06/2018 - The systems thinking and training blog - Bryan Hopkins

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Why training is never a solution to a workplace performance issue (but then, nothing else is either)

Published by in Training design ·
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This blog item was originally published as a LinkedIn article.

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Early in my schooling I was presented with the problem “2 +\n2 = ?”. With the aid of various fingers, I solved that one, and in due course went\non to complete an engineering degree, where I solved some much more complicated\nproblems than that. Had I continued in engineering, I might have contributed to\nthe mathematics which lands spaceships on Mars: even more complicated, but\ngiven equations, speeds and trajectories we can confidently work out how to get\nthis job done. It is just rocket science, after all, with clear processes to\nfollow … and solutions.

It is a bit different on the days when I am planning what to\ndo when I look after my two-year old grandson. I have an idea about what we will do and know what he is allowed to\neat and not eat. But he has his own\nideas, and what actually happens on those days emerges out of the interactions\nof these different perspectives. Our relationship is beyond complicated: it is\ncomplex, a heady, undefinable and unpredictable mix of human behaviours. Quadratic\nequations and Laplace transforms do not help, and there are no solutions giving\na plan for a perfect day.

This will not be new to many readers. But, actually what we\ndo when we design training programmes is to pretend that human behaviour is predictable\nand treat the whole issue of performance improvement as if it were rocket\nscience. We do this because we have been seduced by the charms of the\nEnlightenment, that period in history when rational thought started to replace\nmysticism. It was thought that we could understand anything by breaking it down\ninto its constituent parts, seeing what each part did and adding it all back\ntogether. This does work well for rockets, but not for my grandson and I, nor\nfor people working in organisations.

The starting point for training design is to work out what\nwe would like people to be doing, define performance objectives and then\nexplicitly or implicitly, deconstruct these to identify the specific aspects of\nknowledge, skills and attitudes that are needed. We then have the bones of the\ntraining programme. This might be a good way to start the process of designing something to improve performance,\nbut it has serious weaknesses if we start to use these same objectives to make\njudgements about how effective the programme is after it has been implemented.\nAfter all, as soon we start training people, these simple pieces of knowledge,\nskill and attitude interact with human behaviour issues and start to take\neveryone involved in directions we may not expect.

Let’s think about these behaviour issues more closely.\nPeople interact with each other, interactions have consequences and create\nfeedback loops, information comes in from outside the group, and there is a\nhistory which has moulded the group into what it is at any particular moment.\nAs such, workplace groups can be regarded as complex adaptive systems, systems which are constantly changing in\nresponse to internal and external dynamics. Of particular importance is the\nreality that human interactions are what is described as non-linear, that there is no direct, consistent connection between\ncause and effect. Of significance here is that this means that when we train\nsomeone to do something better they may not actually do it better, or doing it\nbetter may cause negative feedback within the system (resentments, jealousies,\ninfringing implicit performance norms, leaving the organisation and so on).
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We also know that when we look at problems in the workplace\nwe can find it very difficult to describe exactly what the problem is: everyone\nwill describe it in different ways, depending on their own view of what is\nhappening. Because explanations of the problem are different, definitions of\nsuccess will be different. Anything we do to change things within a problem\nsituation changes the conditions, so the nature of the problem changes. We also\nfind that the problems we are exploring are actually to some degree caused by\nother problems. So, as we saw before, because everything is connected we have a\nnetwork of complex adaptive systems, all constantly evolving to generate\nsituations which we cannot possibly predict in advance.

Given this complete mess how do we start to make things\nbetter? The key is to try and stop thinking of finding ‘solutions’. Complex,\nwicked problems[1] never\ncome to an end, they just keep changing, and all we can do is to try and make\nthings better: we will never be able to ‘solve’ them. This has big implications\nfor training design.

Firstly, training programmes are usually based around sets\nof static performance objectives or learning outcomes, defined at a specific\npoint in time. But by the time a programme has been designed the problem is\ndifferent, so the objectives may have become irrelevant. We should therefore\nthink more about trends: is the situation developing in a desirable direction?\nThis also means that instead of an evaluation carried out some time after the\nevent we need to do more ongoing monitoring. This helps to get around the\nproblem of deciding when to carry out an evaluation: this is always difficult, too\nsoon and any initial enthusiasm colours the results, and too late, causality\nbecomes far too indistinct to give evaluation any meaning.

Objectives are usually expressed in the form “The learner\nwill be able to: …” This focuses training on individuals and overlooks the fact\nthat everyone works within a complex adaptive system. It means that the content\nof training tends to focus on individual knowledge and skills rather than\ncollaborative or cooperative activities. Training initiatives should be more\nteam-oriented, involving staff and supervisors, along with other teams with\nwhich they interact. Objectives should focus on positive change rather than\nbeing about achieving an end state.

Thirdly, the constantly changing landscape within complex\nadaptive systems means that top-down didactic training can never hope to give\npeople the knowledge and skill they need to be able to deal with all the\nevolving operational variety they face. So performance improvement strategies\nmust create structures and space where people can exchange information and\nlearn from each other.

So training can be a\nsort of solution, as long as we do not see it as providing a definitive result.\nSolution-oriented thinking also tends to create responses which are structured\nas projects, i.e., with a beginning, middle and an end. If we escape from that\nparticular thinking box, we can conceive more easily of learning interventions\nwhich are ongoing strategies, constantly adapting and being adapted to help\npeople continue to move in a desired direction.
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[1]\nThe term ‘wicked problem’ was coined in the article “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”, Rittel, H.W. & Webber,\nM.M., 1973.. Policy Sciences, 4(2), pp. 155–169.
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