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The ‘Trainer’s Trainer’ Has a Message for the Industry: Here’s Where We’re Failing and What to Do About It

L&D Talent Management

When 10,000 corporate learning professionals from 78 countries converged in Atlanta for the ATD International Conference and Exposition, organizers picked the “trainer’s trainer” to meet first with the media.

Elaine Biech, a leader in the field for 30 years, had an important message for the training industry:

“Our profession has to be built on what the science tells us about learning and how people learn best. And truthfully, we haven’t been real good about thinking about those things and incorporating them.”

It’s time for training leaders to learn cognitive science, which focuses on how people learn, she said.  It’s an issue she delves into in her new book The Art and Science of Training.

For example, science shows that “we lose information rapidly after we hear it.  But there is a way to solve that,” Biech said. “You give a large piece of information, and then keep adding information along the way. It’s called spacing.”

Training leaders should also study the learning curve, first described by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, she said.

Competence, confidence, commitment

A big reason the science hasn’t gotten enough attention, Biech said, is that much of the training offered inside companies stops short of its intended goal.  It consists of presenting information to employees, but without any follow-up to see what people actually learned — or whether they can and will apply the new knowledge in their jobs.

“We’re very very good at the competence part, figuring out what people need to know,” she argued.  “But we’re not so good at the confidence part — giving them the confidence to use it, as well as the commitment to use it.”

All too often when employees are given a reading assignment, a MOOC (massive open online course) or training class, she said, “We forget that these folks now have to go back to the real world and implement these things.”

A new model

Pathgather asked Biech about the steps organizations can take to fix this.

For starters, she said, bring supervisors on board, because middle management often doesn’t know what employees need to learn and do differently. “So we need to talk to those managers and explain, ‘Here’s what it’s about, here’s why it’s important.’” And trainers should show managers the steps to take after their employees come back from training.

Biech also pushes businesses to explore “a new model.”

“What I have started to say is that trainers need to lead and leaders need to train. And we need to have that switch taking place.”

It’s a matter of growing a deeper understanding of what those roles are, she said.  Trainers should be a part of the leadership of any organization, and all leaders should understand that developing the skills of their staff is part of their job.

“Supervisors are the people who are supposed to develop, not trainers,” Biech said. “We’re supposed to provide some support. Trainers should be at the table, in the C-suite, helping our senior leaders understand what it is that they need to do, getting the training and development at the table when decisions are made.  When an organization creates a new strategy, they need to understand what people need to know to implement that strategy.”

Artistry in how training is done

Just as her book title suggests, the needed fix isn’t all about information and hard science.  It’s also about artistry, the emotional and creative expression people engage in.

“If we have a solid background in the science and then layer on the art that’s within us, we’ll be more successful,” she said.

Using new technologies, people can design all kinds of creative mechanisms for learning, she said.

And that creativity is necessary because today’s workers rarely want to feel like they’re back in school. Biech avoids the word “educator” because “in my mind educators stand behind a podium and teach at people … I want people coming into any learning setting saying, ‘I’m excited about learning.’”

“So it’s not just about the science of training, but about how to make that happen.  The artist inside the trainer has to come out to make sure that happens.”

Our robotic future?

Honing both the art and science of corporate training is more important than ever as the workplace undergoes dramatic change, Biech said.

For example, a 2010 study predicted that by 2020, 40 percent of the U.S. workforce would be “contingent workers,” which includes contractors, temporary workers and the self-employed.  But then the news came — two years ago — that the United States had already reached that figure.

To develop workers in this new economy, businesses need to understand how people are learning, how they can learn, and how to use creativity to deliver actionable information.

Biech’s message also serves as a rallying cry: Evolve your role or risk becoming obsolete. As artificial intelligence grows, she asked, “How are you going to respond to a boss that is a computer or a robot?”

Or, even more starkly, she warned that workers “could possibly be chipped in the next five to 10 years.” If trainers view their roles as simply presenting information, their jobs “will be gone,” she said.

But by embracing a larger role as business leaders with expertise in the art and science of development, they can continue to serve crucial roles well into the future.

Categories: L&D Talent Management
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