Don’t waste your budget on a magic bullet

by Viv on October 13, 2008

In October’s TJ, Tim Drewitt wrote an interesting article about the transfer of learning in the workplace. He suggests that a typical ratio of organisational effort around a training course 10% pre-work, 85% learning event and 5% follow up would have greater impact if the allocation was 26% pre-work, 24% learning event and 50% follow up. This intuitively chimes with me from my experience as a face to face trainer and I suspect that many trainers would agree with the overall thrust of the argument (although there’s some percentages that could get quibbled over). However the typical pattern still has 85% of the effort at the intervention stage. I can personally relate to this from my experience of learning the violin as a child.

I never practiced much between lessons so fairly soon my playing standard plateaued (over 80% of my playing time was actually in violin lessons). My increasingly exasperated violin teacher told me that he could not make me good at the violin, but that he could teach me how to practice effectively so that I might become good. Whilst this had negligible impact on my violin playing (which I was susequently delighted to give up), it did leave me with an important learning point in later years- as a trainer you can give people some skills input on a course, but ultimately it’s down to the participant to go away and practice. The blindingly obvious conclusion is that organisations would get a better return from their investment in learning if they put more effort into helping people practice (and the old chesnut: show up at the course prepared).

Despite many L&D professionals buying into the vision of learning organisations over the last 15 years e.g. The Fifth Discipline which takes an overall systems/ process approach, why is the “magic bullet” approach still to be so prevalent? There are probably too many reasons to cover now, but in the professional services arena, the opportunity cost of fee earner’s time is probably the key factor.

In a management culture where quick fixes are valued over consistent processes, the magic bullet is king; everyone would like to think that in one quick intervention the situation will get fixed (and who is the external training consultant to argue as this fits their own business model nicely). In a time of rapid change and economic uncertainty it can be more difficult to make the holistic/ process approach work, but the rewards for doing so are that L&D budgets can potentially go much further.

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