David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

The Training Article

post # 120 — June 28, 2006 — a Managing post

Today I posted a new article on my website entitled Why (Most) Training is Useless .

If training is viewed as an integral part of making change – and not as a stand-alone activity – it can be very powerful. However, the sad truth is that the majority of business training, by me and by everyone else, is a tragic waste of time and money.

Regular readers will note that the article is an expansion of what began as a series of posts on this blog, including Why Training Is Useless , Saving the Training Baby and The Keynote Speaker Charade .

By turning the blog discussion into an article, I hope to make it easier to download and circulate the thoughts to people who might benefit from them but not otherwise encounter them. Do pass on the article to someone who could usefully consider the issues it raises.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to those original discussions (and to my thinking) – in particular, those I quote in the article: Bill Peper, Ted Harro , Cem Kaner , and David G.

If you would like to be emailed automatically when I add future full-length articles to the site, (or know of anyone else that would benefit) I invite you (or them) to sign up for my (free) article email list.

Finally, the training conversation is far from over. Please join in by adding your thoughts and experiences to this blogpost.


Mark Lee said:

I attended a speakers bootcamp recently and learned that the difference between being a keynnote speaker and a trainer was over £2000 a day — sometimes much more.

It struck me as bizarre for the very reasons in your post, The Kenote speaker charade.

As a trainer one generally devotes time beforehand to getting to know the organisation, their objectives and also something about the attendees. Material and focus are then adapted to suit the organistion and participants. A keynote speaker however will sometimes find out the name of the organisation before he/she stands up to speak. They however command much higher fees than trainers.

‘Twas ever thus I’m told. As I migrate from training to speaking I’m trying to redress the balance in the same way as you — by trying to ensure I provide greater value than someone who just turns up to speak. There aren’t many of us about however. Join the club!

posted on June 28, 2006

GL Hoffman said:

I completely agree.

Earlier in my career, I was responsible for some regional sales managers. Every quarter I visited them, visited customers, and conducted ‘training.’ With the benefit of several decades of observing what really works, I know now that most of those visits were all about me, and nothing about helping them.

At Jobdig, we train our in house sales staff, about 30 people in their 20’s typically, EVERY single day for about 45 minutes. We use a variety of media in the sessions which are all focused on real world situtations and positive feedback.

It is amazing to me, still, that we will hit a topic literally ten times over the course of ten weeks, for example, and one of the reps will come up to us after, and say something like “you know, I think i am getting the idea here on __.”

Certainly, adults learn differently from kids, ie slower…maybe we all have ADD too.

I believe consistency is crucial, as is make sure your training leader has credibility and empathy. It seldom can be done by a ‘trainer.’

Keep up the interesting articles, David.

posted on June 28, 2006

Jol Hunter said:

Hi David,

Thanks for this. I disagree with you on one thing. That is, if anything you have understated the appropriate position. I think the stats are that about 100 billion is spent on corporate training in North America each year. The vast majority of that is poured down the drain.

Attached is a summary of some research that I find helpful in understanding how people grow and learn. This graph is helpful in understanding the problem and addressing it. The things to the right of the page are things that when working together actually make a difference in people’s growth and learning when applied in the workplace. The things in the top of the page are things that business does well. As you can see the best learning experience (and the one that we do best) is to give people something to lead and let them get at it.

click to enlarge image

So, in an ideal world (where we want to actually get a return on our

investment) we would do the things on the right hand side of the graph and do them well (that is move them into the top right quadrant from the bottom right quadrant). All these things working together give us a shot at making a difference. Interesting to note is that business skills courses are closest to the join of the two axis. That tells us 2 things….because it is near the bottom of the page, we do not do them well and because they are to the left, they aren’t useful/helpful anyway. So, we don’t do them well but that doesn’t matter because they aren’t helpful anyway.

Another way of looking at it is to go right back to the first lesson of any masters of adult ed. Adult ed is really about changing behavior. It is not academic learning. To be successful we need to have 4 characteristics in place.

1-the learners have to see WIIFM. (Relevance) 2-it has to arrive just in time 3-it has to be a process of exchange over time, with learners building on the knowledge of others and discussing their experience 4-they have to be able to see how to apply it.

All the really great teachers (changers) have applied these principles naturally over time.(Ghandi, Jesus, etc….)They lived it as they experienced life with people, they did not put people in desks in classrooms.

All the best,


posted on June 28, 2006

Mike O'Horo said:


While on the surface it might seem that my ox is among those being gored in your article, I actually agree with you that education or training, as a standalone solution, cannot work. Unfortunately, the debate is stunted by the absence of common language defining education, training and coaching.

My schema organizes this way: Education is knowledge transfer; it produces awareness and, potentially, a reason for someone to decide to change — attitudes, behaviors, approaches, etc. Training, as you suggest in your fitness analogy, is the process of “doing,” and proving to oneself that the desired outcome is attainable; training produces skill. Coaching is timely applied guidance, a safe environment to experiment and make mistakes without reproach; it produces achievement and growth.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of what is offered as “training” is mere education. There is no “doing” component, nor much by way of guidance. It’s just words delivered a bit more entertainingly than a book or article. Even if you succeed in getting firms’ leaders to articulate clear development goals, they’re unlikely to decide that “greater awareness” is the key to achieving great things, which disqualifies the 80% of the market offerings that, stripped of their packaging, are in fact education only.

I think that your cogent analysis would benefit from the concepts in “First Break All The Rules,” the Gallup Organization’s book about what they learned about the best managers in the world. According to their million-person study, the number one consideration is not skills or knowledge, but talent. They conclude that it’s next to impossible to teach or train someone in a function for which they have no innate talent. In one of their examples, they point out that a deep appreciation for precision is a critical talent for a CPA; you can’t train that, and absent that, all the learning and training in the world won’t make them a good accountant.

