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Robin Hoyle

Learnworks Ltd

Senior Consultant

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Training doesn’t work. There I’ve said it…


Training doesn’t work. There I’ve said it. I feel a whole lot better now!

Of course I need to put some caveats around that.

I’m referring to the traditional training course – off the job one or two day events existing in a bubble of presentations and meaningless activity. They don’t work.  I mean, that’s obvious isn’t it.  Everyone agrees with that.

If you google “training doesn’t work” one of the first links which appears says this:

“Most training doesn’t work. I don’t have figures for this but it’s my belief that the vast majority of training simply doesn’t deliver actual behavioral change.”

Yeah, of course. Hang on! You don’t have figures for this? But you’re prepared to make such a bold assertion. Oh, hang on. It’s OK. The rest of the website goes on to extol the virtues of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. An NLP ‘Master Practitioner’ happily making baseless statements without a shred of evidence in support of them? Who’d have thought it? 

And that got me thinking…

If the old saw that ‘training doesn’t work’ is believed by those otherwise comfortable in the world of psycho-babble and charlatanism which is NLP, then I am naturally suspicious.

We need more research into the impact of different L&D interventions.

So I did some digging. In their excellent meta-study (research into the available research) of 2003, Arthur, Bennett, Edens and Bell said: “Wexley and Latham (2002) highlighted the need to consider skill and task characteristics in determining the most effective training method. However, there has been very little, if any, primary research directly assessing these effects.


I dug some more and since 2003 when the four US academics made this assessment of over 40 years of workplace learning research, their call for additional research into the comparative efficacy of different kinds of learning intervention seems to have been made again and again.

There is a lot of research about training or learning effectiveness but mostly it talks about overall impact. The components of any intervention – the individual methods, the mix of media, the combination of off the job and on the job learning, the contribution of coaching, job rotation, work shadowing or mentoring – was absent from the analysis.

There were a number of studies of the effectiveness of ‘blended learning’ but mostly in educational settings – from schools to university students. These showed a general uplift in the performance of students given multiple inputs versus those in more traditional lecture heavy environments.

But success was defined as performance in post course examinations. Despite the multiplicity of methods and learning modes employed, there was little here about skill development or on the job application of new behaviours.

Remembering v performing

The focus in those studies is about knowledge and ‘remembering’ rather than on ‘performing’. The excellent Dr Will Thalheimer has written extensively on ‘remembering’ and carried out his own meta-research on the subject which comes up with the rather fabulous conclusion that the rate of forgetting depends.

The culture of the organisation in which the work is undertaken will probably have the biggest impact.

There is no definitive figure and no specific relationship between the way the information was delivered and how much people remember (or forget).

Dr Thalheimer’s assessment of what helps with remembering, focuses on the beneficial effects of using what you have learned after the intervention. If you use what you learned, you’re less likely to forget it. But this is independent of the kind of learning intervention.

Regardless of whether a person was engaged in self-directed learning, participation in a collaborative experience with peers, attendance of a course, completion of e-learning or a mix of all of these, they were less likely to forget what they learned if support for remembering was built in (the need to retrieve information regularly) and that learners used it in a work-context during or shortly after the intervention.

This theme also features in Professor Robert Brinkerhoff’s studies. Brinkerhoff is one of the major researchers in what makes training and development work (i.e. what enables training activities to have a positive impact on workplace performance) and he has identified a number of variables which he calls the ‘conditions of impact’.

Simply put, if a learner is clear on what they are going to learn, and why; and that they are expected to implement what they have learned when they return to work, there is a greaer likelihood that change will happen. Furthermore, if the learner is encouraged to make a clear action plan, is accountable for executing that action plan and is given support back in the workplace to make it happen, then change happens.

So far, so good but notice anything missing here?

The delivery methods employed – training course, e-learning, coaching, collaboration, projects, on the job, off the job, formal or informal – is not part of the differentiation.

Like Thalheimer’s focus on remembering – the best mix of inputs depends. Whether training works relies on a number of variables – what skills and knowledge have already been mastered, what is to be learned, what performance is desired, what will good performance look like, what support is available for implementation of new skills, knowledge and approaches and how will individuals who have been trained be held to account for making best use of the organisation’s investment in them.

The delivery methods applied to address a skill gap or a development opportunity are similarly varied and dependent on the work context. On the basis of the available research it would be wrong to say one method is automatically better than another. It depends. In some respects, a review of the available literature would suggest that how new concepts, skills, behaviours or processes are introduced is pretty unimportant so long as:

  • The reason for the change and the associated need to learn is clear;
  • The individual learner knows they will be required to do things differently and understand the standards to be achieved;
  • There are opportunities to use these new concepts, skills etc. within a short space of time after first encountering them, and
  • There will be support as the new skills, behaviours and processes are mastered and become business as usual.

Is there good training and less good training? Of course…

But the available research would not seem to point to one way of training being automatically better than another.

Used in the wrong way, any training method can be disastrous. Ill-thought out interventions which serve to confuse and create a lack of clarity about what people are supposed to be doing, reduce the ability of those individuals to improve their performance. A belief that all training has to happen in a training room ignores the reality of modern work places.

A belief that 80% or 90% of learning happens on the job without any kind of guidance or strategic input reinforces the status quo. Far from freeing people to be creative, the non-interventionist approach may actually make change and innovation less likely to happen.

So, training doesn’t work? It depends…

What has become clear as I have read through study after study in search of L&D’s silver bullet, is that there is an awful lot of opinion masquerading as fact and an awful lot of self-reported benefits of different learning methods which don’t go an awful lot further than the ‘happy sheet’.

A belief that all training has to happen in a training room ignores the reality of modern work places.

Whether someone enjoyed the experience is probably important to all of us.  No one enters the world of L&D to make people miserable, but neither is showing people a good time the gold standard of achievement.

We need more research into the impact of different L&D interventions.

We need research which shows that the purpose of whatever L&D intervention we are examining was achieved.  Ideally, we need control groups trained in different ways to achieve similar results which show the circumstances in which different learning methods effectively enabling change.

Most importantly, before we start on designing a programme, we need to know what change we are setting out to achieve and what it will look like when it’s happened. 

One overwhelming feature of the research that has been done is that the culture of the organisation in which the work is undertaken will probably have the biggest impact.

This underpins both Thalheimer’s work and the investigations undertaken by Brinkerhoff. Whatever activities we engage in in L&D, our work will stand or fall by the ability and will of those we work with to make the change that is needed.  If we don’t attend to addressing that culture then we may as well develop training courses based on a series of unscientific, evidence free principles.

We might as well all become NLP Master Practitioners.

One Response

  1. Thanks for your reasonable
    Thanks for your reasonable thoughts, Robin. I roll my eyes every time I see those radical ‘it doesn’t work’ (which are said in regards to practically anything) and it’s always nice to see someone making a strong point about how it all depends. Because it does.

    It’s not even the question of how effective training methods are, instead this is how much one’s ready to invest in implementing them. Today tech offers a lot, and apart from eLearning portals we have hands-on mobile training apps, AR practical training (which can also be a mobile feature, as I’ve shown in this article) and sessions for reviewing material.

    Making training flexible is what can address the ‘it all depends’ challenge. Learners should be allowed to choose the way they feel more comfortable to learn. For that, they should at least have a chance to try a couple of them out and know what’s best for them.

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Robin Hoyle

Senior Consultant

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