You (probably) don’t need to “train them”!

Helen Daniels
GCLearning — ApprentissageGC
5 min readAug 4, 2021

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Our team has been exploring the future of workplace learning for more than a year now and one obstacle we keep encountering is the persistent misunderstanding about what learning actually is and what role training plays in an organization.

I’m going to try to clarify this because when training is wrongly applied it a) doesn’t address the initial problem AND b) it grows other problems, for example, the organization may spend time and money ineffectively and there’s a good chance they will frustrate and disengage employees in the process.

So let’s stop using training ineffectively, ok?

This decision-tree can help you to determine how to address a performance gap. (Or as we say, what SHOULD happen when someone claims: “We need to train them!”)

This piece was inspired by the brilliant work of Cathy Moore and Arun Pradhan — Medium . We are very grateful for their generosity in working in the open.

A decision tree to determine the appropriate way to address a performance gap. The text in the blog explains the content of the decision tree.

Two Questions

Next time you hear someone say “we need to train them” ask:

1. What do you need people to DO? (Not what do you want people to KNOW? That’s because workplace training is used to address skill gaps or, differently stated, what people do at work. More on that in a moment.)

2. Why aren’t they doing it?

If you (or they) don’t know the answers to these two questions, stop and figure that out before you proceed. I repeat: Do not proceed until you can answer these two questions!

Warning! Sometimes asking these questions leads to a whole new set of problems because you might lack relevant data or effective tools to identify an individual or an aggregate performance gap[1].

But for now, let’s assume you know the answer to both those questions and you’re ready to move on in the decision-tree.

There are four reasons why people don’t do something:

1. Environmental problems

These are obstacles, challenges, or friction related to policies, procedures, tools, systems, unclear direction, too much work and/or cultural issues like inequity or lack of support. Environmental problems cannot be solved via training. The best training can offer is to provide a work-around, so if you really want employees to succeed then FIX the procedure, get a better tool, clarify direction, and so on. Don’t use training to solve your environmental problems.[2] At best it will be inefficient, at worst it will be ineffective.

2. Lack of motivation

People become unmotivated for a variety of reasons such as illness, personal life challenges, poor role fit, lack of connection to purpose, not being recognized, and more. There’s a lot of research about employee engagement that explores how to address motivation, but at the end of the day, you’ll need to solve this problem via good talent solutions. Training won’t solve lack of motivation.

3. Knowledge gaps

Addressing knowledge gaps used to be within the domain of corporate training and learning which was born from a schooling model and dealt heavily in the business of manuals and classroom instruction. However, things have changed in the learning industry.

Using courses and seminars as the method to transfer knowledge might make sense in academia, but it is generally the wrong approach for a workplace. This is particularly true in a knowledge industry where people are deluged with information at every turn, change is constant, and human memories are unreliable storage and retrieval systems[3].

Additionally, these days it no longer makes sense to lock important knowledge into a training manual or an e-learning course that forces an employee to leave their task and search through a variety of systems to locate the knowledge they require.

In these times of rapid change and constant content production, a workplace needs to be very discerning about what it asks employees to remember. (Hint: it should be very little.)

All important knowledge should be stored in searchable and well-curated content management systems (CMS) that employees can access in the flow of their work (discussed in part 1 of this blog).

You might call your CMS a digital manual, electronic performance support, job-aids, or just-in-time systems. Whatever you call it, make sure the CMS includes guidance like checklists, decision-trees, calculators, and micro-videos, or augmented reality tools that direct employees to succeed in the tasks at hand.

Lastly, if you’re hoping to be able to automate or deploy artificial-intelligence tools down the road, you’ll need clean data, so start now by curating and caring for your organization’s critical knowledge.

To summarize so far: you’ve heard that training won’t solve 1) environmental or 2) motivation problems and that training should no longer be used to store 3) knowledge… so then, what is training useful for?

Here’s what you been patiently waiting for:

4. Skill gaps

Training addresses skill gaps, those things that employees need to DO to succeed at work. This isn’t news, training has always been about skills! But somewhere along the way, we forgot about the necessity of hands-on practice and started calling knowledge transfer “training”.

Remember how you learned to swim, to drive, or to bake a cake? By getting into the water, car, or the kitchen that’s how! No matter how many books you read or videos you watch, you can’t become a swimmer without getting in the water.

So let’s return to training that focuses on practice through experimentation, problem-solving, apprenticeships, micro-missions, simulations, and role-plays. Once you’ve stored knowledge in a CMS, you can use that content to guide your learners while they practice and apply new skills.

When people are brand new or there is a steep learning curve, support their success via peer mentors, innovation labs, and accelerator programs. Our research shows that this is what employees want and this is what works.

Hopefully all this explains a bit more clearly about how you can help people succeed in their work by selecting the proper solution to address gaps. Next time you hear someone saying: “we need to train them”, direct them to this decision tree!

What do you think? We’re working hard to identify effective solutions that will support employees to succeed and meet our organization’s operational needs. We would love to hear about the challenges and successes you’ve had with training in your organization.

[1] Many organizations could benefit from improved tools and processes to capture feedback and assessment data in order to identify performance gaps, but that is out of the scope of this piece.

[2] In our research about the current state of learning and development at our organization, many employees identified environmental problems (e.g. outdated manuals, poor database search, problematic systems) as obstacles that hindered their successful performance.

[3] Surgeon Atul Gawande explains this modern problem beautifully in his book The Checklist Manifesto. Watch this 6-min video to get the basics.

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Helen Daniels
GCLearning — ApprentissageGC

Former #GCAgent on Algonquin Territory. Practitioner. Systems, deschooling, ecology, people, deep listening, presence, joy, failure and messiness 🌎 🌈 🌱