Article: Understanding the Scope & Limitations of Training

Employee Engagement

Understanding the Scope & Limitations of Training

Learning delivery is far more complex than how it is seen and it is crucial to identify the limitations
Understanding the Scope & Limitations of Training

Capability building is a conundrum. The model of Knowledge, Skills and Behavior in my view is often oversimplified. Many are often confused on what is amenable to training or education. Even what is training is a huge area of oversimplification. I say this from my 30 years of experience as a conceptualizer, designer and deliverer of learning. Learning is far more complex than putting content, pedagogy, learning material and a teacher/trainer in a room full of learners. The first notion we need to reexamine is, what can be imparted in a classroom or through structured cognitive content. Research clearly states that less than 30% of learning happens in a class room and 70% on the job with the boss and significant superiors as the tutors. In this approach paper, I have attempted to enumerate the scope and limitations of class room or virtual class room training.

Understanding the scope and limitation of imparting Cognitive Knowledge

Knowledge has two parts:

One which is cognitive (Thinking) and amenable to codification The other which can be learnt only experientially (Behavioral) All that is in the realm of information, principles, rules, norms, laws, definitions, process, work flows and technical arguments lends itself to be standardized and codified. However all that is in the domain of human behavior, even perspectives, have a limited scope for codification and almost negligible scope of imparting in a classroom. Therefore it is prudent to focus on how we can blend the two into any learning agenda.

If we accept this argument then there is a requirement for standardizing content around various aspects of banking or any other domain for several reasons:

One, the cost of each organization creating codified and standardized content deters them from attempting it in the first place. This results in assembling non standardized content and imparting it to staff is that it produces unreliable and inconsistent outcomes.

Second, when practitioners put training content together, their ability to codify practice into knowledge and annotate with structured cases/exercises is limited. Most content then take the form of a power point presentation. At best they lace a presentation with illustrations or anecdotes.

Third, the nature and quality of knowledge recall becomes questionable when knowledge is acquired in a non-standardized and non-codified manner. Hence such knowledge when applied to real life situations, results in questionable outcome. When non-standard and un-codified knowledge is taught by teachers there is a further loss of content or inadequate/erroneous transmission of knowledge.

Fourth the learner also is focused on memorizing the content and not contextual recall and application of knowledge. This is where the application end of knowledge remains cognitive, impacting actual outcomes in real life situations.

Most of the corporate training suffers this problem. Hence we will find staff scoring well on proficiency tests but they falter when it comes to applying the knowledge on the job. In my experience the relationship between test proficiency and job proficiency is very poor. This is largely due to the way knowledge is codified, transmitted and proficiency is confirmed (not tested). We suffer the same malady that the Indian education system suffers. So we need to think through a better way for confirming proficiency of knowledge.

Lastly any attempt to build skill before building the foundation through knowledge will make skill building a waste. The reason building selling skills efforts fail is either there is very little focus on building application oriented domain knowledge or over focus on class room and role play based skill building efforts. Most of the times it is both. Take for example detection of counterfeit currency notes or cheques. Any amount of memorizing the features and rules without practice will not yield results. Similarly any amount of practicing without internalizing the rules will also not yield results.

Understanding the scope and limitation of Skill Building

The domain of skill building is trickier than the domain of imparting knowledge. Skill by definition is application of knowledge and psycho-motor ability to create an outcome. It is contextual. It mainly develops through repetitive practice. Skills are highly dependent on individual ability and organizational culture. Any attempt to codify skill development or centralize the specifics of skill development is fraught with danger of failure. This having said, it is possible to develop a generalized approach to skill development as a structured exercise manual and tutors’ guideline, than as a reading and recall based module. We should remember that skill is hugely context and culture dependent. For example there can be a general approach to imparting credit appraisal skills, but the specifics will be determined by the individual and the organization’s risk appetite. Skill building exercises can be developed around this and made available to the tutor for customization. We can even recommend a structured approach to use this exercise in the classrooms. We can summarize the preferred learning options but unlike knowledge verification, skill proficiency testing will be unreliable. Take customer service as an example for this. Rushing to test proficiency on customer service after class room training will be futile. It is 3 to 6 months after the class room training and focused on-the-job practice that proficiency testing becomes meaningful. Yet the reliability will be limited.

Skill has large elements of behavioral and motivational elements along with the cognitive part. Knowing and doing are not the same. Skill is largely in the execution domain. The deficiencies in skill become stark, because it is just one step away from outcomes. When organisations attempt to deal with skill deficiency through more and more class room based interventions, they find little meaningful improvement in the skills of their employees. This is like teaching safe driving in a class room or giving an injection to a patient or checking pulse or blood pressure, without applying it on a human. At best diagnostic skills can be taught in a class room. Even that requires practice – not one or two exercises but at least 50, even 100 practice trials, like our math or physics or accountancy learning. That is why the saying, “Practice makes perfection”.

No skill can reach a level of proficiency at the end of the period of tutelage in a class room. All skill training is focused on introducing and initiating training, to a process and imbibing a discipline of acquiring skills. It can even prescribe, like in a case of physical exercise, a practice regime. But it will be over simplification to believe that the trainee will achieve any level of proficiency in any skill immediately after the classroom session. Post training, on-the- job support structure has to be created for skill maturity and proficiency attainment. Maturity and proficiency of skills happen many months and many years after leaving the classroom. Almost all corporates fail in creating this post class room support structure of continued practice with discipline. Imagine a violinist or a pilot or a surgeon or a software writer not practicing regularly. When people stop performing a skilled activity for a prolonged period, skill erodes. So it is imperative that this dimension of skill building is given importance.

