Article: Draining the (training) swamp

Strategic HR

Draining the (training) swamp

HR often gets sucked into the quicksand of following one training fad after another. Here are a few commonsensical ways to facilitate learning that contributes to performance and growth.
Draining the (training) swamp

A few months back I came across an ad for a training program doing the rounds of HR groups. I quote verbatim lest I be accused of exaggerating: "Learn leadership skill from Horses (horses reflect your communication skills immediately). No prior experience required … Certified trainer from Germany." Is it any wonder that HR practitioners in general and our training brethren in particular are the butts of derision and ridicule from line managers? And have no doubts that when CEOs crib about wasteful and pointless expenses, training (of the equine or asinine variety) frequently tops the list.1

There are three fundamental flaws that vitiate much of the training HR proudly offers to employees currently:

  • Superficiality
  • Softness
  • Shaky foundations

Superficial and short

A few years back, among the most common training programs (outside of the ubiquitous 'soft' skills training which we will deal with in the next section) were those whose target audiences were supposedly uninitiated lay-managers. 'Finance for Non-Finance Executives' was a perennial evergreen, as was the trusty mule, 'Labor Laws for Line Managers', which could be trotted out whenever there was a blank in the training calendar. These one-day stands, which continue to be prevalent today (albeit with far snazzier titles), are symptomatic of a larger trend to fill training schedules with the simplest of offerings, which require the least design time and can be crammed down the throats of the maximum number of employees. Even the day is far too long for the viral webinar pandemic that COVID-19 brought in its wake. But its hour-short duration is not the main reason that makes almost every webinar an energy-draining waste of time. It will take an entire column to deal with the handicaps of this particularly horrid progeny of necessity. 

One cannot learn a substantive theory, method or skill in a day or two. At best it can be an amuse-bouche to awaken a desire to learn.

Such brevity, whatever it does for wit, will certainly not boost employee proficiencies in any significant manner. I am afraid the argument that the millennial generation has ever-decreasing spans of attention just won’t cut any ice. They are fully capable of undertaking rigorous courses of college study extending over months and years, so it is only the failure of our andragogical methods2 which makes them inattentive in long-duration corporate training. As Darren Smith points out, "There is a huge difference between what science knows and what business does, when companies train their people. This is why HR Directors, HR Managers, L&D Managers and Sales & Marketing Directors need to 'say no to one day training courses'."3 Retained and practically applicable learning requires pre-training preparation, dissemination through a blend of methodologies, practice and, finally, repeated on-the-job use. "Learners who receive repetitions, retrieval practice, feedback, variety (and other potent learning methods) are more likely to remember than learners who do not receive such learning support."4 This is impossible in the tiny travesties (increasingly web-based) that pass for training.

Soft and soppy

Abraham Maslow is supposed to have said: "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail". Let me then claim the credit for: "To an HR-person who can provide only soft skills training, every problem looks solvable simply by soft skills training". Certainly, that’s the way it appears to employees and managers who are hungry for a more nutritionally balanced training diet. Of course, training in interpersonal and other behavioral skills has a vital place in the training offerings any company has for its people. However, they cannot be a substitute for the functionally relevant knowledge and skills that working professionals need and seek. There are three types of vital functional and management training that can get crowded out by overemphasizing just the behavioral nail which is the only one most HR trainers know how to hammer. 

The first value-addition people expect from training is the technical expertise to do their present jobs better and be prepared for future jobs or the new demands changing technology, company strategy, customer expectations or regulations could bring. Recent business news has carried reports of IT majors laying off thousands of employees purportedly because their skills are outdated. If this claim is true, either these giants have training capabilities that would shame companies one-tenth their sizes or they are expending them disproportionately on soft-skills programs.

The next level of training support important for employees is what equips them generally for a major career progression which confronts them with a totally different set of challenges and demands very different skills for solving them. Some of these inputs will doubtless need to be behavioral, but providing only the soft umbrella risks drenching all these career hopefuls in showers of functional incompetence in their new roles. 

Lastly, when people change tracks mid-career (whether because of personal interest or because the organization needs to redeploy them) there is a huge amount of knowledge and skill training they need.

In the absence of it, even strong performers falter, doing damage to their own reputation and to rotation programs in general. Much of this has to be outsourced. The important thing is it needs to be budgeted and pursued, which is difficult if HR is only taken with making people better communicators and persons (whatever that means).

