Managing the training function

New Book – On-Target Learning: Redefining Organizational Learning

Training groups often complain that their work isn’t valued, that they can’t get the attention of their organizations’ leaders, that they can’t get “a seat at the table” where plans are made. On-Target Learning will teach you how to earn that precious seat at the table.

Throughout his 40 years in learning and development in a variety of companies, Dan Tobin has been known as an innovator and a disruptor. More than 20 years ago, he created a process for tying all learning initiatives directly to corporate, group, and individual business goals – a process he called a “Learning Contract” and he has presented this model to dozens of executive, human resources, and training groups throughout the world. When explaining the learning contract process, he has often been asked when he would create a toolkit for people to use in implementing the process. On-Target Learning presents this toolkit.

The Learning Contract starts with the organization’s goals, determines how learning can contribute to the achievement of those goals, develops a learning plan, and follows through to ensure that what is learned is actually applied to people’s work to help them meet those goals. Further, it recommends that people in the field redefine their roles from “trainers” to “learning facilitators.”

On-Target Learning not only explains the Learning Contract process, but also provides practical advice to training groups on how to implement each step. It is full of examples from Dan Tobin’s own career and from other companies whose stories Dan has collected over the years from the research he has done for previous books. The chapters on the Learning Contract is followed by a discussion of “Evaluating Your Learning Initiatives.”

As a bonus, Dan has included a chapter on “Other Lessons Learned.” This chapter contains a variety of stories from Dan’s career in hope that people currently working in the training/learning/development field can glean some ideas that will be helpful to them in their current jobs and their careers.

Dan is now semi-retired, doing occasional consulting and speaking engagements. He is the author of seven previous books on corporate learning strategies, and he hopes that On-Target Learning will be his legacy to the field.

On-Target Learning is now available from as a Kindle e-book and as a paperback.

Stuff, Not Fluff – DEC’s Networks University – Part 2

Stuff – Not Fluff

In conducting my needs assessment for Networks University, one theme I heard again and again from the people who would attend is that they needed “stuff, not fluff.”  For the most part, the attendees were technical people and they wanted to talk with technical people – they were wary that the program was being sponsored by the marketing group and, repeatedly, they said they didn’t want to “waste their time listening to marketing fluff.”  In fact, the phrase “Stuff, not fluff” became a mantra for Networks U.

As the technologies for local area networks rapidly evolved, we were challenged in how to get the best and latest technical information put together for the program.  We were talking about new technologies, a whole new set of products, new services unlike anything the company had provided in its history.  When I had tried to impress these points on the company’s educational services organization, the response I got was “That’s not how we do things.”

Educational Services had built its own model for how to train employees.  For each new computer model (which took 3 to 5 years to develop), it created a one-week comprehensive program that covered everything from pre-sales to installation to trouble-shooting.  That program took 12 to 18 months to develop and had development costs of $100,000 to $150,000.  The new reality for the Networks and Communications (NaC) group was that the development cycle for new products would be well under a year and sometimes as short as a few months.  The Educational Services model was clearly not going to work for this business unit.

So, if Educational Services couldn’t help us develop and deliver the content for Networks University, who could?  The solution was to get the subject-matter experts to develop and deliver the training.  With the support of the entire NaC business unit, we got whoever we needed – product managers, marketing managers, engineers, back-up support groups, college professors, consultant – whoever we needed, we got.

This was not a slam-dunk strategy from the beginning.  When I approached several engineers as we were planning the first session, I got remarks like, “You want us to talk with sales people (said with a sneer).  What possible value is there for us to talk with sales people?”  I called in some favors that were owed me and got a few engineers to participate in the first Networks University session.  At the end of the session, I met with the engineers.  “It was amazing,” they told me.  “Did you know that these sales people actually talk with customers and know what customers like and don’t like about our products?  That they talk with customers about what they would like to see us develop in the future?  We never thought we could learn anything from sales people, but we were wrong.”  From that point on, we never had problems in getting engineers and other technical people to participate in Networks U.  (It also didn’t hurt that we fed them well.)

Now, you have to realize that engineers, product managers, and other technical personnel do not always make the best trainers.  First, they haven’t been trained to develop or deliver training.  Second, egos sometimes get in the way (“People will see how brilliant I am and once they see that I can answer all of their technical questions, they won’t care if I’m a great speaker or not”).  How to overcome these and other obstacles?  Here are a few ideas (Note: a more comprehensive approach can be found in my article on using subject matter experts that you can find on my Articles page (

  • Provide training on how to put together a presentation
  • Encourage them to take a presentation skills course
  • Assign an instructional designer to work with them to help organize their presentation and develop some good visual and job aids

We also emphasized to these technical speakers that they needed to focus on “stuff, not fluff” and that they needed to prepare for their sessions, rather than walking in cold.  The most effective strategy we developed was to require presenters to review their content and approach with two volunteers from the target audience.  In this way, we ensured that what the audience needed was what was delivered.