(I succeeded in proving this on a personal level a few years ago when, satisfying a lifelong desire to play drums, I purchased a kit and took lessons weekly for two years. I enjoyed the lessons, practiced diligently for an hour or more every day and strove mightily. Sadly, I fairly quickly came up against real limits to what I could do. It turns out that I don’t have any actual talent or feel for playing drums. I can play well enough to enjoy accompanying music on my stereo, and can hack my way through a blues jam with forgiving guitarists, but I’m not a drummer.)

They also maintain that employee effectiveness is definitively dependent on the relationship with one’s primary supervisor, far more so that the firm’s institutional mission, ethos, values, etc. The company is defined by the immediate supervisor. Admittedly, I’m grossly simplifying the book’s message, but I encourage you to read it.

This is all consistent with your argument that management can’t be on the sidelines, using training (or, worse, education posing as training) as a substitute for defining the desired outcomes and required behaviors. Training, education and coaching can be a partial “how,” i.e., the means to accomplish the awareness, skill development and achievement components in the process of accomplishing a business goal. They must be integrated into all the other elements in a credible plan that addresses all the other considerations in management’s purview.

Mike O’Horo (“The Coach”)

Sales Results, Inc.

posted on June 28, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Wow! These are fabulous points – I wish I knew how to get these comments to every CEO, managing partner and HR officer in the world.

On the other hand, if so many people “get” all this, why are (as Jol suggests) such vast, vast sums being spent?

I was talking with someone at one of the Big 4 acccounting firms, which has an arrangement with one of the business schools to do an executive education session for selected partners.

I was making some of the points that I made in the article about the very limited effectivenss of such programs, and he said “Well, the main reason we’re doing it is as a kind of reward for high-flyers.”

Expensive educational programs as a trophy! How cynical is that?

posted on June 28, 2006

Mark Maraia said:


I read your recent article on training and found it very interesting. I

agree that most training as carried out in professional service firms is


In my view, most training is a waste of money because it doesn’t include

coaching. As you probably know, Neil Rackham did a study at the behest of

major companies like Xerox and IBM back in the 70’s which found that 87% of the skills people are taught in training are lost in one month or less

unless those skills are reinforced through effective coaching.

Effective coaching allows people to find their own reasons for why they

learn something. It also allows the learner to control what and how fast

they learn. Finally, it is just-in-time learning: People learn what they

need exactly when they need it. That’s not always true: sometimes our

clients experience “failure” and only learn the lesson AFTER the failure.

Training, no matter how well conceived and executed, can’t do all these


I’ve found these things to be true about well conceived training and

coaching programs:

1. Professionals will learn skills even when the firm doesn’t directly

reward those behaviors.

For example, many of our clients come into our programs complaining that their firm does not encourage business development or rewards billable hours far more than marketing. In spite of that organizational obstacle, many of

our participants end up doing more business development than ever before. There are many reasons for this including these three. First, they get clear about their own reasons for why marketing is important to them even if the firm doesn’t reward it. Second, they learn they were doing marketing activities all along, but didn’t categorize them as such. Finally, we help many of them find a way to make business development fun. This insures they will continue to do it long after the coaching comes to an end.

2. Most adults have to do some degree of UNLEARNING in order to learn


Just one example to make the point. A basic skill needed for effective

selling behavior is asking questions. However, there are times when clients

inform our coaches that they were raised in a household where “asking

questions” was considered bad form, improper or rude. If they don’t become aware of how that belief blocks their learning they will NEVER learn the skill. In effect, their childhood programming takes over and prevents them from applying the skill.

3. We assume our clients already know 50% or more of what we will be


The best kind of training doesn’t reinforce a sense of ignorance. It gives people confidence they can or are already doing certain things well. The key is to get them to act 100% of the time on what they already know! That’s what makes coaching so effective.

If people don’t DO ANYTHING differently after the training then they have not truly learned anything. Information is worthless unless it’s applied. For example, most people know that it’s helpful to prepare for meetings with prospects. In spite of that knowledge, most won’t prepare. Until they actually DO THE PREPARATION, they will not experience just how powerful this

step can be in building relationships.

I’d even wager your daily fee that YOUR training programs would generate considerably greater behavior change in individuals (in spite of the organizational obstacles you mention in your article) if you followed it immediately with effective coaching. That coaching can be done by people

inside your client firms or by an outside organization. If you are willing

to run an experiment someday which involves coaching by an outside

organization, I’m open to the challenge.

Thanks for continuing to be a thought leader in the professional services


Warm regards,


Mark M. Maraia


Maraia & Associates, Inc.

posted on June 29, 2006

Antoine Henry de Frahan said:

I agree that training, as usually delivered, may sometimes be useless in terms of getting participants adopt new behaviours. But it may be very valuable for other reasons. Conducting a training session may be an effective way of gathering a lot of feedback from insiders. In a few days, or even a few hours, I get to see what are (some of) the big issues in the firm, the areas of conflicts, the organisational challenges, etc. For example, I once trained the HR, IT, marketing and office manageri n a firm. The discussions allowed them to express a lot of issues about organisation and leadership that had never been explicitly raised before. When I reported that to the management of the firm, they were willing to listen, and it triggered a really interesting discussion. It might even be the starting point of structural change. Training may sometimes miss its educational purpose, but it may nevertheless have positive, unexpected side-effects for the firm.

posted on August 25, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Very insightful, Antoine. I recognize the truth of your experience. it matches mine.

posted on August 25, 2006