Shaky foundations

The three commonest ways in which the foundations of any training can be weakened are:

  • Offering a training program simply because it is fashionable
  • Allowing personal preferences alone to determine training choices
  • Basing training on flawed science, faulty logic or fictitious connections.

According to Miller and Hartwick, fads are simple, prescriptive, falsely encouraging, one-size-fits-all, easy to cut-and-paste, in tune with the zeitgeist, novel (not radical) and legitimized by gurus and disciples. They rightly conclude that: "The very characteristics that make fads popular also contribute to their decline. Their simplicity, presumed generality, and promise of results that often don’t materialize virtually guarantee that they’ll fall short of managers’ expectations – and soon be abandoned."5 Training fashions are a classic example of such management fads. Some of these activities reappear year after year, partly because they provide a never-failing diversion from dreary lectures. Whether they provide any worthwhile learning is another matter altogether. Gambolling over live charcoals (and sometimes getting burnt in the bargain6) is one such perennial favorite. 

An especially lethal version of fashion-following is when the CEO (and, to a slightly lesser extent, when the CHRO or other CXO) falls for it. You might think it unlikely for a hard-headed CEO, normally focused on tangible outcomes, to become a gooey-eyed acolyte of some wishy-washy management cult. But the harder they are, the bigger the fall – usually under the spell of an author-consultant of high standing. "Unfortunately, there are entire libraries of business books published each year that consist entirely of this kind of verbal fluff, hot-airy concepts whose definitions consist of yet more biz-blab, all of which reinforce each other and seem to make sense (sort of) but which lack any grounding in the real world… The fuzzy language of consultant-speak … is dangerous because, according to neuroscience, language doesn't just reflect thought, it pre-determines and delimits the thoughts that a brain is capable of thinking. Put simply: jargon makes you stupid, especially smart people. Specifically in this case, the influence of consultant-speak jargon on their thought processes makes CEOs who are otherwise quite brilliant become impenetrably woodenheaded..."7

Following fashions or CEO preferences become fatal when they latch on to programs based on suspect science. I have devoted an entire column8 to the dangers of combining ersatz science and specious logic into an offering that claims to provide never-failing solutions to all of an organization’s ailments. In reality, they only succeed in providing a never-failing source of revenue to the solution provider! One of the most fecund sources of least-effort training inspiration is extracting supposed lessons from someone else’s effort. Let me demonstrate how easy it is to tap into this mother lode of faky-shaky training. Here is a simple five-step recipe:

  1. Choose any reasonably complex ancient treatise, epic tale or novel that you like. Run a Google search and, if someone else has beaten you to that one, pick another. On second thoughts, don’t worry about duplication or you may never get started.
  2. Read the book. Of course, I am joking. You have much better things to read than ancient literature or wisdom (this column, for instance). That’s why WikiLAZYpedia was compiled: just look it up there.
  3. Pick 6-10 messages, quotes or lessons that appeal to you in the summary. Why such few? Because you are targeting your offering at CEOs and, in case you didn’t know, span of attention comes down as span of control increases!
  4. Tie these concepts together in a book if you can get a good ghost-writer (or have retired yourself) or in an article otherwise. Launch it at a posh event at the hand of as 'doyennish' an industrialist as you can persuade to be present.
  5. Convert the so-called findings into an experiential workshop, replete with fire walks, horse talks or other such stunts thrown in, and make it the next fashion wave.

A wonderful example came up recently in the "Leadership lessons from …" genre. The source of inspiration was Gabbar Singh in Sholay. The last of eight (remember, less than ten) learnings is "Basanti, Naach!". We are told this is a lesson to "Motivate your team through rewards beyond just salary and bonus....." I hope you will join me in standing respectfully to honor the ingenuity of Indian fad-designers.

Training to address real needs

There are many training models that are very effective though they clearly do not provide as much amusement as the ones we have been reviewing. Fundamental to all sound training initiatives is that they are based on consciously identified training needs (no, naachna is not a training need). If we confined our training agenda to addressing the following three types of needs, we would obviate most of the frivolous training that makes HR look foolish. 

