A rant against lookalike training programs

Similar looking training programs are as harmful as giving the same medicine for different illnesses.

As a professional trainer, I hear this a lot: “Could you ensure that the training program is engaging, activity-based, and includes an action-planning exercise at the end”?


I think it is a well-intentioned request. And granted, activities and action-planning have their advantages.
But when I sit down to design the structure of the training intervention, a different question occupies my mind: What is the purpose of training and what kind of program will best meet that purpose? To me, that is the Big Question in training. Often, the answer may not include activities. The end-of-program action planning may not fit in either.


But we’re jumping the gun here. Let us start from the beginning. And take a first-principles look at training. We start with purpose. Then we inspect the question: if the purpose of training changes, does the structure of the program change materially?

Training purpose

At first glance, every training intervention has the same purpose: to improve learners’ ability. Under closer scrutiny, this purpose can be one of 3 types.


The first type of purpose is giving NEW KNOWLEDGE to learners. Consider programs on informing people about product specifications, operating procedures or financial terminology. In these examples, the moment a learner knows something new, the job is done… the learner has improved. This is arguably the simplest kind of training program, and easy to get right. Academic programs cater to this objective.


Another training purpose is teaching NEW SKILLS. This is a different animal, and a tougher one to tame. Examples of skills relevant to organisations are coaching, selling, teaching, project planning or grievance handling. Sure enough, all of them do have a knowing component, but what really counts is the ability to implement that knowledge. The learner can be said to have improved only if she can do things differently; mere knowing isn’t enough. So a program built to teach skills needs to go further than an academic program.


A third purpose of training interventions is generating NEW BELIEFS. Examples of beliefs are “Cooperation is good”, “When I am wrong, it is OK to admit it” or “I am capable of more”. This situation is different from the first two in an important way. While learners with little knowledge or skills are possible, you can’t have a learner with no existent beliefs! New beliefs don’t fill a vacuum… they must unseat old beliefs. And that makes this kind of intervention the most difficult one, and its design very unique.


It is also common to have programs where the purpose is a combination of the above three. Suppose we want managers to give constructive feedback to team members.
This needs knowledge of appropriate ways to give feedback and common pitfalls to avoid. The skill component also comes in… being able to handle a real feedback conversation, which can get complicated and unpredictable. One may need to deal with strong emotions or rescue the conversation from digression: these are situations where knowing and doing are different abilities. Finally, beliefs play a role too. The learner must believe that feedback works in practice if done well. This needs to replace the old belief “Feedback is useless because people don’t listen”. Unless that happens, the newfound knowledge & skill will simply lie in the manager’s toolkit, unused.


Moving on to the design of the training intervention, we’ll inspect all 4 varieties of training interventions, starting with the 3 pure-play purposes.

Designing for new knowledge

If new knowledge is the main objective, it needs to be done in 2 stages.


The first stage ensures TRANSFER OF INFORMATION. The traditional way of doing this has been engaging an expert to meet the learners and talk about the new knowledge; and that works for small groups. But if there is a huge learner population which is spread out globally and speaks different languages, multi-lingual and online modes are used.
Since knowledge suffers from attenuation (forgetting), there is a need for a second stage. It enables REVISITING of information, which cements recently acquired knowledge. Without this, only the most actively used bits of knowledge will be retained; the rest will be forgotten. The revisiting is possible in multiple ways. The expert can return for a summary session. The learners can be tested for recall after they have an opportunity to review recently acquired knowledge. Or they can be called upon to teach the knowledge to others, thus forcing a revision as they prepare themselves.


Design for new skills

The design for an up-skilling program also has 2 broad stages. But the stages look very different from those in the knowledge-focussed program.

The first stage is an opportunity to know the technique by WATCHING A DEMONSTRATION. It is an opportunity to see how the finished product looks. It also sets learners’ expectations and gives them a goal to aspire for. Faculty-led role plays, either live or video-recorded, are a time-tested method for this.


In the second stage, we help the learner move from knowing to doing. The learner must go through multiple cycles of PRACTISING & RECEIVING FEEDBACK. The multiple cycles must challenge the learner to practice skills in increasingly difficult scenarios. The feedback from the expert ensures course correction at the earliest sign of deviation… without feedback, suboptimal versions of the skill can get ingrained in the learner. The second stage is not a single event but a series of events, which may be held intermittently, say once a week. The idea is to provide frequent and aided practice. Learner-led role plays are an appropriate method for this stage.


