Why Training Fails, and What To Do About It

Recent data has shown that companies are recognising the importance of training and development, in fact it is reported that they spend approximately $145B per year on training.

Despite this, less than half of those investments actually pay off, but why? According to various sources, including Harvard Business Review, the Work Systems Affiliates International, CEB and a range of training magazines, there are a number of reasons why training fails, these include:

1. The training or solution is aimed at the symptoms of the problem rather than the causes. Without addressing the underlying issues, e.g. behaviour, thought processes, motivation etc. it is difficult to create sustainable change and improvement.

2. Training fails when we do not have a way for participants to test, practice and transfer what they have heard in the classroom to their roles on the job. It is too often the case where employees are given 2 hours, a day or 2, or even a week (depending on the course) to go and learn how to do something differently or improve their skills, but when they come back to “reality” they are not given the time or support to incorporate whatever they were taught into their daily routines. Therefore, old habits stay and anything new goes out the window, making the training course redundant.

3. Overestimating people’s ability to learn. “Success in the marketplace increasingly depends on learning, yet most people don’t know how to learn” (HBR). According to CEB’s research, 4 in 5 employees are bad at learning. Employees don’t understand their learning style and companies continue to use the same methods of “teaching” that are clearly not effective.
“Every day, employees waste 11% of their time on unproductive learning, costing you $134.5M in employee productivity annually” CEB.

4. We pretend that changing the behaviour that is identified as the problem or the cause of it, is about the “knowing”. That is, if someone knows enough – has enough information – the problem will be solved” (Paul Plotczyk, 2015). If that were the case then smoking related illnesses would cease to exist. We all know that smoking can lead to cancer, heart disease and a range of other medical problems; we are constantly confronted with information that re-affirms this knowledge and this information is increasing, with new research being published and more anti-smoking laws being put in place. Yet there are still smokers and still people are suffering from related illnesses.

5. Training and development has become a “tick-box” activity and with little follow up or accountability from those around, including HR, managers, colleagues and fellow training attendees, the activity is almost a waist of time, resources and money.

What can be done?

Do companies stop investing in training or can something be done to improve the effectiveness of training and development?

Here are some suggestions:

Understand learning styles – Employees believe they already know how to learn, though data shows that they generally lack the capability. Help employees identify their learning style and work with them to develop strategies for retaining and applying the information they get. Occupational Psychologists use different tests to identify learning styles. Understanding how one prefers to learn is the first step in teaching employees how to learn, but you must also assess how you are teaching. Is it the best way to get the information across? Is there a better way considering the new information you have about your employee’s learning styles?

Use action learning – this is a process which encourages people to use, evaluate and re-use what they have learnt until they find the best way of doing it and it becomes habitual. The process was first proposed by Professor Reginald Revans, but has since been added to and revised. Mumford, Alan (1997) suggest that the best strategy to embed learning is to follow these stages:

1. Doing something, having an experience

2. Reflecting on the experience

3. Concluding from the experience, developing your own theory
4. Planning the next steps, to apply or test the theory

The Work Systems Affiliates International proposed a similar model as a guide to increasing learning transfer, again this model follows 4-stages:

1. Participate – allow participants to apply what they are learning in a context that mirrors their real work environment

2. Study – give them the time/space to learn the information in a way that works for them

3. Review – go back, give participants the opportunity to ask questions and fully understand the information, process or skill

4. Apply – let them apply it in the workplace

They suggest that the model appeals to the way adults learn: understanding, doing and getting feedback on results – and doing again!

You may want to apply one of these models to your company’s development strategy, or you may want to design your own. It doesn’t really matter which you select, the key is to ensure that employees are getting the chance to practice the skill, evaluate its effectiveness for them and apply this new knowledge or skill in the context of their role.

Time – Often following training employees have limited time to complete learning activities, if any at all and more often than not end up doing things exactly the way they had been before the training. So give them the time. Things aren’t working so you invested money in a “solution”, let employees explore how they can apply what they have learnt in the context of their role. Yes some things may take longer, and there will undoubtedly be some trial and error, but in the end the employee becomes more productive, efficient and is more satisfied with their performance and their job.

Accountability – create a buddy system at training courses, ensure managers or HR staff are checking in with the employee and holding them accountable for applying the new behaviour or skill. “People who are legitimately accountable to another person are more likely to succeed than those who are not held accountable” Hogan, Lakhani and Marti.

Awareness of the issue – all or some of the suggestions above may be helpful for your organisation, but they might not be.
You need to understand your employees, how they learn, and sit down and think of strategies that will help training become more effective in your company.

At OPM Consulting we can help you identify your employees learning styles and assist in developing ways for your to make training and development effective in your company. As psychologists we understand the issues presented in this article and ensure that our training courses are interactive, have practical elements and allow people with different learning styles to absorb the information and apply it in a way that works for them.

For more information about our training courses, assessments and other services please email info@opmconsulting.co.uk.

Working with OPM has been a great experience. OPM Associates are incredibly talented and responsive, willing to be flexible to meet our changing needs. Feedback from our staff and managers is always positive, in particular how well OPM Associates have been able to overcome difficult challenges and provide inspiration to others.

Anna Petts, Assistant Director,
Organisational Development & Learning at London Business School

February 20, 2020