This article describes why traditional training and learning interventions fail to shorten time to proficiency of employees. It investigates how 4 major speed blockers, 15 key inefficiencies, and over 100 indicators are found in traditional training and learning design that elongate time to proficiency.
The value of training in skill acquisition and knowledge acquisition is undeniable. In fact, training is the first line of defense in organizations, more often the only line of defense. As a training leader, I embarked on my doctorate research with a research objective to explore how organizations have successfully reduced time to proficiency of the workforce. I approached 85 project leaders known to have reduced time to proficiency of employees successfully.
I collected over 66 project cases through 74 in-depth interviews. I started with a research question of how/what training and learning strategies they have used to shorten time to proficiency. To my shock almost pretty much at the beginning of the study, I found a few things:
The responses from over 66 project cases showed 4 major categories of such bottlenecks that provide very comprehensive detail on how training should NOT be designed if the goal is to accelerate proficiency or performance.
It is vital to explain the traditional training model with an example. A project leader gave a relevant account of a typical traditional model.
For a job role of financial services executive engaged in upselling of financial products higher up to the executive line, traditional training approach before any initiative to shorten time to proficiency was put in place, and looked like this:
“Though when I arrived on site, we did an analysis of their training program. And what we learned was that they would spend about six weeks in a classroom-based experience that literally was about fifty-fifty turned on lecture and then hands-on use of the IT tools at their place. But the real challenge was that there was no expectation of the employee to pass any type of assessment, or to measure, to have anything measurable at all. Picture that world [sic] that you could sit in this room for six weeks and sleep during [the] class, and at the end of the day, you were able to survive the six weeks. …What value were you really getting from these folks when they finished their training? And now they go up the next phase of their program, which was an on-the-job coaching program. …
So as part of the problem that we looked at, we identified that classroom training itself did not have any foundation. So there weren’t lots of plans or any type of structured guides. It was primarily one-way. … So it could change drastically from instructor to instructor.
Then finally, there wasn’t enough hands-on usage of the tools, so a lot of times they would come out of the classroom and they wouldn’t even be doing any observation. But when they finished their training program, they have forgotten what they learned in the classroom and almost had to re-learn how to use technology. There was more focus in the classroom on the product than the technology that was being used.
And the third part was they learned that the coaches themselves in the second part [on-the-job] part] of the program never changed. So if we had somebody who was getting bitter or using this as a way of not being on the phone [and] was rather as a side effect of “Okay, I do this, I don’t have to take customer calls.” There was a gap in terms of being able to properly coach employees on what to do in certain situations” [Project Leader].
Other project cases exhibited similar accounts of training models that organizations were using, and these models were analyzed for patterns on why those were not leading to accelerated proficiency. Such a model was deemed as “copied from the academic world to corporate settings.” Invariably, analysis of every project case led to the observations that some inefficiencies in the traditional or conventional training models either hampered shortening time to proficiency or were the leading cause of a long time to proficiency. There was little to no evidence on if and how traditional training models supported, enabled or speeded up the proficiency.
It turns out that traditional training models (particularly taken from academic settings, like the one described above and show in Figure 1) do not really lead to accelerating proficiency; instead, such models add to a longer time to proficiency problem.
Figure 1: Traditional training curve leads to a longer time to proficiency
From the analysis of 66 project cases, over 100 indicators suggested 15 significant patterns of inefficiencies in training design that acted as main speed blockers. These 15 inefficiencies were then combined to develop 4 top-level categories that represented or explained how traditional training models hampered speed to proficiency instead of supporting it.
These four categories are
These are described below.
