How Learning Professionals Made Training a Dirty Word

"Training is what you do to dogs."

Yea. Right. Tell that to the U.S. Armed Forces who used it correctly to become the finest warriors the world has ever seen.

An author writing for a training magazine pens, "How many times have you heard training directors say: "I need to find a way to assure that what I teach in the classroom is effectively used on the job?" "I would estimate that only 10 percent of content which is presented in the classroom is reflected in behavioral change on the job." Shortly after his article appeared, a peer-reviewed journal cites the magazine and article that the "rhetorical question" appears in as "research has shown that only 10% of training transfer to the job." Not too long after that books and speakers are citing the peer-reviewed article (and each other) as proof that training does not work. Learning professionals applause and are awed by this amazing piece of "research."

Yea. Right. If I knew that only 10% of my efforts paid off I would follow Beck's advice, call myself a looser, and go shoot myself.


Two researchers show that Kirkpatrick's Four-Levels of Evaluation is not effective for evaluating "training." However, rather than actually examining "training" programs, they exam such "learning" programs as spirit-building, inculcation of company history or philosophy, and individual growth. And of course the Four-Levels prove ineffective in evaluating these "training" programs. The learning community is happy — the research has not only shown that "training" does not transfer, but also that our methods for evaluating it are ineffective.

Yea. Right. Kirkpatrick never said that his method was valid for evaluating all learning programs, but rather training programs.

The world is becoming so complex that training is no longer a useful concept, besides past "research" has shown that it is pretty much ineffective. It only works with dogs.

Yea. Right. The aerospace industry is perhaps one of the most complex industries around, yet they are able to survive in this complexity through set processes, which of course must be trained.

Great work learning community! We can now forget about "training" and simply do pure "learning" programs. To show that we are still advancing our profession, what word are we going after this decade?


Will Thalheimer said...


Thanks for the reminder!

Isn't it funny how some "experts" in our field try to gain attention with such provocative statements as "training is what you do to dogs" and we all nod our heads in agreement?

One of the most common refrains we hear today is that "everybody knows that training doesn't really work."

This emanates from:

1. SOME social-media folks who say that social media is needed to create better learning through communities.

2. SOME folks who see informal learning as the holy grail.

3. SOME folks who have moved to a performance-consulting trajectory.

4. SOME folks who advocate that after-training support is the key.

5. Etcetera...

I must confess to using a similar strategy to gain attention in the past when I labeled my conference sessions something like, "Everything you know about learning objectives is wrong." It's an easy trap to fall into and we must all be watchful of ourselves.

Thanks for the great post.

Hey, you don't happen to have research citations for the "research" you cite. Love to see the specifics...

Donald Clark said...

Will, The references for the transfer myths can be found here:

Note I also reference your post on Fitzpatrick's article. I actually found a cheap used copy of "The Learning Alliance," then got a copy of the paper they cite by Baldwin & Ford and the had to drive to a different library system to read Georgenson's article that the mystical research was based on. A few days later I serching Google to see if I missed anything and came across your post.

The resesearch on Kirkpatrick is in Alliger, G. & Janak, E. (1989). Kirkpatrick's Levels of Training Criteria: Thirty Years Later. Personnel Psychology, Summer, Vol 42 No 2.

Note that the terms I used are the ones used in their paper.

This reference is often used, but it cites Alliger & Janak as a basis for creating a new evaluation model: Horton, E. (1996). The Flawed Four-Level Evaluation Model. Human Resource Development Quarterly. New York: Jossey-Bass Publishers. Vol 7, No 1.

Terrence Seamon said...

Good post, Don.
Early in my career, I remember a comment from one of the HR directors I was working for: "Training's for dogs." He said it with a smirk, expecting laughs. It rubbed me the wrong way then and still does today.

Dan Spira said...

Great post and discussion!

I agree with what Will suggests: Phrases like "training doesn't work" or "let's blow up the training department" are deliberate attention-getting devices we sometimes use for promotional purposes.

Unfortunately, those phrases tap into and reinforce prior experiences of poorly designed/executed training. Negative marketing and nitpicky "gotcha" messages may seem irresistible to some us, but ultimately poison the well of business for everyone.

In addition, I think "training" rubs some people the wrong way because it suggests a specific type or style of learning intervention, which may or may not be desirable for certain contexts.

Thanks for sharing -- I've referenced this post here: http://danspira.com/2010/01/27/how-not-to-sell-learning-performance-training-development-projects/

Jane Bozarth said...

Great ideas here. My $.02:

Will: Seems to me that many of the "experts" who now show such disdain for training are the very ones responsible for doing so much damage to it. Now they've found a new revenue stream.

Don: Love your comments on Kirkpatrick and would like to add: A taxonomy is not responsible for the people who misuse it. (PS: Few of those misusing it seem to realize that Kirkpatrick himself says there's no such thing as a "fifth level".)

Donald Clark said...

Jane, I tend to agree with you and Kirkpatrick in that if you do an ROI, then you are simply doing the fourth level - discovering the impact or results.

Mark Berthelemy said...

Hi Donald,

I hold my hand up. I did use that exact tactic a while back as a headline on my blog.

The hope was that it would encourage people to read deeper, rather than just quoting the headline.

The point of the post was that we need to be clear about what we expect from "training" as opposed to other activities that lead to learning. By doing so, we should then be able to design and do training better.



Donald Clark said...

Hi Mark,

I did cover three words in a later post that help to define learning activies so that "training" does not always shoulder the blame: http://bdld.blogspot.com/2010/01/three-words-your-customer-must-know.html