Understanding the scope and limitation of Behavior Modification

Certain skills are cognitive, most are behavioral. Technically, perspectives fall into conceptual skills and diagnosis and problem solving into analytical skills. Both are cognitive in nature. It is easier to create a standardized or semi standardized regimen for cognitive skills through exercises and workbooks. Aspects like selling, servicing and leadership skills are overwhelmingly behavioral in nature. Behavioral skills have the difficulty of requirement of a real life situation in order to trigger aspects of motivation and consequences. Hence any amount of scripted or unscripted role plays or even well-crafted behavioral exercises in a classroom can only serve the purpose of comprehension or feedback on action- consequences and not result in behavior modification. Skill by definition is a function of Aptitude, Ability, Attitude and Motivation. Hence in the domain of skilling we can at best achieve a recommended approach and not standardizing all the details.

Aptitude is the personal interest or likes/dislikes of a person to something amongst the available choices. Where there are no choices or there is insurmountable compulsion then aptitude plays no role. Attitude on the other hand is a manifestation of personal orientation in a context, based on one’s characteristics. Attitude impacts aptitude. It is a near impossibility to modify Aptitude through any training interventions. For example where there is a choice available, to get a person whose Aptitude to sales is poor to elect for a sales job or discharge it with commitment is very difficult. However when there are no jobs available but only sales job or there is a severe survival compulsion someone may elect sales job, even though he does not have an aptitude. If the dislike is very strong he will perform poorly on the job no matter what the training is. On the other hand if the dislike is marginal and due to lack of knowledge or exposure to the job; being in the job and succeeding in it, increases the probability that the incumbent may start liking it. Here training and skill building can help.

On the other hand Attitude is a function of one’s beliefs crafted by experiences in life. It is a personal identity marker. Like intensity and optimism in my case. So whenever we talk of attempting to shift Attitudes of individuals, group or communities, we are entering the domain of helping them negotiate personal ideologies. Though it may not be as deep as negotiating Beliefs, it is however only one step less difficult. Let us take for example the behavior on customer service. If the staff has an attitude that personally serving a cup of tea to the customer is demeaning to him, it is driven by his belief that certain acts are demeaning. Now this belief will shape his service attitude and will reflect in his behavior on what acts of service is demeaning and hence he will not feel comfortable doing it. Similarly if the staff believes that winning is the definition of success and losing is disaster, the attitude that will drive the behavior is, avoid losing at any cost. The corollary is winning at any cost. The behavior will be hyper competitiveness or playing on the edges to avoid losing. Mis-selling as a behavior or blaming others including customers for a failure, emanates from this attitude. Attitude to credit or market risk while it will appear to be more cognitive, in reality is behavioral. Individuals will be blind to any amount of data, analytics and information when their beliefs distort their judgment (Judgment is the behavior).

Eminent behavioral psychologists such as Pavlov and B.F Skinner were confident that Behavior can be modified. Skinner approaches changing Behavior by using conditioning and by enforcing controls to prevent a certain Behavior or encourage a certain Behavior. This is irrespective of what the Attitude is. When people stay at a certain Behavior for long with the help of an external stimulus, the internal stimulus called Attitude may also shift. Beliefs need not be changed immediately. So they suggest positive reinforcements (rewards), negative reinforcements (reprimands) and punishments (penalty/fine) to modify behavior. When we say Culture, we should understand that it is the attitude of a collective. Culture change is hence a change in attitude of a collective. We can approach it through both Behavior which is seen & verifiable and Beliefs which is unseen & unverifiable. Approaching it through Behavior modification gives a higher probability of success and is relatively easier. The belief route is almost impossible in an organizational context.

Training has no role in changing Beliefs. However training has some impact in modifying Behavior. The higher impact in Behavior modification happens through a combination of training, sustained exposure to a new context and effective use of positive/ negative reinforcements and punishments. In the absence of these, the impact of training on Behavior modification is nothing but a chance. So where the skill we are dealing with is largely behavioral and not cognitive, if skill building is not paired with organizational policies on positive/negative reinforcement and punishment, it is unlikely to yield results, especially if a culture change is required. Policies, processes and systems serve as guard rails when it comes to Attitude – Behavior. Equally important is the visible behavior of the seniors and role models. Whenever we embark on behavioral skill building, we need to take care that if the learner finds what is expected of her, is at variance with the conduct of the seniors and the role models, then she is more likely to adapt to what she sees and not what is asked of her.

What we call as Behavior modification is Habit Formation. When habit formation happens then Attitudes get negotiated, while Beliefs may take much longer to change. Hence people have a tendency to regress back to the old behavior time and again: Hence the need for support structures.

In conclusion let us take selling; it requires product/domain knowledge, Process/system knowledge, articulation, planning & preparedness, self-confidence, sociability, perseverance, not feeling demotivated by repeated rejections and closure orientation. The knowledge aspects can be imparted in a class room – physical or virtual. Articulation can be initiated in a class room and proficiency attained with a supportive boss/coach on-the-job. Planning & preparedness can be delivered through processes, systems and work flows. It is the pure attitude based parts such as self-confidence, sociability, perseverance, not feeling demotivated by repeated rejections and closure orientation which poses a challenge. These cannot be developed in a class room or through training. If the entire ability package knowledge, skill and attitude-behavior are not well developed, performance will be deficient. We can map this for all aspects of work and conclude what part of human learning and development is amenable to training and education and what is beyond it. If efforts are misdirected then there is no point in lamenting on the ineffectiveness of training, for we may be attempting something which training cannot deliver.

© 2014, K. Ramkumar. Used by permission. Originally published at

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Topics: Employee Engagement, Learning & Development, #ExpertViews

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