There’s a reason that Training organizations across that country have spent the last decade thinking of new names: Learning & Development, Corporate Education, Talent Development, Organizational Development, and the very popular “Coaching”. Really anything is better than “Training” – a term that carries with it a ton of negative associations from ineffectual, to a waste of money, boring and the most feared of all insults: “irrelevant”.
And as if the industry isn’t belabored enough with a long-standing reputation for being a useless money-suck, the IRS has managed to deal a heavy blow to the nation’s perception of the value of training.
In her recent post, “What the IRS Spending Mess Shows: Nobody Gives a Hoot About Training”, Crystal Spraggins documents the tragic saga of IRS conference spending, employees accepting free food, holding parties in hotel rooms, and accepting conference gift baskets. Oh, say it isn’t true! Not free food!!
If you have ever been to a conference, or even a Saturday morning workshop for that matter, I am willing to bet you have had a free muffin and some bad coffee. Now sure, the 2010 IRS conference in question cost $4.1 million. That’s a lot of money. But Spraggins makes a point of breaking it down – with 2,600 employees attending, that is about $1,577 per attendant, including airfare, hotel, ground transportation, and those “free” meals. Not so bad really. In fact it’s much less than any conference I have ever attended.
THE VALUE OF TRAINING
But, says Spraggins, it’s tax payer money. And that’s different. She goes on to bash the quality of conference training – saying that not only does no one care if IRS workers receive training, but also that “no one believes that these types of conferences facilitate learning.” Spraggins goes on to argue that these in-person conference/training sessions need to go the way of the dinosaur and make room for the future of training via webinars and individualized coaching services.
I’ll tackle the issue of training quality and relevance in a moment, but first, let’s just consider what happens when entities in the public sector (such as the IRS) give up on training. Because that’s exactly what happens when we attack spending in this area and demonize organizations for investing in people. We have clients in the public sector, non-profits working to prevent hunger and child abuse, as well as member-owned not-for-profit organizations like credit unions – and one thing they all have in common is an almost debilitating fear of spending money on training. We often hear things like, “we know that we need to develop our managers to run high performing teams, but if we spend that money our donors will kill us. Every dollar has to go directly to preventing abuse… or to our members… or made public to taxpayers…”. Rather than weather the storm of public judgment, it’s better to leave people untrained and struggling to perform in an unsupported environment. The message is clear: don’t invest in your people – the public scrutiny is just not worth it.
Rumor has it that high tech companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google and others spend upwards of $20 million on their employee conferences. Now, why would they do that?
Because Talent is King.
In the race for the best of the best, it turns out investing in your people is a pretty big recruitment and retention technique. These competitive companies know that attracting and keeping the brightest employees is more critical than ever for surviving in an increasingly complex marketplace. Similarly, in a time when the U.S. faces heavy global competition and internal economic strife, we need only the most talented and passionate individuals committed to public service and governmental leadership.
Business and Training guru Tom Peters has long been a champion of transitioning from traditional “Training” to “Talent Development”, stressing that for every organization, “Talent is your brand, and you have to own your brand.” This means that talent acquisition now goes way beyond standard recruiting practices such as sourcing, screening, interviewing, assessing and hiring. It means attending to organizational image, culture, reputation, and services. It’s about the “word on the street” for what it’s like to work for your organization. Is it fun? Is it cool? Are people smart? Do they like each other? Do they support each other? Do they work well as a team? Will I be able to learn and grow? Will I be rewarded for my hard work?
In the race for talent, what benefits can the public sector offer to recruit the next generation? Yes, the “perks” of public service need to pass muster for adding value and contributing to a productive and effective workforce, but perks there must be. I’m just sayin’…
Once you have this top talent, how do you keep them? Mountains of books and articles have been written on how to retain employees, and I won’t try and sum it all up here – but one thing that definitely matters is for people to feel a sense of progress. Progressing in our careers consistently rates higher in importance for job satisfaction and loyalty than pay, benefits, and work environment. And a big part of career progress is learning and development – or, training.
Tom Peters is angry over the state of training today. He laments the fact that as training has become “everyone’s job” the importance of training has diminished rather than grown as it should have. Because we are operating in a time when everything needs to change, everybody becomes a trainer, and the boundary between what used to be training and the daily operations of the organization has vanished. “Training now means so many different things that it has become fundamentally meaningless.” Hence, the scramble to rename it.