Figure 2: 15 types of inefficiencies in traditional training models that hamper speed to proficiency
Data analysis suggests that traditional organizational training programs are suffering from five curriculum-related challenges – Inefficient design, Rigid and non-scalable design, Content-heavy, Instructor-centered, Overly topic or task-focused. The main inefficiencies patterns that emerged in this category are summarized here:
Figure 3: Curriculum-related blockers that hamper speed to proficiency
Inefficient Design: The major tendency noted was regarding inefficient design. It was seen from the analysis that most of the training specialists adopted or copied the typical “academic way” of designing training programs into corporate settings using obsolete learning theories not applicable anymore in workplace settings. This academic style instructional design assumed that training was the only solution in a given situation. With that assumption, the training departments and learning specialists typically entrusted with this job usually start with a massive task analysis that leads to defining performance objectives in terms of activities and tasks, as opposed to performance analysis in an attempt to define proficiency in terms of business outcomes. Starting with over-detailed task analysis and too much focus on breaking tasks into sub-components leads to a lengthy list of skills, sub-skills, knowledge, and behaviors, etc. ‘It is very difficult because the training department was starting with job descriptions, with job positions, with job skills. They were starting with task analysis of the cashier, for example. … they are assuming that the cashier needs all the training. They let them go through the entire process. That is what you call the typical task-analysis type of learning’ [project leader]. Not all of the identified sub-skills directly address the real challenges of a long time to proficiency at the workplace and does not directly equip the learners on how to attain expected business outcomes.
Rigid and non-scalable design: The above tendency appears to lead to the next issue of a very rigid and non-scalable training program which are overly structured to the point that it tried to force-fit institutions’ inflexible one-size-fits-all solution philosophy. ‘So basically [as] an engineer regardless of what the issue that he encounters, that you would be “prepared” to support it, kind of a one-size-fits-all approach’ [project leader]. Ultimately such emphasis on overly formal training programs loses focus on the expected job outcomes.
Content-heavy: Almost all the project leaders indicated that the major challenge they faced in the old training model was that the curriculum was too content-centric or content-heavy, and loaded with slides, irrelevant or non-contextual information. The tendency was to load all kinds of content including ‘just-in-case’ which leads to over-stuffed and fatty training programs. ‘There’s no way that this learner is going to remember all of this content. … we were teaching people how to do something, how to handle a call that they may get one or two of those calls a year, and they’ll never remember it when that call finally comes’ [project leader]. The net result is a lengthy training course or program which may run for weeks depending on job or content. Such massive content does not allow enough practice on the required skills.
Instructor-centered: Most of the traditional training programs were heavily instructor-centered, in which the instructor’s job had been to download the content for the learners through one-way lectures typically in the classroom settings without the real application of the skills being in the training. Training is supposed to be done when the instructor has covered the content or course objectives. ‘In the old version of the program, it was a lot of lectures. You had somebody standing in front of the room talking and sometimes demonstrating how to fulfill something, and then we would turn them loose to work on it’ [project leader]. Such a design leads to poor retention and skills learned in a training program are not transferred to the workplace.
Overly topic or task-focused: The result was another issue that the curriculum so developed was organized as a topic-wise-topic sequence to enable training delivery rather than structuring how the job was being done. ‘They’re often left with a big fat ring binder with all that stuff in it, and that is almost useless because it’s organized around a training course, not around the way the job is done’ [project leader].
Analysis indicated that traditional training models suffered from four challenges in enabling learners to apply their skills. These challenges are – lack of real skills, out of context training, limited practice, poor measurement or assessment of skills. The main patterns of inefficiencies that emerged in this category are summarized here:
Figure 4: Skill-related blockers that hamper speed to proficiency
Out of context: Analysis noted that conventional training solutions took the people away from the job and the context in which they were supposed to work. ‘The person reading it didn’t know what part he or she was responsible for doing and what part somebody else on the team might do and who that person might be’ [project leader]. When the people are taken away from the context, the transfer of skills learned in the classroom out of context does not transfer back easily to the context.
Lack of practice: Though several organizations were seen using case-based and simulation-based approaches, those approaches focused heavily on meeting the learning objectives of the course and hence were designed with a very limited number of practice sessions. ‘There was a lot of “Watch me do this.” And then very limited “Okay, your turn, you do it’ [project leader]. Also, simulated practice was mostly focused on the repetition of everyday tasks. Such a design did not prepare learners with enough practice on low-frequency events which may become catastrophic at some time in the future.
