In a series of classes I taught about how to develop employees, the managers came up with a plan for how they would develop their high, solid, and low performing employees. With the exception of the low performers, the list of development approaches seldom included training. The managers were apologetic for this outcome. As both the instructor and a talent development manager, the students reassured me that training was important too.

What they didn’t realize was that the lists they came up with to develop their employees was exactly what I intended. I wanted them to come to the conclusion that training was seldom the solution to developing their employees. The reason being that only 10% of what is learned in formal classroom setting is retained.

What! 10%?

It is true. Research has found that as much as 90% of what is learned in a classroom is quickly lost once the end-of-course evaluations are turned in. Instead, the best way to really improve performance was through on the job experiences.

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Only 10% of classroom training sticks. To get the best learning outcomes, on-the-job experiences are needed.

While the managers in my class weren’t familiar with the percentages, they intuitively knew that classroom training wasn’t the best solution.

As we continued the conversation, I asked why managers were so quick to turn to training to develop their people. And, somewhat sheepishly, they admitted that they sent their employees to training because it:

  • Is easier.
  • Worked sometimes.
  • Got some people out of the office.
  • Seemed like their only option.

Let’s debunk 4 excuses for using training as the only employee development tool.

Training is easier

The list of ways to develop high performers and solid employees included things like: details, rotations, coaching, mentoring, shadowing, stretch projects, and team self-teaching like brown-bag meetings. Managers readily admitted that they thought these approaches were probably more effective. But, that the different approaches meant more work for themselves and for the team.

To use stretch projects, as an example, it meant the manager would spend more time reviewing work and providing coaching or feedback. On top of this, there is no guarantee of success since it was something beyond the usual reach of the employee being developed.

Or, if one of their employees took a detail/rotation opportunity, the workload for those who remained would increase to pick up the slack.

And finally, managers admitted that the efforts to help the employee find or create development opportunities was just too much. It was easier to identify a class and send an employee away for 3 days.

In an already over-worked management team – it wasn’t a surprise that training was frequently identified as the development solution because it is easier.

Training works sometimes

Managers explained that part of the reason they frequently turn to training to develop their employees was because it worked. Sometimes.

The age old benefit of intermittent reinforcement was on display. Intermittent reinforcement, if you recall from college psychology, is one of the most powerful of motivators. It’s a powerful motivator because the desired outcome happens frequently enough to make one believe it’s worth whatever behavior is required.

In other words, training may not work every time. But it works often enough to keep sending employees.

When training doesn’t work, the employee or the trainer is blamed. And, that is sometimes the case. Often, however, it may not work because it’s not being used for the right reasons. Training is good for a small number of outcomes including:

  • Awareness.
  • Information.
  • Procedure.

Let’s take for example, an IT department’s desire to instill a new culture such as DevOps.

In offering a class, the instructor will give awareness, information, and procedure. What they won’t be able to give is what it looks like in the employee’s everyday. The instructor will not be able to coach the software developer to collaborate with those in operations when developing or deploying a new piece of software.

To be fair, awareness, information, and procedure are necessary to instill a cultural change. So, the training does work to that extent. But, it won’t work to the extent many managers expect.

Training gets employees out of the office

These are the scenarios that anyone in the training industry cringes at, yet deals with on a regular basis.

It’s the use of training as a babysitter.

The trouble-makers, the retired-in-place, those that cannot/will not perform. All of these employees are candidates for sending to training to get them out of the hair of managers and teams.

And, what can I say? Training does work if the only goal is to get them out of the office. And, it is easier than the alternative – which is to go through the effort to manage a non-performer out of the agency.

If it is not enough to know that managing a non-performer out of the agency is the right thing to do, then let me remind you:

  • As long as that employee remains, you cannot hire someone to fill the position with someone who can/will perform.
  • You are accountable based on the size of your team. Not the percentage of your team that performs.
  • Resources spent on a non-performer cannot be spent on a solid or high performer to go to training.
  • Sending a non-performer to training reinforces their non-performance. While training is a babysitter for the manager, it is a vacation for them.

Training is the only option

When speaking to managers about developing their employees, I commonly hear that their agency doesn’t have money for training. And for them, the conversation is over. This is because there’s a pervasive belief that the only way to effectively develop someone is to send them to a class that has a cost associated.

While there are some managers that see training as easier (above), others just hadn’t thought of there being alternatives.

I don’t know exactly why this is. Likely, it is all they have experienced. Or, it may be that their training function at their agency has not talked about alternatives. Or, it may be that the managers have just never contemplated it.

In the coming posts, we’ll talk about employee development methods that go beyond the classroom. Methods such as: shadowing, details, rotations, and mentoring/coaching.

In the meantime, I’d encourage you to read a prior post that talks about inexpensive development options. Also, we have a post on the three things that you should always include in your individual development plan.