But whatever you call it, the fact remains that some people implement it poorly and some people implement it well.
So, now let’s talk about that IRS conference….
If we base our judgment of the conference quality from the highlighted news clips over the last few weeks, then the value is clearly questionable. If however, what we saw was 15 minutes of “fun” in what was otherwise three days of substantive content, learning and networking, then perhaps it was not so bad after all. My guess is that like most conferences, it was something in between the two.
What disturbs me is that this IRS fiasco has cast a shadow on all conferences, in fact all live training sessions. The value of in-person learning and networking is yet again under attack. And while I am a big fan of electronic webinars and video conferencing (let’s face it, air travel is only getting worse), I also know that remote/virtual/electronic training, coaching and development has its limitations. Live, in-person, group-based learning is needed in business – the key is knowing when and how to use it.
At Strategic Arts and Sciences, we have a simple criteria for evaluating when to bring people together for a live learning session. We ask: “Are the content, development, and knowledge to be gained in this session something that can be obtained no other way than in person, with other people, at the same time?” In other words, will participants leave the session saying, “Yeah, that was the best way to deliver that content. I really learned a lot.” If the answer to this question is YES, then go ahead and pitch that live session learning experience!
DON’T FORGET THE NETWORKING
You will notice that I put “networking” on that list of conference value-adds. Not only is networking an important part of conferences and live training sessions, one could argue it is, in fact, the most important part. Our clients often tell us that they find the networking to be the most valuable element of conference meetings. The reason for this is because so much of the wisdom contained in a profession, industry, or system is hidden under the surface of the sessions and events taking place out in the open.
While expert instructors and speakers blast messages in keynote speeches and videos at the participants, most attendees describe their “Eureka!” moments happen in the small group breakout sessions with peers, in clusters at the coffee kiosk, even in the hallways (or, let’s face it, the bathrooms).
And it is precisely this sharing of deep wisdom, collaborative idea generation, and relationship building that provides the grease for business and systems to run smoothly, efficiently, and cohesively. Bottlenecks in productivity and performance almost always come down to rifts or miscommunication between people in a system. Good conferences, meetings, and live training sessions can connect people in ways that build knowledge, increase understanding and remove roadblocks.
DON’T SCREW IT UP.
So, now that you have committed to bringing people together to learn something – you need to do it right. Expectations of the experience will be high. Participants (and in the case of the IRS, the general public) will be judgmental and evaluative of whatever you offer. So here are some tips:
- Remember the Big Picture. Don’t be tempted to just stick to the nuts & bolts, a laundry list of new rules, products details, or compliance issues and neglect the current landscape, economy, political environment, and cultural shifts that participants are facing in the given industry, system or organization. Don’t let them leave saying, “Well, now I know how to file an IT helpdesk request, but I sure wish they would have explained our strategic goals for this year.”
- Remember the Details. On the other hand, don’t fall into the trap of just dealing with the big sweeping issues and neglect the nuts & bolts. You also don’t want participants to leave saying, “Well, great, the 5-year development plan sounds good, but I still need to know how to get my password established for access to the new database!”
- Make it Experiential. People learn and retain content the best when they are actively engaged in the learning process. (You may want to avoid the group dance lessons as shown in the IRS footage in favor of something like a team based competition that includes a small project to solve a system problem and then a live presentation, for example).
- Don’t skimp on the Facilitators: In our experience designing high-quality experiential live learning is tough stuff. Even the most seasoned facilitators and speakers can screw it up. The best facilitators are those who can execute on an experience that may seem “easy” on the surface, while at the root it is based on fundamental truths and principles of learning that are quite difficult to master. Invest in facilitators who design relevant and engaging sessions that also incorporate complex dialogs and group interactions. Such discussions can be unpredictable, but with an experienced facilitator at the helm, they provide a much richer learning experience than the traditional “sit and eat a muffin” sessions that make up most conferences.
- Elevate the importance of Networking. Make the networking a more important part of the conference – consider substituting the dreaded cocktail party for a series of “world café” style coffee “trios” – moving people from one small conversation to the next with informal prompts designed to kick off key industry topics.
The bottom line is: don’t give up on live learning and networking experiences like conferences. They can be outstanding tools for bringing people together to drive strategic goals and improve performance across systems and industries when done well. Yes, let’s slap the IRS’s hand for sure. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath.