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Merrill Aldrich

Technical content about Microsoft data technologies. All opinions expressed are purely my own and do not reflect positions of my employer or associates.

CIOs: Stop Mandating Training

I love to learn about new technology, and I especially love a long deep-dive technical session with a real expert or a well-crafted, inches thick technical book. Even if either one is expensive. Learning is probably my favorite thing to do.

Yet I stand before you with an appeal: Stop “sending people to training.”

Why would I say such a thing? Because failure is baked right into that very phrase: “sending people to training.”

Death by Training

Most of us in the IT world have probably experienced this scenario:

The company has “vouchers” for “training” to be used at some training facility. A group is “sent” there to learn about some technology we ostensibly lack that will help the organization. In the group we have, let’s call him “Joe,” who is relieved to be out of the office with a legitimate excuse not to do any work, because it saves him from the work of not doing any work in the office. There is also “Phil” who has real work to do, but can’t, because he’s been sent to training. His phone is likely to ring a lot in the session, and he may or may not pay attention. Next to Phil is “Pat” who goes to every possible training session with enthusiasm, but as far as anyone can tell has not retained much of any use from those many hours. Undaunted, she is eager to soak up this WhateverTech 2.0 because it really is the future, etc. etc. etc.

At the front of the room is a barely-interested instructor who just read up on this subject matter the night before, and will lead us in a death march of alternating PowerPoint slides, interactive exercises and coffee/bio breaks.

This is deadly. It’s waste of time for the individuals involved and a waste of money for the company. If there is anyone capable in this episode, it’s even debilitating for them. This will fail, because the people participating aren’t going to provide the outcome you seek. It’s because they are not engaged, or not capable, or both. It’s because the situation is framed by expecting them to sit through training, not expecting them to succeed at their work. It almost guarantees the vouchers and the hours are wasted.

Expect Learning, not Training

What can you do instead? The technology landscape does change rapidly and the people on your team really do need to stay engaged in what is new, to keep your organization efficient and competitive. What you need is a culture of learning, not a culture of training. Consider whether you can incorporate these ideas into your team:

  1. Expect learning instead of expecting training. Create a culture in your team where new skills are valued because there’s a genuine sense that they matter, and reward the people who bring those new skills.
  2. Measure the team’s performance and make visible where new skills and tech have made a difference. Someone automated a horrible manual process? Celebrate that. Fixed a reliability issue that plagued operations? Celebrate. Created an HA solution where you needed one? Super. But make sure these gains are real, so the tech staff who know what’s what on the floor don’t become jaded about false praise.
  3. Support your team in finding quality learning opportunities they they are excited about. In my field that something like the PASS Summit, or SQL Skills Immersion Events. Fund those, and let people go (notice I didn’t say “send them”). If they aren’t excited about real learning opportunities, then start to wonder about how they are fitting in to this learning culture you need to create.
  4. Make learning a legitimate part of your team’s time – “I don’t have time to learn PowerShell” is not something you want to hear, just for example. Then make it an expectation. Then find and reward the results that people produced who stepped up with real commitment.
  5. Find the real skills gaps on your team, and proactively locate people to fill them. Look ahead six months or a year and see if you have people to successfully meet the changes coming down the road. Ask your best technical staff where the gaps are.

This might look different in different organizations, and people have different styles. I can read a 1,200 page technical book, if it’s a good one. It takes hours – but the organization benefits from that time as I get better at my job. I realize not everyone wants to read like that. Some people use the web, some like conference attendance or conventional training - but good quality training and not PowerPoint death marches – and still others would like mentoring.

No matter the style, it’s up to you to make the structure and create a set of expectations where the people on your team can, and want to, learn and grow. If they are personally committed then the team becomes unstoppable.

Published Monday, November 4, 2013 12:36 PM by merrillaldrich

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Robert L Davis said:

You forgot to mention ... let's call him "Robert" ... who will spend the training time alternating between sleeping and trying not to fall asleep.

November 4, 2013 2:46 PM

merrillaldrich said:


November 4, 2013 2:48 PM

Tracy McKibben said:

We're in a constant state of WhateverTech 2.0 rollout here, and could really use Pat's expertise. Can you give me her contact info?

November 4, 2013 2:54 PM

Gail said:

I remember the one SQL course the company mandated I go on, it was so unpopular that there was no one else signing up for it. Company 'forced' the training provider to offer it. I was the only student. Finished the 3 day course in a day and a half (was the 2008 performance tuning) and then the instructor and I both took a day and a half off.  

November 4, 2013 3:00 PM

merrillaldrich said:

Well played, Gail!

November 4, 2013 5:15 PM

Boris Hristov said:

Let me just add to the first paragraph about the trainers that lead the "trainings" that we are all "sent" to - don't tell anyone I said it, but many of those guys have never ever worked in real, production environment. Now that's an experienced guy, huh?

November 5, 2013 8:03 AM

Greg Low said:

Boris, in the "voucher-based training land" that fits the scenario that Merrill mentioned, it's the norm. The program itself favours full-time trainers, and all deliveries very cost focussed (as the vouchers aren't worth much). That's why most of the rest of us want no part of it. I think the idea of full-time trainers is a fundamental flaw in that program. We try to keep people to a max of one week per month of training (or less) for exactly that reason. If you're not doing real work with the technology, you wouldn't even know when what you're telling people simply isn't true.

November 7, 2013 5:07 AM

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February 9, 2019 8:08 AM

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