Why Current Approaches to Training are Flawed

Why Current Approaches to Training are Flawed
Why we need a new approach to Training in Brand Communications

I have attended many courses over the last decade and I have come to an increasing realisation that much training, despite its best intentions and content quality, has simply become less relevant to the rapidly emerging business environment to which it is supposedly designed to serve.

My own views are clear:

Training is still today largely predictable and has many Victorian vestiges in its delivery. Even with modern digital projectors and fancy graphics, little has changed in training rooms over 100 years. Explore, however, the operating environment of most businesses now and you find that they are replete with change, dynamic competition, and above all, uncertainty. In addition to these issues, businesses are also faced with handling large amounts of data and the need to take complex decisions, while anticipating plausible outcomes. A gap is emerging between the pace of advancement of knowledge and our ability to effectively deliver it. This gap is also very evident in many schools and colleges.

My own experience suggests that individuals and organisations come to train for three fundamental reasons:
  1. To keep their staff current and up-date with regulatory and technological developments in their professional sector e.g. police, bankers or accountants
  2. To re-evaluate how things are being done and look for solutions to current and emerging problems/opportunities, in the understanding that things are becoming more complex and uncertain
  3. To develop employees in specific skills that are required to enhance organisational objectives and operations

Of course, there are also those who seek training as part of their need for continuous professional development (CPD) and those who need to fulfil statutory requirements (e.g. First Aid and Fire training). Outside of these categories, the one area that I have seen a real increase in demand for is No 2 above– seeking solutions to emerging problems. I have witnessed an increasing number of clients who come with organisational issues or problems and wish (or their senior management wish) to convert the problem into some credible solution(s).

Training is still quite didactic in nature, with a trainer at the front with some form of board
and a tendency to assume that the client only needs a specific body of facts and concepts, preferably delivered through endless PowerPoint displays with some group exercises for
good measure. One only has to look at the success of the SlideShare to understand the importance of PowerPoint in conveying information.

Don’t get me wrong, PowerPoint has its merit, but for many, it is the only interface. Learning through PowerPoint is not really learning. The emergence of TED (Technical, Education Design) presentations has been an interesting and stimulating development in how to communicate effectively with audiences, but as short-form conference presentations, their impact is limited in terms of conventional training. Naturally, TED style presentations can make a huge difference when trying to convey an idea and holding your audience, but their impact is limited in a realistic sense.

Since the 1990s, one significant shift in training delivery has been the move away from the didactic approach of training towards facilitation and self-directed learning. This has been an improvement, although in my opinion, many training centres adopting this style often take it too far and leave the poor attendees with hardly any critical knowledge but “they have been made to think”! Getting the balance right is difficult. Technology has helped, especially YouTube and visual learning, which can inspire and convey complex narratives quickly. But holding peoples’ attention and converting awareness into understanding, is hard work. Today, peoples’ attention spans are poor as their focus centres on mobiles and tablets, often leaving the trainer quietly fuming with rage.

At the London School of Public Relations I have been thinking about this for some time and
I realised that despite my own recognition of the limits of our own delivery systems, I continued to engage clients in a relatively conventional way while adopting the best elements of the facilitation approach. In 2012, however, one of my clients provided me a “Eureka” moment. He wanted “insights” to take away that challenged his existing way of doing things. If the insights did not amount to much, then what they were doing was generally correct (in his view) and only some minor adjustment was probably needed. If the insights challenged much of the conventional thinking and the logic that supported it, then maybe something significant had to be done.

I then realised that for the past two years I had been slowly altering my training mode to help question assumptions, highlight problems and opportunities through intense questioning
of clients’ work and examination of their product/services and website. I found this approach mentally exhausting and sometimes dangerous, as on occasion one trod on toes and challenged big egos. But, by-and-large, clients appreciated the effort and enjoyed being challenged and wanted to co-discuss their brands’ resilience. The trainer, in effect, becomes something akin to a brand psychologist, probing deep into their reasoning and questioning assumptions and stereotypical thinking. Questioning many existing frames of the brand was challenging,
but exhilarating for both parties. One is not suggesting being subversive or radical for the sake of it, but shaking the bars of the brand cage, and seeing what if anything falls out or collapses.

Once the penny dropped about what I was doing, I started to formally develop and structure my ideas. I called the approach TSIG, which stands for Training, Solutions & Insight Generation. For it to be effective, it necessitated that I, the trainer, understood a considerable amount about clients and their work before they arrived. While researching, one then developed key questions and highlighted key challenges, which usually were refined during the course. Naturally, one gets it wrong sometimes, which is an inherent risk. Clients, I noticed, however, were very forgiving for any assumptions or ignorance on the trainer’s behalf and seemed impressed that someone had actually taken the time to research their brand and empathise with their challenges and recognise their operating constraints.

How TSIG differs from conventional facilitated training is that at its heart, TSIG morphs into business development and consultancy. In effect, the trainer, although still imparting knowledge and hopefully transferring skills, is also heavily engaging with the client to tease out problems and then through careful suggestion and elimination, come to some better understanding. One then develops realistic solutions to problems, while all the time helping the client formulate useful insights, which they take ownership of and have something to return with and report to their superiors. An important caveat is to gently warn the client that taking back new ideas that may challenge existing ways of operating has risks attached. At LSPR we advise clients on how they should approach their managers and remind them that these are just new ideas that have not been scrutinised by those who will know best if they can be successfully implemented and have “legs”.

TSIG requires a trainer to be quick on their feet, constantly review their subject matter, and in effect, take on the role of a consultant. This approach becomes even more challenging when you have more than one client – with a group of 10 delegates on the same course the approach becomes very demanding, but not impossible. Ideally, TSIG works best one-to-one, but then ideas are also catalysed by the presence of others in the group, who often have similar or converging issues.