Despite all of these warnings and preparations, we were not always successful.  Because we were running multiple concurrent sessions throughout the week-long program, the participants quickly learned to “vote with their feet,” i.e., we had a few disastrous sessions which might have started with 100 or more participants, but ended with only a handful of people in the room – the rest had quickly lost interest and moved to other sessions.  It didn’t take many of these occurrences to get the message across.

These many sessions within a single Network University program were the core of the program.  But there was much more to Networks U that these formal sessions, and I’ll cover some of those aspects of the program in subsequent blog entries.

DEC’s Networks University – Part 1

About 10 years ago, the company for which I was working hired a new vice president of sales.  I saw in the announcement that she had worked for Digital Equipment Corporation and that her time there overlapped with my own 11 years there.  One day, I stopped in to see her.  I told her that her name was familiar and she said that my name rang a bell as well.  She asked me what I did there and I said that, among other things, I had created a program called Networks University.  “Oh!” she exclaimed.  “I just loved Networks U.  I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since.  It was just the best program.”  And this was more than 20 years later.

While subsequent posts will provide background on the creation and operation of Digital Equipment Corporation’s (DEC) Networks University, here are some basic statistics on this remarkable program.  While it took a few years to get everything up to speed, once we got there we were running Networks University:

  • Twice a year in the U.S. for an audience of around 600 people
  • Twice a year in Europe for an audience of around 400 people
  • Once a year in the Pacific Rim for an audience of around 200 people
  • Each week-long program included 40 to 70 separate sessions, ranging from one hour to three days
  • For each 6-month cycle, 80% of the content was brand new
  • In terms of the content of the session, it was all planned by 2 to 3 people (more were involved in the logistics of the events)

Network U was unique, not just for Digital, but in the computer industry (we had many people hired from other computer companies attending the program and they said that their previous companies had nothing to compare).  Networks U was not a “training program” in the traditional sense, but more of a “learning event” where everyone in the networks world (sales, field service, software services, marketing, engineering, support groups, etc., came together to share what they had learned and to learn from each other.

When you walked into the hotel where we held a session, there was an electricity in the air, an excitement that I have never experienced in any other program I created or attended.

Did everything work perfectly?  Of course not.  With each iteration of the program, we made improvements and corrected things that didn’t go so well in previous programs.

My hope is that by sharing my experiences with the program other training professionals can benefit from my own experiences.  In the next blog entry, I’ll provide some background on Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), a company that pioneered the mini-computer.  While DEC no longer exists, at its height around 1987 employed 125,000 people around the world.

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.

A Plethora of Models — Why so many and how do you choose?

Choose any training topic — leadership, coaching skills, performance management, etc., etc., and you will find any number of books, articles, training programs, and consultants with their own “unique” approach, guaranteed to be the “definitive model.”

Back in the 1980s, when I worked for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), I was involved with the company’s engineering and manufacturing organizations around the topic of Quality. At the time, there were three major experts identified with the quality movement, each with books, training programs, consulting engagements, and large followings across many industries. DEC had a unique culture, where people were encouraged to experiment with different approaches and find the solution that worked for them. In the quality arena, there were adherents to all three of these approaches, and the people who belonged to each school of thought had their own success stories and an almost xenophobic dislike for the adherents of the other approaches. Not sure how it fitted the employee selection part, or whether these approaches were a major part of employee screening, like what we have these days (click to find out more). Because the culture would not allow any one person to mandate that one of the three approaches would be implemented company-wide, more time was wasted arguing over the “best” approach than in implementing any approach.

Which approach was the best? I didn’t have the answer then, and I don’t have it now. Each of the approaches had its adherents and its wonderful success stories. But the one thing that the success stories from all three approaches had in common was that a company selected a single approach and implemented it across the company. And it was the dedication to a single approach and the alignment of the entire organization to that approach that made the difference.

When I first came to the American Management Association (AMA) to lead the design and development of its programs, I did a quick analysis of all the programs in its catalog that were targeted at first-line managers. There were more than half-a-dozen, and each of them included some instruction on coaching skills. And each, ranging from one hour to several days of instruction on the topic, had its own model — a 3-step model, a 5-step model, a 9-step model, etc. The models were all different, but they were really all the same. The biggest difference in the models was how detailed each model was in its explanation. I argued for my entire 4 years at the AMA (without much success) that we should have a single model that could be used across all programs.

In a previous job, where I was the one-person director of employee development, I got certified to teach a particular coaching skills program and taught that program to hundreds of managers across the company. Was the program I chose the “best in the field?” I don’t know — I guess it depends of what you are looking for and what criteria you use to evaluate the many programs out there in the marketplace. Why did I choose this particular program? Because it was the right length for my audience, it covered the subject matter well, and it included a lot of in-class practice to help people master the skills it taught. Could I have been as successful if I had chosen to adopt some other program? Sure — as long as it met my evaluation criteria. I chose this one because the training certification program for it was being given locally, was reasonably priced, and was offered when I was looking to start the program.