The training that business partners most eagerly demand is for creating or maintaining key organizational competencies or fulfilling the strategic imperatives the business has identified. This is one reason why Kaizen provided a textbook training success story for many Indian manufacturing companies. Admittedly some of its sequel variants tended to take on the colors of a fashion bandwagon and were routinized at the cost of the spirit behind the quality movement. 

Another major load-lifting crane for need-based training has to be installed by manpower planners for taking groups of employees from one level of responsibility to another. Sometimes these groups can be fairly large such as, for instance, when operatives have to be prepared for supervisory roles or functional specialists are to be readied for multi-functional leadership roles. On the other hand, numbers are much smaller (though the training quality demands are at least as stringent) when employees with very high potential are fast-tracked several levels higher. Larger organizations can tailor much or this kind of training in-house but even the largest companies find it useful to collaborate with universities and institutes of higher education when promising internal resources have to be provided with degree-equivalent education (such as an engineering degree or an MBA). This type of long-duration degree-equivalent opportunity for employees has two salutary effects in curtailing attrition. People do not leave the company to pursue the degree on their own and the resultant qualification doesn’t have the same market value (while being much more useful, because customized, for the company itself).

Next come training demands that are individually driven. Every employee’s annual review needs to spend considerable time on her or his development needs, particularly as they relate to improving job performance and equipping the individual for newer demands the job may bring.

Future capability-building demands can emerge from career planning discussions and assessment centers in organizations with more sophisticated HR systems.

Smaller firms will utilize discussions with the supervisor or HR to the same end. There can also be totally career-shifting training demands arising either from the employees’ self-discovery or when families of jobs are rendered obsolescent or surplus. Some of these may be of the degree-equivalent kind we have gone over but, given the pressures of time, they are more likely to be built up from modular components that are provided JIT to prepare people for their new careers.  

The ultimate evaluator is the employee's pocket

Those of us who grew up using one or other version of the venerable Kirkpatrick four level model for training evaluation will be happy to know that warhorse is still in the race though models by Hamblin, Warr, Bramely and a host of others are also now in the running.9 I fear all of them are open to gaming by our sport-loving training managers.10 A look behind the scenes at the way trainers rig training evaluations deserves a full column and will have to wait for one. For the present I would like to propose just one fool (and gaming) proof way to evaluate training. 

Some of you may recall the projection I had made about the GIG workforce being willing to pay for training that kept skills current as well as that which added capabilities important for future and higher-level assignments.11 There is no reason for full-time employee psychology to be any different for training they really value. Instead of chasing employees with elaborate post-training evaluation forms, we could assign a certain training budget to each employee, to be spent, at the discretion of the individual, on the internal and external training s/he chooses from the offerings authorized for that level and function by the company. Venue and other extraneous details would be standardized or blanked out so that they do not influence the decisions. To make it into a proper blood sport, employees could be allowed to encash 50 percent of the budget they leave unused at the end of the year. I hope some of you can implement this idea before it is banned by the SPCT (Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Trainers). 


  1. André Spicer, From inboxing to thought showers: how business bullshit took over, The Guardian, 23 November 2017.
  2. Sharan B Merriam, Adult Learning Theory: Evolution and Future Directions, PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, Vol. 26, 2017, 21-37.
  3. Darren A Smith, Say No to One Day Training Courses, Making Business Matter, 12 February 2015.
  4. W Thalheimer, How Much Do People Forget? Work-Learning Research, Inc., December 2010.
  5. Danny Miller and Jon Hartwick, Spotting Management Fads, Harvard Business Review, October 2002.
  6. Natalie Wolchover, Firewalking Physics: The Wrong Way to Walk on Hot Coals, Live Science, 25 July 2012.
  7. Geoffrey James, Why Do CEOs Fall for Dumb Management Fads? Inc., 15 August 2018.
  8. Visty Banaji, Pyrrho, please pay another visit - A DIY kit for sniffing out BS in HR, People Matters, 23rd March 2017.
  9. Rama Devi and Nagurvali Shaik, Evaluating training & development effectiveness - A measurement model, Asian Journal of Management Research, Volume 2 Issue 1, 2012.
  10. Visty Banaji, Gaming Goals Can Kill Businesses, People Matters, 25 November 2019.
  11. Visty Banaji, The GIGantic opportunity of the shrinking corporation, People Matters, 28th May 2019.


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Topics: Strategic HR, #COVID-19

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