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Pill bottles on reflective surface


5th May 2017
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Robin Hoyle is a writer, trainer and consultant. He is the author of  Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement  and  Informal Learning in Organizations; how to create a continuous learning culture  both published by Kogan Page. He  will be speaking at the CIPD L&D show , at London’s Olympia on 10th May, 2017

Does it sometimes feel that as an L&D team you are expected to be the performance doctor? You know the situation. A departmental manager sends you an email detailing a training need and asking for a course. In fact, the request is not to develop a course but an expectation that there will already be one, on the shelf – a ready-made up prescription for their performance ills.

Now experience tells us that a generic off-the-shelf course is rarely the whole solution, if indeed it is even part of the solution at all. Very often training is expected to be the answer before the question has properly been asked.

Assuming that you have the opportunity to do a little digging and discount the usual performance problems – lack of resources and time, line manager incompetence, poor morale, or motivation, wrong tasks or wrong tools for the task, etc etc – you may find that there is a genuine learning requirement and you can propose some suggested interventions.

The problem is that the attitude of your department head won’t have changed. They still want a magic pill, the one day event which will solve their problems. They want to tick off another item on their to-do list and get on with the real job. The real job, of course, rarely involves supporting performance improvement.

Very often training is expected to be the answer before the question has properly been asked.

Like a demanding patient visiting the GP, many functional managers have a clear idea of the medicine they need and are affronted by alternative suggestions. Training equals courses and as short as possible, please.

What we are being asked to do as L&D teams is to hand out performance antibiotics. We know that this prescription won’t deal with the condition, but we’ll get that awkward manager off our back whilst rocking the boat as little as possible.  There’s a queue of other patients who need our attention.

The challenge, of course, is that learning and behaviour change doesn’t work that way.  There is no magic potion. Instead of being the harassed medic who doles out the odd pill to keep the worried well  happy, we need to be the diligent health professional who tells the sickly what is really wrong with them. 

Increasingly medics will prescribe exercise as a way of building general health and avoiding illness, as opposed to simply treating preventable maladies when they appear.

This practice strikes me as an analogy for what we do.

Often we prescribe medicine in the form of a short training intervention which we feel is likely to have limited impact. The symptoms will return in a few days or weeks. What we should do is prescribe a longer course of learning activity.

Like a demanding patient visiting the GP, many functional managers have a clear idea of the medicine they need and are affronted by alternative suggestions. 

Of course we can recommend this during the session. We can prescribe all sorts of follow up activities to embed the learning and skills we have discussed in the classroom. But let’s be honest, the desired level of learner activity post-course happens less often and at a lower intensity that we would wish. 

This shouldn’t surprise us. Who among us hasn’t taken up an exercise regime. Having signed up for the gym or Zumba class, we start with incredible enthusiasm. After a few weeks the gym bag is mouldering away in the boot of the car.  A month or so goes by and that recycling trip requires us to move our kit from car to laundry basket and another excuse presents itself.  “Oh I was going to go to the gym, but I forgot my stuff!”

Our trainees are no different. What starts with enthusiastic intentions to share their experiences, participate in that forum, complete the work-based activities and discuss progress in team meetings weighs on the conscience for a few weeks before being consigned to the list of things ‘I must get round to when I’ve got time.’ Often that initial enthusiasm is laid to waste by the behaviour of the very people who asked for the learning intervention in the first place.

Acknowledging this truth and building both rewards and sanctions into our follow up activities is essential.

We need to prioritise that follow up. This might mean flexing our muscles at the earliest stage of engagement with the client department.

We need to have the confidence to prescribe the long term fitness regime rather than the quick fix and we need to make our ongoing support for performance improvement contingent on compliance with the agreed regime.

If we don’t then we simply dole out antibiotics and allow the infections which lead to under-performance to become resistant to whatever we prescribe in the future.

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