The effect of a group, however, is to act like a form of crowd sourcing or an open source innovation. The trick is to ensure that you identify the most common issues early on, and get people empathising. As the TSIG trainer, what you cannot allow to occur within a group, is that one person dominates or that members ramble on about their situation, oblivious to the needs of others. As the “conductor of the orchestra” you are in the position to maintain the speed and dynamic of the session, ensuring that some specific element of knowledge or insight is generated.

The TSIG trainer uses the following tools and approaches:
  • Questioning: pre-formed questions about the business, its model, and procedures/policies
  • Demanding key facts and figures from the client in an attempt to gage their real understanding of the business
  • Ascertaining from the client if they use the tools of forecasting and strategic anticipation
  • Assisting the client in formulating possible likely scenarios and their readiness for them
  • Highlighting future risks that may threaten and what can do done to mitigate them
  • Asking the client about the strategic intent (vision and mission) of the brand
  • Asking the client about the purpose and benefits of the brand
  • Asking the client what are the three key brand messages
  • Asking the client to criticise their brand
  • Asking the client to show how they encourage brand advocacy through social media
  • Asking the client to explain the general brand strategy and social media strategy in less
  • than 30 seconds
  • Asking the client to highlight what are the key capabilities of the brand
  • Constantly questioning any ideas the client articulates
  • Questioning the resilience of the current business model and its fitness for the future
  • emerging risks

My experience over the last two years in trying to develop this approach has been that clients become surprised and grateful very early on in the course.

When handling something like crisis management, one may ask the course participants the following questions at the start of a session:
  1. What crises have you had in the last 5 years?
  2. What crisis situation could you have that you have never experienced or indeed never really thought about?
  3. What crises are you not prepared for?
  4. Have you ever considered crisis management from a red teaming approach?
  5. List the key risks to the business/brand
  6. What are the emerging risk/issues to your brand?
  7. Which of these risks poses the greatest threat to the reputation of the business and why?
  8. List the uncertainties facing the business and explain the steps you have taken to prepare for these if they become reality
  9. Do you have a crisis committee?
  10. What is on your risk register?
  11. What does your crisis management plan look like and is it fit for purpose?
  12. Have you been trained in decision-making under pressure?
  13. Do you keep a decision log during a crisis?
  14. Explain how you integrated and understood how social media can be monitored and used as a tool for reputation management during the acute phase of a crisis

The above are just some of the typical questions that would be fired at clients using the TSIG technique with the aim of eliciting specific responses, which in turn should generate further questions and challenging of assumptions about the resilience or efficacy of current measures put in place by the organisation. In this way, the client (course participant) becomes very cognizant of deficiencies and issues inherent with their organisation, thereby creating awareness and hopefully rapid learning. Critics of this approach have stated that it is somewhat arrogant to suggest that a mere trainer can highlight deficiencies in policy/procedures of a complex organisation that they are not familiar with. My riposte is simple: management consultants do this on a daily basis and charge the earth – a TSIG trainer can do it just as well at a tenth of the price! Clearly, there are limits, but with enough badgering you can find holes, which soon become paths.

The need to understand Business

What TSIG does absolutely require is a trainer(s) who understand business strategy, commercial reality and above all, basic finance and the attendant restrictions these place on operational reality. This is what in my opinion puts the TSIG approach head and shoulders above other training methods – it requires trainers to have experienced running a business, to have had experience with business development and consultancy, and not just pure 2-D training. Look at the profiles of many trainers within training organisations and within all the fluff, if you dig deep enough, you will find that a significant majority have had a fleeting experience of being in business, dealing face-to-face with clients and handling the “slings and arrows” of outraged customers or angry CEOs. By and large, most trainers are ex-employees who did the job on average 5-10 years ago. Nothing wrong in that you might respond, as such people have experience. I would have agreed with this up until recently, but not anymore. Current and future business training needs must be dynamic and interactive, encouraging a reflective discourse on what is right and what is wrong with the business or organisation. Established and sclerotic ways of training are no longer useful in the future as course participants are actively looking for solutions and discovering fresh insights that may generate innovative solutions. This necessitates a more engaging consultancy-type of approach to training, which tries to understand business value-drivers and what is most likely to work in the near future.

The TSIG approach then differs from conventional training in that it shifts the emphasis away from just communicating and acquiring a body of knowledge through the trainer/client relationship, but to deconstructing the very armoury that protects and allows a business to grow. If chinks in that armour are found, then seeking solutions to improve it will reduce risk exposure. My own experience with conventional training is that despite much of it being well intentioned and practical in the real sense, it does not highlight risk exposure enough and the issues of complexity and uncertainty that shape the modern commercial environment.

Central to TSIG are understanding the emerging risk environment and strategic anticipation – making plausible scenarios of outcomes. For training to be effective for tomorrow, it will have to, in my opinion, assimilate some form of strategic anticipation skills, such as horizon scanning or basic strategic analysis. That is why, whatever course we teach, we ensure that our clients are aware of the importance of strategic anticipation, because in today’s technology-driven, socially media-controlled communication world, you cannot afford to wait for something to happen to you – you must be anticipating and forecasting it, ensuring that it does not become a negative reality.

In essence, the TSIG approach to training recognises that the world has changed, but the tools and our thinking have not kept pace, so there is a mismatch between training and business needs. Training as we understand it was developed for the military during the industrial age. We are now distinctly in the digital, knowledge economy age, which requires training not just to respond to what has happened and what is happening, but to strategically anticipate what could happen and what can be done to prepare for it, and by recognising it as a potential reality, prevent it from taking you on a journey that you are less in control of.

John Dalton
Director of the London School of Public Relations

15/08/2014

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