Business training is usually generic and sucks. Let’s fix that!

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Business training is a fairly important concept, yes? Start with these two pieces of logic:

  • Great places to work: By some measure, the main thing that separates a ‘great place to work’ and a ‘good place to work’ is the availability of training.
  • What employees want: In multiple studies, people indicate a major aspect of any job for them is ‘opportunities for growth.’ That might imply ‘a fatter salary,’ yes, but it also means a chance to learn new skills and gain advantages in a workforce.

Here’s the problem: most organizations don’t actually care about business training. There are a couple of reasons for this, best I can tell:

  • Business training lives within HR: Most senior decision-makers could care less about HR.
  • “Train them so they’ll leave?” Many executives operate according to “us vs. them” mentalities — it’s all about corporate values and enemies — and so they assume they’ll spend money to train a person, and said person will then go use that knowledge with a competitor.
  • Business training is an expense without a clear ROI: Expenses without clear ROI are the first things to get axed in any business slowdown.

Here’s where we’ve arrived at: business training is important, but most companies could care less. Something else to consider: most companies, when and if they do care, are terrible at delivering business training. Now we’re in a pickle! Can we get out? Let’s try.

Most companies aren’t great at business training

If I may be honest and upfront for a moment, most business training is bullshit. It’s canned. It’s out of a box. A consultant or trainer comes in and does some trust falls. You do some activities on big sheets of paper. You talk in circles. Maybe there’s a retreat. Except with the top 1–5 percent of trainers, it’s almost never unique to your company or your value prop. The trainer did the same crap with a company in a different industry on Tuesday. It’s whatever.

That’s the conventional approach to training that we think of. There’s a more nuanced aspect, though. Think about how teams come together at most jobs. There is legitimate science to team development, but that’s not often how we approach it. Instead, we hastily assemble a group of people. We check to make sure the right departments are involved. Managers provide next-to-no context on what’s happening. We bellow, screech, and yelp about “a sense of urgency” on the project. Everyone runs around chasing their tails for 2 weeks. We call an all-hands and talk about how successful it all was. Rinse and repeat.

So there’s conventional business training, i.e. off-sites, but there’s also the business training of bringing a team of people together and explaining to them what needs to be done and why it needs to be done. Most managers only focus on the “how” of something getting done, which strips all purpose from it.

That first type of training is typically outsourced. The second type of training refers to bettering managers and team leads in your own company. That’s a whole different rabbit hole.

Special ops and business training

The business world tends to deify the military. You actually see a lot of organizations moving towards a military-style framework of team organization now, which is cool. And since special ops are some of the best-trained forces in the world, maybe we can learn something from them. Indeed! We can! Here’s an interview on Wharton’s website between professor Cade Massey and a special ops leader. This part, with the ops leader speaking, is pretty strong:

The one major thing that impedes a coming together is training and rehearsals. If you have multiple units operating all over the country and then you deploy those units and you attach them together, you have to be very careful with how you use those attachments if they haven’t trained or rehearsed together. The units that work the best, whether they’re stationed in St. Louis, Washington, somewhere down in Alabama, Virginia Beach, they meet physically in the U.S. to train together, and then they come together.

In short: you want a good team, they need to train together.

This has implications in business. No, not every widget company is like a special ops unit. Not at all. But … business training is important. You can’t just throw a disparate group of people together and expect them to just start hitting goals. And yet, we do that almost every day in business.

What about business training and remote workforces?

This is the first concern you’d probably hear. “Our team is remote! It’s too costly to train ‘em! We got targets to hit!”

That’s about 92 reams of garbage on top of each other. Most companies barely even think before approving travel spend. “Oh, Herbie needs to go to Argentina in three hours? Book it, baby! He’s chasing revenue streams!” Herbie’s probably chasing a prostitute, but that’s neither here nor there for this story. The fact is, if you need to put team members together, you can fly them to the same place. If the project is important, it can be done.

There are also tools like Skype, Zoom, Hangouts, etc. that would allow for solid business training for remote teams. I’m sure I’m also missing some. Point being: “We’re a remote team” is an excuse to have bad business training. That’s an easy one to get over.

So how do we improve business training?

My process would look like this:

Care about it: This is where most “how do we improve X-thing in our business” discussions start. If no one cares, it doesn’t get improved. It’s that simple. (It’s even more pronounced if executives don’t care.)

Outsource it less: The type of business training I mentioned above is generic and cookie-cutter. There are values to a facilitator — third-party, doesn’t know the politics, etc. — but in general, this stuff should be in-house. If you have a limited budget, find someone with a high tendency to connect others and see if you can ‘hack’ together a business training with that person.

Managerial context: If you offer no other business training to your managers, offer this one: how to assemble and guide a team. Almost all work happens in teams now and yet, most team assemblies are hasty and devoid of context, meaning, or purpose. A personal story shall follow!

End the idea that “it’s not worth it; people will go elsewhere:” This idea is toxic to any real people development in your org. What happens when you don’t train people and then they stay with you?

Put the assets in a shared location: So many times, you’ll see a business training end — and there were some elements of value. That’s good! But, two hours later, no one knows how to find any of them and, as a result, the training becomes a total waste of money with no follow-up. Share resources in a common location. It could be Google, Dropbox, OneDrive, whatever. Just make it available.

My no-context business training story

A couple of summers ago, I was doing contract work with a health care company. I got to attend two or three business training deals — and with different departments, no less. This was a big company so the stuff was handled in-house. It was still about 19 train wrecks together. Trust falls, wall writing, SWOTs, etc. Every high-ranking person was on their phone the entire time. People were dipping out for 1–2 hours then reappearing quickly, looking around, and dipping out again. There was some exercise with colored pencils that made me want to self-immolate. In the fiscal year this happened, the company in question made about $50 billion. As a result, one could argue this business training didn’t matter much — a bunch of 50-somethings running around with colored pencils denoting wall hangings probably didn’t drive the massive revenue. (Or maybe it did, and I’m clueless.)

My overall point is this. Business training is often hastily-assembled and poorly-contextualized, whether it’s an off-site or assembling a project team and teaching them what needs to be done together. We should aim to make it better. What say you?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here and here’s my newsletter. Let’s be friends!

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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