Get Out of the Training Business

by Jay Cross on January 31, 2009

Jay’s column on Effectiveness, CLO magazine, February 2009

The dawn of a new age

If you’re looking for a way to weather the economic downturn, the first thing you need to do is realize that it’s a permanent climate change, not a passing storm.

What we are experiencing today is fundamental. The industrial age is in its death throes, making way for the unfolding of the network age. This is akin to when the Industrial Revolution overwhelmed the agrarian age. During that time, people moved from farms to cities. Clock watching replaced working to the rhythm of the sun.

Repetitive, mindless factory labor replaced working holistically with nature. Taking orders replaced thinking for one’s self. Slums were born; society unraveled.

One hopes this economic revolution will be more positive than the last. Nonetheless, it’s time to get ready for massive change. Industry won’t disappear, but about a third of all industrial companies probably will. The ranks of the permanently unemployed will swell. New categories of work will pop up to address network optimization, making connections, reconfiguring functions, real-time enterprise design, constructive destruction, virtual mentoring and so on. Hallowed laws, regulations, standards and memes will evaporate.

Management itself, the art of planning, organizing, deciding and controlling, will fall by the wayside. After all, planning is suspect in an unpredictable world. Organizing takes on new meaning when things self-organize. Deciding is everybody’s business when networks rule. Control is a nonstarter in a bottom-up, peer-powered society.

As networks continue to subvert hierarchy, successful organizations will embrace respect for the individual, flexibility and adaptation, openness and transparency, sharing and collaboration, honesty and authenticity, and immediacy. Training is obsolete because it deals with a past that won’t be repeated. Learning will be redefined as problem-solving, achieving fit with one’s environment and having the connections to deal with novel situations.

Impending doom unfreezes organizational structure to make room for reorganizing, rearranging and replacing the status quo. Survivors will develop and present agendas for change while things are in flux. Here’s the pitch I’d offer the most senior person I could get a hearing with:

“Next week, we will close the training department. We are shifting our focus from training to performance. Any remaining training staff will become mentors, coaches and facilitators who work on improving core business processes, strengthening relationships with customers and cutting costs.

“I’m changing my title from VP of training to VP of core capabilities. My assistants will become the director of sales readiness and the director of competitive advantage, respectively. The measure of our contributions will be results, not training measures. We’re scrapping the LMS posthaste. Wherever possible, we’re replacing proprietary software with open source.

“All of our energies will go into peer-to-peer, self-service learning. If something doesn’t dramatically improve the capabilities of our people, we won’t do it. We are scrapping lengthy program development projects in favor of quick-and-dirty rapid development. We are abandoning classrooms.

“We are eliminating all travel and helping others do the same by introducing Skype and free real-time conferencing. We’re setting up a corporate FAQ on a wiki to capture and distribute the information we once received from people who are no longer with us. In this and all of our efforts, we intend to work smarter, not lower our standards or quality of service.

“Recognizing that informed customers make better customers, we are opening up most of our platforms for learning to them, as well as our employees and former employees. To the extent that we help them cut costs, improve performance and implement better methods, we both win.

“Everything has a price tag. When we wring out costs, I want commitment from senior management to allocate time for people to help one another, exploit the benefits of social networks and converse with one another freely. This is a multiyear program. It will not work if we try to implement it while still doing business as usual. Burning people out is not a survival strategy.

“That is my plan for this week. If I have your support, I’ll be happy to come back with a few more things next week.”

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