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Corporate training is way too focused on content

I was super into the idea of training around 2012. I even thought I wanted to work in it as a career. Seems pretty basic to me, OK: a lot of people aren’t good at their job/have no idea what they’re doing. Executives are terrible at coaching or providing context on anything, because neither of those things are tied to their bonus. But most training comes from L&D (big companies), HR (mid-size), or outsourced vendors (whoever). It’s usually pretty terrible. You know the drill: trust falls, huge PowerPoint decks, stale cookies in the back of the room, and everyone checking their email and talking about “putting out fires” all day anyway. Hard pass.

Anyway, I actually wanted to work in that for a while. I thought I might even be good! Then I worked for McKesson in summer 2013 when I was in grad school. Everyone there told me to avoid training because if budgets dip, it’s the first thing cut. Sad, but seems reasonable to expect that. So I started becoming kinda professionally adrift — maybe I wanted to be a consultant? — and you can draw a line between that summer and some of my pros/cons right this second.

I never did work in training. But I have done a bunch of research and writing about it, including these ditties:

As you can see, I’m not too big of a fan of corporate training programs in general. What’s sad is that we really, really, really, really need better training right now, especially because the tech stack ran away and hid from human development. People are legit worried about their jobs and their future. Training plays into that.

Again, though, back to the executives. It’s too often dismissed as “a HR thing.” That is code for “No one gives a shit about this, point me to the financials.” It’s a tough little arc. Plus, we got another problem to discuss.

Training: Content vs. context 

People sometimes ask me why this blog is named what it is. I’ll spare you the origin story, but the deal now is this: everything is contextual, and especially around work. You work with other human beings, right? They have needs, backstories, families, self-esteem concerns, etc? Right. So I don’t care what “content” you do at work, or how your role was defined to you. What matters is the context. That’s my two cents at least.

This article makes the point well:

In a number of organizations, we’ve focused intensely on enabling leader-led learning. To be clear, our approaches are not your parents’ “leader-led learning” of 65 PowerPoint slides covered in 60 minutes. Most people in organizations need to be woken up and provoked to share fresh stories and ideas in the context of their real work. One of the keys is building leaders that provoke the right dialogue.

There are some other good quotes in that article. Here’s my two cents. A lot of times, if someone is tasked with “producing a training” inside a company, the entire focus is content. The person will look for slides, assets, graphs, posters, inspirational quotes, etc, etc.

Now, in the course of doing that, you may put together a kick-ass presentation. That’s true. Kudos to you.

But it’s completely content-driven. Since everyone experiences work a little differently and has a different contextual connection to their team/boss/co-workers/deliverables, the content doesn’t matter so much as the context.

I covered this about two years ago too.

What would a context-driven training look like?

Instead of one presenter/slides and “fun group exercises,” maybe something like:

  • Conversations about job role, stress, understanding of strategy
  • Process charts about how new “visions and strategies” were developed, so that employees understand them better
  • Groups working together to remap outdated/unnecessary processes to make work less frustrating for all
  • Stories of failure from all levels
  • Knowledge sharing activities

Basically the idea here is to get away from lecture-style (content) and to something that takes into account the value of people and the various web of relationships that makes up “work” (context).

I fully understand that most people, if they filed into a training deemed “Radical Conversations,” they’d groan and bitch all day while checking their email. I get that. But … wouldn’t legit conversations about shitty process be better than sixteen quotes from Jeff Bezos across a miserable slide deck? Feels that way to me.

What else might you add on training content vs. context and how to improve it all?

Ted Bauer

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