Why does training fail?

I was recently within earshot of a discussion between friends of mine, directors of a residence summer camp, who were lamenting the failure of their annual trainings to produce the desired behaviors in their staff.  Specifically, the failure of staff to comply with the prohibition of staff cell phones in camper units, devices which create enormous liability for the camp should the cameras and data functions be misused by campers.racing pigs

Now at the end of a district-wide double implementation of Student Information System and data analysis system, I’ve gained some perspective on this training task.

The fundamental question at hand is this: If an institution has policy goals that must be reached to sustain the effectiveness of all stakeholders, what training procedures can be followed to assure policies are followed by all responsible parties?

Nearly three years ago I performed an analysis of the efficacy of staff training on software systems in our district. These trainings were essentially conducted in a district technology training center, willing teachers were paid to attend, and trainings were given one-time only, with no follow-up activity.  In courses for which I was able to audit the training records and use outcomes, I found that only 17% of attendees to these optional trainings actually made use of the skills taught. This was the interested group, those who expressed a desire to acquire new skills. What would be the level of compliance were this training in behavior perceived by many to not be in an individual’s self-interest?  Corporate “trainings” in ethics and sexual harassment jump immediately to mind.  The sentencing court or the insurance adjusters may be mollified, but does behavior change?

You have probably heard something of the Law of Thirds when you consider training outcomes. One third will get it, one third will be aware of it, one third will blow you off. While we can debate the fractions, the existence of the law reveals something about human behavior. I suspect we all live somewhere on the narcissist spectrum, and like everything else, humans probably create some version of a bell curve when you consider how they respond to issues of self-interest; large populations of humans are all over the map. So how does one “train” such a motley crew?

Well, first you train them, you present information as skillfully as possible, but you are far from finished at that point. In terms of actually affecting behavior change to meet your goals, you may assume you have been effective with somewhere between 10% and 40% of your audience. Rather than wiping your hands at this point, now is when they need to truly get dirty. This is also the point at which the unreached 60-90% will start saying things such as “This training stinks!,” “This was a waste of time!,” and “I feel like I haven’t been trained!” And for them, this feeling is much closer to their personal truth.

Next you need to provide a compliance mechanism. This is my term for that strategy which puts the policy expectation in action over time.  An unfortunate analogy, but a good one, is the world of racing pigs. When you race a pig (they use piglets), they are induced to run for an Oreo reward. I’m not kidding – I’ve seen this at the California State Fair. But they don’t put an Oreo at one end of a field and just let the pig go, assuming it will head straight for it. No; they build a very narrow circular track with walls just a little bit inconvenient to jump over, and the pigs know the cookies are at the end of this defined path.

In the case of our audience to be trained, the compliance mechanism needs to take the form of a defined procedural expectation, with defined boundaries. “Now that you’ve engaged in this training, your supervisors will now take concrete steps to facilitate and observe your compliance.” This is where many hands get dirty, both in constructing the walls and in designing the Oreo reward. The walls you build can include things such as peer learning communities, support via colleagues, administrative reminders, etc. Actual Oreos may be provided, but other celebrations and acknowledgments of compliance success are also appropriate and much appreciated by staff. Peer encouragement (yes, pressure) can be utilized well at this stage.

The third step, and one which cannot be neglected, is the consequence for non-compliance. For the pigs, the consequence of losing the race is their buddies get to eat all the Oreos and the laggards lose out. In any other training environment, particularly those responding to issues with huge institutional consequences, this generally takes the form of disciplinary action. The action-item specifics are unimportant here, but these projected consequences must be planned and made public from the outset. And because we are dealing with a bell-curve-bound population of human beings, there will be someone, or a few someones, at the far and of the curve who will resist all your best efforts, and your supervision must be willing to administer consequences. That’s why they are called “Administrators.”

And for those of us responsible for providing these trainings at the behest of the education institutions we serve, we need to educate those in power positions that the term “training” is a loaded and complex one, and the path leading to human behavior change in institutions is neither simple nor easy, and the road to behavior change is one paved by actions taken by the entire system.  Institutional shifts of perspective and behavior are never achieved by a single instance of instruction.


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