When we started Radiocarbon, we considered at length what our service offer would be in corporate training. Which areas did we feel we had the strength to deliver great material? what were we interested in actually executing in? and where was the primary demand from the client-side? In the end, those questions were levelled by one that sat above them all. Is there any point in doing corporate training? Really? And if so, under what circumstances?

When drawing on our collective experiences we were able to quickly define a consistent issue that drove our discomfort, an issue that, in our mind, would need to guide whether we chose to engage or not. The issue can be framed by four key questions we like to ask:

  1. Why are you doing this? (relevance)
  2. Will the learning be applied and used immediately, or is it a nice to know? (timeliness)
  3. Do the core processes this audience has to follow to do their jobs demand this information be known and acted on? (congruence)
  4. Can anyone in this audience walk away from this training and be perfectly ok whether they action the learnings or not? (necessity)

The challenge with a significant degree of corporate training is that it fails on one, two or all of these dimensions – and if they do – one must strongly question the content itself, the audience or the timeliness of its delivery. 

There’s like to add a further dimension – one that turns the spotlight back on the organisation itself. If the content really matters, or should really matter to this organisation, but it somehow fails on these three dimensions – the problem is often squarely sitting with the organisation itself. This is a huge issue, but let’s tackle the low hanging fruit first. 

Relevance

It’s difficult to ask a client ‘what the point’ of their initiative is without sounding negative or condescending – but it’s incredibly important to do so. One of the most consistent things we come across in all aspects of our work is the lack of meaningful consideration of root issues and the formulation of better actions. Often, the rationale behind the training is weak, incomplete or worse – it’s a box-checking exercise for delivery of a target of some description. Unless we can be adequately sure that this is the right thing to be doing, it’s hard to get behind it knowing it may be for naught. There’s so much more in here, but for now, let’s skim the other challenges. 

Timeliness of delivery

One thing we also see frequently is that great training is constructed, delivered and engaged with, but that it cannot or is not utilised immediately to embed itself in our memory structures. This is a particular challenge when materials are complex or of a large breadth or depth. People simply don’t retain much of it unless they’re using it and repeating it. The influence this has had on our approach is twofold. Firstly, we have stopped conducting any training that covers ‘too much ground’. One idea at a time, one mile deep but an inch wide. Secondly, we aim to train ‘just in time’ – just before the audience being called on to apply the material. The next two factors get further into the weeds on this idea of utilisation of information.

Congruence to their reality

This is probably the largest factor we deal with in terms of its significance to shaping the core operating principals of everything we do, and its role in challenging our opinion of what ‘really goes wrong’ with corporate training. Simply put, it’s this. People are (like it or not) slaves to the processes and systems of their workplace. Examples might include the stage and gate process followed to create new products, the performance evaluation process of us as individuals, supply and demand planning, activity prioritisation, budgeting. There is little to no reward for an individual to ignore or break out the paths of least resistance in these modes of operation – but too often in training, they are encouraged to do just that. 

Let’s consider an example close to home for us, an Innovation consultancy. Over the years, we’ve experienced, and regrettably often been encouraged to lead, training sessions on everything from design thinking to innovation behaviours to Agile to prototyping. The content and logic of these training are generally valuable, often inspiring to the audience. Yet the issues begin once they return to civilian life and find that the activities, behaviours, processes or systems they’ve learned have no congruence to the organisational systems and processes. For example, it’s common for a person to learn ‘empathy’ as part of design thinking, yet their stage-gate process recognises only commissioned external research as a valid input into a business case. Largely, we’re asking an individual to head off and do something that the organisation has not deemed important enough to factor into its decision-making process, calling into question the value to the individual to do it. This is one of a million examples.  

The necessity to their success

Following on neatly to the above point of congruence is that of Necessity. How important to this individual’s performance and ability to do their job is this material? If an office first aider or safety warden is completing CPR training or fire protocols, clearly these are central to their responsibilities in these positions. The training will be frequent, paramount and considered important on both sides of the fence (the organisation and the individual). But what if it isn’t? Unfortunately, a lot of what we’re trained on is really neither here nor there with regards to our success. Whether we use and apply the content or not makes no material difference to our performance, how we’re perceived, how we’re remunerated, how successful we can be. Teaching a strategy director or an assistant brand manager about design thinking is enlightening at the time, but then what? Beyond the issues of timeliness and congruence, there’s the fact that they simply may not need to do anything with the information to continue being successful. 

So this brings us to the last point. If the training is not necessary to the success of the individual, if it’s not congruent with organisational processes or timely that the information is absorbed now, if it’s not relevant to the individual, then the answer must surely be to not do it then. But that’s not the way it should be looked at. 

When an organisation decides to train its people on something, it’s in some way signalling to itself that this thing is important. And if we burrow into that thing we’ll generally find that indeed it (or some incarnation of it) is important. But if that organisation’s people don’t find the training critical to their ability to do their job well, to navigate through the organisation’s systems, to find personal success – then perhaps the issue is how the organisation works – not the training. Whilst I’ve vowed to never again host one-off, out of context innovation behaviour or design thinking training, it by no means signifies that organisations should not do it. The principals of them are critical to good innovation, and innovation inside corporations is critical to their ongoing growth (particularly when the outside world changes so rapidly in this day and age). The issue is the processes inside the organisation that allow them to launch new products and services without anyone in the organisation building empathy and speaking to a single consumer themselves. An issue is a marketing person who can graduate from an assistant brand manager to a head of marketing without ever learning about user-centred design, or a strategy director guiding an entire organisation without ever understanding the humans they serve. 

Next time you find yourself unwrapping an individually wrapped Mentos in a training session and finding things all a bit unnecessary, ask yourself this. Is the problem that this is irrelevant, or is it that it’s relevant – but just doesn’t have a place in this organisation. In which case, that might be where the attention should lie.