On one happy occasion, brimming with enthusiasm, I danced into the training room to find a sea of faces looking most uninterested and even threatening! The topic was Communication Skills at the Workplace, ordered by the HR department and signed off on a proposal I had made after a brief meeting with them.

I began with my famous question, “Why are we here?”, expecting the usual answers ranging from “To learn more about communication” or “To understand why communications break down” or even “Write better, speak better”. Then I would help them work towards the promised objectives. Imagine my surprise when there was no response! Just very blank faces staring back at me. Eventually one person, spokesman of the group, stood up and informed me, “We don’t know why we are here. We were sent a circular informing us to attend a training. The topic was not shared, nor were we told why we have been sent (read:victimized)!”

After my initial shock, using all the tricks at my disposal, I tried to scrape the group together and create a learning situation. I’m not sure if I succeeded and to what extent, but this incident got me working on a plan for future interventions in training. I realized that the existing system in many organizations is potentially flawed and does not achieve the results it is supposed to. Let me identify the problems one at a time:

  1. The training is part of a budget and often forms part of the HR department’s KRAs.
  2. The Training department unilaterally decides the training, sometimes based on inputs from the Department Heads or Supervisors.
  3. The stakeholders, the affected persons, are rarely involved in the decision making – maximum involvement is filling in a wish-list in the Performance Appraisal form.
  4. The Trainees comprise employees who are “on-the-bench” and therefore not directly contributing to the business at the time.

Most seasoned trainers will agree that success of a program can depend heavily on the “buy-in” from the participants – difficult to call them trainees at all times. Let’s take the points above and see where the buy-in breaks down or doesn’t happen at all.

Budget – Fudge It.

Where the completion of a certain number of training days is the criteria for success of the training department, the involvement of the participants in deciding what happens to them will be minimal. So, the training tends to get ‘fudged’ or set up. If the perceived training flows from a business requirement rather than the need to show action there is a strong possibility of it being effective. If line supervisors and managers were to indicate the measures of success and therefore inputs required for individual groups of people in their charge, the inputs would be focused and result oriented.

How many PPTs?

That three letter file extension, PPT, became for me a four-letter word. Almost invariably the training manager of a company would ask a freelancer “How many PPTs do you have?” – as though the efficacy of a program depended on Bill Gates’ proprietrary presentation software. At one such conference I asked, “How many do you want?”. The Manager was confused because their methodology was simply to print out the slides and that was meant to define the quality of training. Many excellent facilitators have used almost NO slides – using inputs from the participants to generate the learning using the principle that adults enjoy sharing experiences. Moreover, a pre-fab slide show indicates that we have a one-size-fits-all solution, which is so untrue.

Consult me or Insult me

We have heard it over and over that the participant needs to be convinced of the immediate and specific need for training – an adult learning principle – only then will he/she be cooperative enough to learn something. At a leading software company where I used to train fresh graduate engineers the group used to enter the room with resentment – we are being punished with ‘extra classes’. Eventually, we worked out a process by which they could do online tests and come up with their own need for training, sign up for sessions and attend on their own terms. The role of the HR department was to carefully track who was doing what and make helpful suggestions directly to the individual mailboxes!
Nominate or Invite

In designing one exciting program in a top-class Engineering College, I was given the honour of “inviting” the Heads of Department to attend the program. After selling this idea to the College Director, he graciously asked me if I would like to invite participation, rather than him – there was a rider, that I needed to get at least 20 of the 32 Heads to attend. The two-day program was a huge success with 30 Heads on board! They actually mentioned that it was the first time that they had not been ‘nominated’ and were happy to be ‘invited’. The other thing we did was ask those attending to fill in a form that indicated what they would like dealt with under the general topic of ‘Problem Solving and Decision Making’. That gave us about 2 weeks to tweak the program to deal with the variations.

Here for the right reasons

At one of the lower levels of the dotcom boom the training business was doing exceptionally well. I was called to Bangalore to conduct a Managerial Development program for a well-known IT giant. Despite several calls and mails I was unable to get a list of participants till I reached the venue. We started the day with 2 attendees which gradually swelled to 8. Still a little perplexed, since some of the participants didn’t know each other, I tried to find out what’s common to the group. My confusion was even more confounded when the common factor was that they were all “on the bench” – which is a euphemism for “employed but out of work”. Some companies refer to these people as “off project”. Any way you look at it, the problem is that they feel since they are not contributing meaningfully they might as well be trained! The difficulty with this reasoning is that these people cannot see any direct use for the skills they might learn; some see it as HR’s way of keeping them busy. Having little else to do, I transferred the learning to their home and social lives using examples from the group – got my ‘happy sheet’ filled, but I was not too thrilled.

The Prescription

So, like so many of us do, I decide to make my own prescription and follow/swallow it.

  1. Approach the organization to do a Learning Needs Analysis rather than approach with a portfolio of training solutions. The LNA is different in approach from a TNA as it shifts the responsibility to the participant not the Training Department.
  2. Involve all those affected, or as many as possible. This could be through Focus Group Discussions, Questionnaires, meetings with Supervisors, individual ‘crib sessions’ if there is a problem that needs intervention. In these sessions I am the learner in order to become the facilitator later.
  3. Ask the management the million-buck question: “How would you define success? What do you think the participants should be able to do after the session?”. This questions sets them thinking and often enough they come out with a watertight Learning Objective that you can use as evidence for billing!
  4. Get real stories from the would-be participants or their supervisors. Create fake names for the protagonists and re-run the stories. Everyone likes to deal with real stories which they can relate to rather than generic, text-book case studies!
  5. Get the management to ‘invite’ people to participate rather than allow supervisors to nominate. The Supervisors could still ‘suggest’ to individuals that they should participate. Some real incentive like time off, easing of responsibility for attending the training, even brownie points for attending, certificates or anything that people value.
  6. Advertise the program – give the participants something to look forward to. Give them the broad outcomes targeted, some idea of what they will be doing, what the ‘take-home’ will be.
  7. Prepare to meet the Maker! Yes, the participants will feel that this program has been made by them (after all the inputs they have given) and we need to prepare accordingly. Acknowledge and refer to the conversations, mails, inputs so they feel this is not an off-the-shelf panacea that they are being fed.

This article has been about getting cooperation from our participants. As you will see, a lot of it is based on the principles of adult learning. Everyone in the room must know why they are there. At one program, entitled “Networking Essentials for All”, being an enthusiastic wannabe techie, I attended expecting to learn all about cables and IP addresses and Internet protocols. Imagine my surprise when I found myself listening to people who had become famous promoting and selling household items by growing and using their “network”.