Lack of real skills: Even contextually well-designed training programs lacked the realistic skills required to achieve the desired proficiency at the workplace. Most programs also lacked skills toward integration, problem-solving, thinking and business skills required to address increasing complexity and dynamism of the unpredictable workplace challenges. ‘People do a lot of things with – they also do them in combinations and a lot of times when you don’t teach things together [but in] pieces and parts; the people never figure out how to do it together’ [project leader].
Poor measurements or Assessment: Learners were typically not given clear accountabilities and expectations. The assessment criteria for measurements were generally poorly defined. ‘There was that there was no expectation of the employee to pass any type of assessment, or to measure, [or] to have anything measurable at all’ [project leader]. It is seen that the training department typically focused on meeting the course objectives successfully in which ‘success’ was tested using typical paper and pen type assessments, rather than with the actual on-the-job deliverables.
The analysis noted that conventional training programs lacked provision of required support to learners before and after training in three areas – ineffective on-the-job training and coaching, manager’s non-involvement and poor expectations set up for a given training. The main inefficiencies patterns are summarized here:
Figure 5: Support-related blockers that hamper speed to proficiency
Manager’s non-involvement: Analysis suggested that in most of the project cases managers had thought of training intervention as a ‘magic’ which could instantly produce a proficient employee without requiring any effort or attention from the managers. Therefore, managers tended not to typically get involved during training design or delivery or any such discussions. ‘There are instances where trainees will attend training, come back and try to do what they were taught, and the manager says, “That’s not how we do it here.” And so, anytime you have that disconnect between training and what goes on in the field, or how the managers in the field think it should be done, that clearly is going to decelerate time to proficiency’ [project leader]. The problem of developing proficient employees was left pretty much to the training department folks, who in turn ended up applying their instructional design or learning design skills, stayed disconnected from the real expectations of field proficiency as well as from the time to proficiency targets.
Ineffective on-the-job training and coaching: Even at the workplace, the support given to learners from their mentors is either lacking or unstructured. The traditional method of job-shadowing is ‘Go and watch Joe’ without much accountability on the part of the learner, mentor, and manager. Mentors were not aligned with training program objectives, and they were not given any metrics to measure the new learners on. Changing mentors or coaches resulted in the inconsistent learning experience and impacted the rate at which a learner could achieve proficiency. ‘If the trainee was instructed, “Go and watch Joe on how to operate this filter pump.” If Joe wasn’t available and [to] the trainee again the supervisor said, “Go and watch Charlie on how to operate the filter pump.” You couldn’t expect necessarily that Joe and Charlie taught the procedure the same way’ [project leader].
Poor expectations: It is also noted that in the absence of coaching and support, learners lacked self-drive or initiative. Lack of practice coupled with it led to the poor transfer of skills at the workplace. The major issue noticed in traditional training was that there were no expectations or time set, and this resulted in a long time to learn. ‘There was no sense of urgency or expectation, there was no performance expectation set prior to this, and there was no follow-up to– there were no ramifications if they did it or didn’t do it before’ [project leader].
The analysis noted that traditional training models suffered from poor results and outcomes. Three major issues noticed are – inconsistent results, a long cycle of readiness, and is costly. The main inefficiencies patterns are summarized here:
Figure 6: Outcome-related blockers that hamper speed to proficiency
Inconsistent results: All of the issues mentioned in the previous three categories resulted in a critical problem that there was usually no indication of the time mark of when an individual had attained the desired proficiency. All these factors and challenges collectively led to inconsistent results, variations in time to proficiency of individuals, which was even harder to measure. ‘Too Much Variation in time to competence’ [project leader].
Long Cycle: Ultimately it led to slow speed with which people could be made ready for their job. ‘It was taking them about a year to do that. So there were three months in sort of training, and then it was taking them an additional nine months to reach that score’ [project leader]. Part of the factor was the long time taken to develop the training programs which slowed down the skill acquisition and resulted in a long time to proficiency.
