What’s wrong with training

Sep 28, 1998

“Training.” It sounds like a good thing, right? Everybody likes training. It’s supposed to make people better at their jobs, and that’s good for them. The business news media tells us that Generation X-ers will stay with us if they get lots of training. Training is supposed to improve our client service, and that’s good. I guess you could say that there’s not much that isn’t good about training. But I have to say that I am less than convinced the money A/E/P and environmental firms spend on training (and it isn’t a whole lot) is money well spent. In fact, I think most of it’s wasted. How we handle project management training is a good case in point. Just about every firm tries at some point along the way to improve the performance of their project managers through training. But then they discover they can’t train their PMs to do things “the company way” because that has never been defined. Then they embark on the long and arduous process of trying to document their existing PM process. Since that takes a long time, it holds up the training. Then, along the way of trying to document the process the possibility of making improvements in the process (naturally) comes up. The discussion of these changes in the process then holds up the documentation of the process which in turn holds up training the PMs in how to follow the process. Then, assuming all of this is done and we can move ahead with training (a big assumption, mind you!), the next issues are things such as do we train during normal working hours, or weekends and evenings? Or, who gets to go to the training? Or who actually does the training? I think a far better method of training PMs is to simply put a second desk, phone, and computer in the office of each PM. Then take someone who you think has PM potential (i.e., somebody who can write a complete sentence and knows not to wear blue jeans to the Rotary Club luncheon) and have that person sit in with one of the firm’s best PMs for six months or a year. The PM trainee will have a chance to observe an effective PM in action over an extended period of time. And, the PM trainee will have someone to critique their performance as they take on PM tasks delegated by their PM trainer/mentor. The key, if you do go down this route for training, is to be sure you pick the best PMs as your role models. The last thing you want to use is the PM who isn’t busy, the one who can’t sell or deliver something clients will clamor to pay for. Another area we spend our training dollars on is marketing and sales and presentation training. This is usually handled by getting some well-dressed and overly perky outsider to come in and talk about things such as the “sales funnel,” how we “have to have eight contacts with a customer before they’ll buy,” or how “each ‘no’ takes us closer to a ‘yes.’” Many of these trainers don’t know a thing about selling design or consulting services, or if they do, it’s because they failed in that capacity in some firm they worked for before going out on their own. Once again, I find the best way to train someone in how to sell is to demonstrate it to them. Take your strongest business developers and team them up with those who you want to train. Make sure whenever they go out they take someone who they are training along with them. Sure, there’s a cost in terms of lost billable time. But sitting in seminars all day wastes a lot of billable time also, and going out on calls not knowing what to say wastes time (and maybe closeable opportunities) as well. Computer training is typically one of the major subcategories in the training budget. Let’s take the example of a conversion from Windows 95 to Windows 98. Most firms will buy self-instruction videos, send folks to outside classes, and do in-house seminars as well. But you know what may be a better way to train everyone? Tell everyone that you are going to change the software over a weekend and let them come in Monday morning and figure out how to use it. They’ll learn by doing, and learn it fast! I could go on, but the bottom line is you may not want to follow conventional wisdom when it comes to training your people, and instead think outside of the box about other ways to more meaningfully train your staff. There is always another way to do things, and the real opportunity for breakthroughs often lies in not following “the rules”! Originally published September 28, 1998

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