Would You Rather Be Developed, Educated or Trained?

I had an email from a client yesterday to inform me that their Central Training Department will from now on be known as the Executive Learning and Development function.  It’s another symptom of the way that the word ‘training’ has over time become a pejorative term.  Forward thinking organisations do not ‘train’ their staff any more: they coach them, develop them, educate them, mentor them, bring out their feminine side, you name it.  Interestingly, all these new wonderful terms still seem to involve sending them on a 3-day offsite programme run by a jaded consultant with a set of tarnished overhead transparencies.

My aversion therapy to the word ‘training’ came early in my career.  On the first day of a new Management Development Programme which I was co-delivering with a colleague, I introduced myself by telling the group I had been a trainer for 3 years.  Substitute ‘serial killer’ for ‘trainer’ and you will still not come close to the look of horror on my colleague’s  face, as she leapt in to reassure the group that what we were going to do to them was definitely management development.  (We went on to run a 3-day offsite programme with our set of tarnished OHPs).

It seems to be a universal phenomenon.  Some years ago I worked for a consulting firm whose glossy brochure contained the managing director’s proud – but hideously unsexy - claim that ‘we bring training skills to consultancy.’  None of the consulting staff saw the brochure before publication – on the day it came out you could see them all wailing and beating their chests.  The consultants were always too embarrassed to give the brochure to potential clients – not that we had that many.  We spent all the time we should have been selling having frenzied internal debates on whether what we did was ‘management development’ or ‘executive education’ (I think we concluded that we did both, and that you could always tell which was which, because the executive education programmes had thicker course binders).

It’s no wonder that internal Training departments are reinventing themselves in a rerun of the makeover from Personnel to HR of 10 years ago.  It’s well known that internal trainers are organisational lepers, whereas the new-look dynamic coaches, mentors and learning specialists are adding value at a rate of knots.  But why does everyone loathe ‘training’ so much?

As organisations have woken up to the benefits of targeting their training budgets on methods that actually get results, the woeful state of much of what passes for ‘training’ has come under the spotlight.  The continued survival of the training course stems largely from a benign collusion between buyers, suppliers and participants.  It may potentially deliver a lot less learning than an intensive programme of on-the-job coaching, but it is perceived as lower risk.  If you can get relatively large numbers of participants through a training programme with good evaluation ratings at the end, the participants feel they have benefited, the organisation feels it has got value for money, and the trainers are still in work.  As a result, the training market is saturated with ‘good enough’ trainers running ‘good enough’ courses achieving ‘good enough’ results.  Expectations of training by the buyers and participants are conditioned downwards. 

On top of this, the limitations of training are frequently exacerbated by the mental models of those involved.  Participants, for example, walk into a training room and ‘see’ a classroom; they fall into a schoolroom mindset, which leads to passive behaviour and unwillingness to take risks.  Trainers’ behaviour is conditioned by the need to get good scores on the ‘happy sheet’ evaluation form, which means – literally – keeping participants happy rather than maximising their learning.  Training can deliver huge and well-documented benefits, but it requires a certain boldness on the part of all stakeholders to reinvent it as a vibrant, learning-driven vehicle for change.  Renaming it ‘talent enhancement’ is simply sweeping the issue under a linguistic carpet.

Or maybe we should leave it to the experts: I sat through a conference session recently in which a large company extolled the virtues of their new Executive Education Programme.  The HR Director gave us a 20-minute oratory on the distinction between education and training.  I confess I slept through most of it, but the gist of it was that training is the preserve of hairy-bottomed individuals with a GCSE in woodwork, while education is a mind-enabling panacea which doubles your number of brain cells overnight.  As his audience nodded sagely, he handed the platform to his deputy, who managed effortlessly to pull the rug from under the whole session:  “I look at it this way,” he said.  “What would you rather have for your daughter: sex education or sex training?”  At last, a distinction we can all understand.

(c) Phil Lowe, 2004.

A version of this article previously appeared in Business Life Magazine