Costly: Hastening speed becomes a very resource-intensive project when multiple instructors are engaged to add capacity, or when over-teaching of content is involved. ‘[Learners] need to be here for 3 months working in our little mockup facility, and we would have to spend a huge amount of money on our equipment to get it to the operational level’ [project leader]. However, the focus remained on preparing people primarily through training and learning interventions, which required travel and hence added to costs.
Key indicators are summarized here in Figure 7:
Figure 7: Key indicators that training is inefficient
The 70:20:10 model proposes that people learn only a very small part of the job from formal training interventions while most of their learning either comes through others in social interactions or by actually experiencing it. Though the numbers 70, 20, 10 are indicative only and no scientific basis to these numbers, the point here is that formal interventions like classroom training are a small portion of the overall learning spectrum. However,
The value of formal training and learning interventions (the 10% bucket) might be limited to traditional business goals of performance improvement, skill development and to provide initial operating readiness to the people on the job. However, if we look at the full spectrum of 20% bucket as well as 70% bucket, the role of learning is undeniable, which is inherent in each of three buckets (on-the-job learning, learning through others and formal learning).
There is no doubt that learning is an underlying process in all the endeavors undertaken by an individual in the workplace (Saks, Haccoun & Belcourt 2010; Salas et al. 2012). Leaning and training continue to be foundational to skill and most performance improvement interventions (Clark 2008; Kraiger 2014). There are cases in which desired proficiency can be attained in training settings, or training is the only viable, practical option; for example, job roles in which life and safety matter (military, pilots, surgeons, firefighters, etc.) and failure is no option in real situations (Hintze 2008; Jenkins et al. 2016; Klein & Borders 2016; Kuchenbrod 2016). Alternatively, training may be more feasible solutions in the job roles that are not readily measured in terms of immediate on-the-job outcomes (e.g., roles related to business strategy), or job roles are governed by some licensing or other regulatory norms (e.g., oil and gas-related jobs). Such situations may necessitate training as a fail-safe mechanism or even a mandatory requirement (Crichton & Flin 2004). Hoffman et al. (2014) have put together the most recent synthesis of over the last three decades of research in their book Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World as an authentic source of training methods from research that have demonstrated evidence of accelerating high proficiency.
While training and learning are the core mechanisms of professional development, skill acquisition and expertise development in organizations, a goal to strategically leverage training and learning efforts to shorten time to proficiency remains the prime concern of business leaders. However, as explained earlier, the traditional instructional design processes appeared to have rendered outcomes that were not required or not immediately useful; and in some cases, they even caused a bottleneck that slowed down the rate of proficiency. The researchers and practitioners believe that the primary goal of a training intervention should be to reduce time to proficiency.
“We also believe that reducing Time to Proficiency is the most significant contribution the training function can deliver to the organization” (Rosenbaum and Williams, Learning Paths – How to reduce time to Proficiency, 2004, p.14).
For training to support the goal of accelerated proficiency, one needs to address several critical inefficiencies of traditional training models to design training interventions. A different kind of training model and a different set of strategies are required when the goal is to reduce time to proficiency with high reliance on workplace activities.
Watch this short excerpt from a conference presentation “Why Training and Learning Interventions Fail to Accelerate Time to Proficiency..and what you can do about it” for a quick review of these 4 categories.
Stay tuned for the next article on how 21 design strategies can be used to design training and learning interventions that indeed support speed to proficiency. Interested readers may purchase my book “Designing raining to Shorten Time to Proficiency” for a detailed account.
At this point, I do want to say that real solutions for shortening time to proficiency are much beyond the domain of training or learning. I will write a series of articles on overall 24 strategies and 6 business strategies to institute a total proficiency framework that goes beyond the training and learning domain.
For more resources on this burning business question, subscribe to my blog on exclusively on the topic of speed to proficiency and stay tuned as I will share more about what you can do as a leader.
Attri, RK 2020, “Why Training and Learning Interventions Fail to Shorten Time to Proficiency in Organizations”, [Blog post], Speed To Proficiency Research: S2PRo©, Available online at <https://www.speedtoproficiency.com/blog/training-learning-interventions-fail-shorten-time-to-proficiency-in-organizations>.
Header image credits: Pixabay CC0 attribution