For hard-to-master skills, the 2 stages can be interleaved. Initially, demonstrations and practice of the skill in easy situations are held. This cycle is then repeated multiple times for increasingly more challenging contexts. Think of it as mastering the alphabet first, before moving on to words, then sentences and so on.

Design for new beliefs

Recall that new beliefs need to displace existing ones. Accordingly, the first step in such an intervention is to arrange a DISRUPTIVE EXPERIENCE. This is an opportunity to discard existing beliefs which may be dysfunctional or unhealthy. Learners are encouraged to inspect old beliefs in the light of new information or experience and decide whether a change is due. Consider the example of a program on communication skills. If learners believe that they are already excellent communicators, they aren’t likely to invest much attention during the program. But what if their communication ability is put to a challenging test, which returned mixed results? That is likely to make the learner sit up and say “Maybe I have much to learn”. This ‘test’ then, becomes the disruptive experience.
Once this happens, one must INTRODUCE NEW BELIEFS for the learners’ consideration. These are healthier for the learner or conducive to better relationships or work outcomes. The timing of this step is crucial… do this step too soon, and it won’t work. You cannot refill a cup until it is emptied first. In our ongoing example, a new belief could be “With some effort, dramatic improvements in communication ability are possible”


In a pureplay “new beliefs” program, the first two stages are commonly arranged as intense outbound programs, meetings with inspiring figures or meditation/reflection retreats.


Newly acquired beliefs are like tender saplings… they need nurturing in order to take root firmly. So, a third stage is necessary. This stage provides CONFIRMATION of the new beliefs. The learner is encouraged to assess whether new data or recent experiences support the new beliefs. A positive assessment further deepens or confirms the new beliefs. Observation logs, reflection diaries and review discussions aided by a facilitator are good ways of doing this.

Design of a multi-purpose intervention

We’ve seen earlier that some interventions involve all 3 purposes. How do we combine the design elements of various purposes in such a case? Well, the chronology needs to be:
1. Instil NEW BELIEF first. That creates fertile ground for subsequent knowledge/skills input.
2. Then, provide NEW KNOWLEDGE & SKILL


In practice, we don’t wait for new beliefs to take root before starting with new knowledge and skills. Rather, an interleaving of both strands is necessary. Conducive beliefs pave the way for intake of knowledge; and application of that knowledge (skill use) provides the experience needed to confirm the new beliefs. A chicken and egg situation, and fortunately, one that can be managed.


It is useful to think of the structure in terms of a LARGE HEAD and a LONG TAIL.
Several things happen in this phase. Learners inspect beliefs that may be dysfunctional or may stop them from imbibing new things. They also come to know the rudiments of the skill involved. This phase can be a single workshop and may vary in duration from a day to several days, depending on how broad the topic is. A narrow topic like Delegation may require just half a day; whereas Negotiation which is an umbrella term for several skills requires 2 days or more.


The long tail is so named because it stretches over several weeks. This is where the skill is repeatedly practised under the guidance of the expert. It is also an opportunity to reflect on ongoing experiences and decide whether the new belief set is borne out in real life. Revisiting of knowledge occurs automatically if the skill practise is regular.

Isn’t there a short-cut?

This model of an effective intervention stretches out over several weeks. It needs commitment to follow the entire process. But resistance to this format of training comes from an unlikely quarter… the supervisors of learners, who demanded the training to start with. They don’t like the loss of productivity when the learner is away attending a training session. So, the search for a short cut begins.


Typically, they settle for a watered-down version of the intervention. Sometimes, the long tail is folded up and packed into the large head; at other times, the tail is chopped off completely! The hope is: if we follow part of the process, we’ll get at least some results. But human learning is somewhat like leaping across a chasm; a half-hearted leap doesn’t help.

In conclusion

Every kind of training intervention can be made engaging. Training methods like activities, action planning or role-plays need to be thought of as building blocks, which may or may not be needed to deliver results. But intervention design must be determined primarily by the purpose of training.
Photo credit: Sharon Benton on Unsplash