions for individuals. The intervention passes off without incident. A few months later, an inspection of learners’ skills shows that not much has changed. The needle hasn’t moved.

Usual suspects

Disappointed L&D staff try to remedy the situation for the next batch of learners. They replace the trainer, but even with a new trainer, the entire cycle repeats itself. Other suspects like program duration (“maybe it was too short”) or learner selection (“maybe we chose the wrong participants”) are also explored, acted upon, but the result is still the same.

Action replay

Let’s take a closer look at what actually happens during and after a training program, a sort of action replay. Possibly, we may detect where things are going wrong. Here is the participants’ journey as they go through the workshop and coaching intervention.
Unless people have been coerced into training programs, they attend the initial workshops with enthusiasm. They hope that they will learn something relevant to their jobs.
As the workshop draws to a close, there is the customary action-planning exercise. According to it, they must intentionally practice new skills on the job during the next few weeks. So far so good.
The most diligent participants start off on their action plans immediately. They start trying out the new skills they’ve learnt. But doubts surface (“Am I doing this right?”). And predictably, they make mistakes, which is natural for anyone trying out new skills for the first time. The boss gets alarmed (“Wasn’t this training supposed to improve things?”). Faced with this barrage of difficulties, participants do what is most expedient: go back to doing things the old way. It’s the safe thing to do.
But remember, that was the diligent minority. What about the majority of participants? They get swamped by the usual whirlwind of work and end up not practising new skills at all. To compound matters, nobody notices this, because it is a continuation of how the participants were before the training. As time goes by, the workshop, its learnings and the action plan become distant memories.
Then comes the intermittent coaching support. In session after session, participants complain of not having found the time to practice. The coach provides some guidance and encouragement. But it is like holding a candle in front of a storm. The inertia of old ways and the difficulties of using new skills are too overwhelming, for the coach to make a dent.
The typical program design
is too feeble to change hardwired habits

The real culprit

From the story, it is clear that lack of implementation support is the culprit behind ineffective training programs.
The days and weeks immediately after the workshop are a critical period for the learner. Depending on the support receive at this time, the learner will either bring new skills to her work or will revert to the old ways.
The meagre coaching support we usually provide just isn’t enough.
What will help?


Let’s reverse engineer this problem. Let’s take a few instances where new skills do develop and identify why they do.
How do we learn to drive a car? It is usually 4 steps:
Step 1: Drive on empty road. Frustration: The gear just won’t engage! Encouragement from driving instructor to the rescue.
Step 2: Next day, drive on road with light traffic. Embarrassment: Stalled in the middle of the road! Feedback and encouragement from driving instructor again helps.
Step 3: After a few days, drive on road with heavy traffic. First success: back home safe! Driving instructor didn’t have to lift a finger today.
Step 4: Finally, drive alone. Without driving instructor!
The magic ingredients seem to be:
• Frequent practice, gradually increasing in level of difficulty
• Help from a skilled person during the struggle
The same secret sauce can be detected in so many upskilling examples. Learning to cook. Learning our first language. Learning to play the guitar.
But there’s something else here, something subtle. We don’t succeed if the practising of the new skill is optional.
We don’t learn to drive or cook if there’s someone else to do it for us. We don’t learn a foreign language easily because we can get by with our first language. Kids who get carried around a lot don’t learn walking quickly enough.
So, we must modify our formula to:
• Mandatory and frequent practice, gradually increasing in level of difficulty
• Help from a skilled person during the struggle
Here is a more business-like example, which illustrates the same principle.
In the year 2000, I was at Asian Paints, during a company-wide roll-out of a new ERP software. The pre-rollout training was done (“the workshop”). On the D-day, the old software was switched off. People had no option but to use the new system for their daily work (“mandatory frequent practice”). Technical glitches and lack of clarity made the experience difficult for people (“struggle”). The IT department, having anticipated this, already had a help-desk (“skilled help”). A few weeks later, when the dust settled, we had better software, with up-skilled users of the software. No doubt, the change was accompanied by some pain, struggle and effort to adjust, but that’s what it took
Post workshop support should be
mandatory, frequent and with guided practice

Acid Test

As the final piece of this puzzle, let’s see how to use our secret sauce in the training context.
Here is a typical training need: “Managers must learn to conduct performance appraisal meetings, which are constructive and raise performance”.
The intervention could start with a workshop where learners “see” and “experience” what appraisal meetings should be like. This is ideally done for a group of learners. The emphasis is more on conceptual clarity, rather than on practice.
Then, post-workshop phase starts, where assisted practice is emphasised.
Every individual learner attends pre-scheduled practice sessions. The initial ones have dummy appraisees, and they simulate easy situations. As time passes, more difficult situations are practised.
The pre-scheduling is key here… without it, participants are likely to get swept away by demands of usual work, and the practice may not happen at all.
Help from a skilled trainer is available throughout the practice sessions. The trainer’s job is to observe and provide feedback and encouragement. In addition, she records improvement in the participants’ appraisal skills and decides if the participant is action-ready.
Finally, the learner must face a real-life appraisee. If the organisational climate allows it, this meeting may also be video recorded, or be done in the presence of the trainer. That will provide one more round of practice.
If the above method is followed, a very high proportion of learners will be able to upskill.
Real-life change in skills or habits
necessarily involves growth pains.
Support to the learner
during the struggle is critical for change


Making training effective is not rocket science. It is about implementing the “long tail” of compulsory, frequent, aided practice.
And that takes some resolve. The resolve to budget adequately. To get buy-in of learners and their managers alike, so that they commit adequate time. The resolve to follow-through.
With resolve, there is hope.

Photo credit: Ricky Kharawala on Unsplash