Academic vs. Policy Research — Standards for the Training Profession

Academic Research vs. Policy Research – Standards for the Training Profession

I often make the distinction between academic research and policy research when discussing standards for the training profession.

With academic research, methodology is the sine qua non.  When you want to earn a Ph.D. in any field, you study the methodologies of that field.  Your oral exams test whether you have mastered the methodologies used in that field.  When you write a dissertation, it is judged not so much on getting positive results, but on whether you have followed the methodologies correctly.

In policy research, a decision maker may say “I have to make a decision on this matter in two weeks.  Get me as much information as you can in that time frame so that I can make the best, most informed decision possible.”  With policy research, it is not that methodology is unimportant, but that making the decision in the time given is more important.

The profession of training is rooted in academic research.  Therefore, we believe, if we follow the methodology, the result must be good.  Unfortunately, this can result in sub-optimal results.  If we cannot have training ready when it is needed, we have failed.  If we cannot meet the needs of our employer, we have failed.

One definition of a professional is a person who puts more weight on the standards of his profession than on the needs of his employer.  Certainly, this is a good thing in many fields.  We don’t want a CPA to put false numbers in the annual report to benefit her employer.  We don’t want our doctors to decide on a course of treatment because the hospital with which they are affiliated needs the business.  But, as training professionals, do we have a similar code of ethics to guide us?

Many years ago, I worked for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) – a company that no longer exists but that, at its height in the mid-1980s employed 125,000 people around the world.  DEC had a large Educational Services organization – 1500 employees – responsible for all internal and customer training and documentation.

DEC’s Educational Services group had been built on an academic research model – methodology was everything.  There was a 5-inch binder that specified that methodology – everything from how to write a question for a needs assessment to what font sizes to use in student materials.  The quality of any project was measured on how well you followed the methodology.  Was the methodology a good one?  Well, the company often won industry awards for the quality of its customer training materials.  And the organization did a lot of groundbreaking research, for example with the introduction of the Interactive Video Instructional System (IVIS) that was the forerunner (in the early 1980s) of today’s e-learning.

In the computer industry of the 1970s and 1980s, a new mini-computer (DEC’s main business) took three to five years to develop.  Therefore, there was a lot of time available to follow the strict methodologies mandated by the organization.  But with the advent of new engineering and manufacturing processes in the later 1980s, the development cycle for new products became shorter and shorter.  The Educational Services methodology specified that it took 12 to 18 months to develop a new program.  When the product development cycle became 9 month or less, Educational Services couldn’t meet the demand using the existing methodologies.  Unfortunately, the organization was so tied to its methodologies (“That the way we have always worked and it is the way we will continue to work!”) that it could no longer meet the needs of the company.

In the mid-1980s, I was recruited by a newly-formed Networks and Communication (NaC) business unit to lead all training efforts related to its set of products and services.  At the time, I was employed by the Educational Services organization.  The first thing I was asked to do was to examine how the company trained its sales and sales support personnel on these products and services.  After conducting my own needs assessment by talking with everyone in the NaC organization and with samples of field personnel, I concluded that Educational Services, using its existing methodologies, was not getting the job done.  So I developed a new model for NaC training and presented it to the management team of Educational Services.  I was told, “That’s not how we do things.”  I explained why the current methodologies could not meet the needs of this rapidly-growing business unit, and was told, “That’s not the way we do things.”

These were professionals – they were more tied to their academia-based methodologies than to the needs of their employer.

The result of this conflict was that I left Educational Services and went to work for the NaC marketing group to implement my plan, which would later become known as Networks University.  In subsequent blog posts, I will tell the remarkable story of Networks University – a very successful model for training that was unique not just for DEC but for the computer industry of the time.

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