So, why are there so many different coaching models, so many different approaches, so many books on coaching skills, so many training programs? The answer is pretty simple. If I am a consultant or a trainer and I go to a potential client and say “Bob Smith has a terrific 4-step coaching model that I teach in my classes,” the client would (or should) start thinking: “If Bob Smith’s model is so great, maybe we should hire Bob Smith to come teach it to our people.” That’s what I would do. So, if I want to get this potential client signed up, what do I say to make my case? “You know, Bob Smith has a very well-known and successful 4-step model for coaching skills. But I have found that by adding two more steps to the model, I can make it even better. Therefore, you should hire me to teach my 6-step model and your people will get the best solution in the marketplace.” Is my 6-step model really better than Bob Smith’s 4-step model (or better than every other model out there)? Probably not. But only by differentiating my product from the others in the marketplace can I distinguish what I am selling.

This is not to say that there are not different approaches to teaching coaching skills and there are some real differences between these different approaches, just as there were three different approaches to implementing a quality program. What is important is not to get overwhelmed by the plethora of models and programs being offered. Study the field. Look at the major approaches and select the one model that you think will work best in your culture. Once you have selected a model, look at the alternative training programs being offered that use that model and choose one. Don’t get overwhelmed by the plethora of choices. Don’t get stuck in “analysis paralysis” model. If you want to be successful in introducing coaching skills (or quality or any other program) to your organization, choose an approach — one approach — and implement it across the organization so that people are getting the same training, using the same skills, using a common vocabulary — these will be major factors in your success.

I’m back!

Please pardon my absence from blogging for a while.  Early this year I had an unfortunate heart attack that sidelined me for several months.  Now, with three stents in my coronary arteries, and completing a multi-month course of cardiac rehab, I am now in good health and feeling good.

In my 40+ years in the training/learning field, I have been fortunate to have a number of managers who allowed me to try new ideas which, for the most part, resulted in very successful programs.  While I have written 7 books on corporate and individual learning strategies, I still have many stories to tell.  I plan now to write a long series of blogs and articles to help transfer some of my experience to others.

I have been pleasantly surprised throughout my career where I have suggested new approaches that seemed simple to me, but had never occurred to the people I worked with.  In these blogs, I plan to relate many of these stories.  Some of my colleagues may find some of these stories simplistic and obvious, but my hope is that some of these stories may spark an idea for some of my colleagues.  In other blogs, I will share some of my own philosophy of learning and development that I hope at least some of my readers will find useful or, at least, challenge them to rethink how they do things — even if they decide that their current practices fit their situations perfectly, it never hurts to consider other ideas.

I hope that, through this series and through my earlier books, writings, and presentations, I can establish my legacy for the field.

Dan Tobin

Feeding Your Leadership Pipeline

AN EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT MODEL – Part 2-A: Now that you have identified your high-potentials, what do you do with them?

It would be nice if we could identify our high-potential employees (Hi-Pos) and let them grow naturally into the organization’s future leaders. If we are lucky, we may have one or a few Hi-Pos who are such natural leaders that we just have to sit back and watch them grow. But for most Hi-Pos, we need to nurture them — we have to feed our leadership pipeline to accelerate their growth. Most of the your Hi-Po group will need both education and the opportunity to apply what they have learned. The model I present in my book, Feedeing Your Leadership Pipeline, has four main sectors:

1. Formal education sessions
2. Action learning projects tied to each education session
3. 360 reviews and individual development plans
4. Mentoring an coaching

In this blog, we’ll focus on the Education Sessions. Later posts will cover the other three sectors.

I have seen too many organizations send a Hi-Po to an expensive external program (and there are many excellent leadership programs available in the market), only to be disappointed when the person returns from the program and nothing seems to change. TRAINING ON LEADERSHIP SKILLS ALONE DOES NOT A LEADER MAKE! Nor can attendance at a single program, no matter how good it may be,
magically transform someone into an effective leader. To become a leader requires more than just leadership skills.

Becoming a leader requires that the Hi-Po develop in three areas:
I. Leadership Skills
II. Business Acumen
III. Execution Skills

As mentioned, there are many excellent leadership skills programs available in the market, from universities, institutes, and consultants. (In Part 2-C of this blog, we will discuss how to select an appropriate program for your organization’s Hi-Pos.) But along with leadership skills, leaders need to develop their business acumen, for without an understanding of the organization’s business, leaders will have great difficulty selecting a target toward which to lead the organization. The third element is execution skills, because the leader must be able to develop the plan for how to get from the current state of the organization to the goal being set.

Let me spend a little more time here on these last two areas (more detail and a lengthier explanation can be found in my book). Let’s start with business acumen…

Employees generally start working for an organization because of their knowledge and skills related to one aspect of the organization’s business. This may be as an accountant, a sales rep, an engineer, a marketing programs person, etc. For each step up the career ladder a person takes, his or her view must broaden. For example, I once worked in a marketing group, where the newly-appointed director of the group came from many years working in marketing communications. As Abraham Maslow once said, “if your only tool is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.” Because his expertise was in marketing communications, he spent most of this time focused on that part of the marketing group’s work — because that was where he felt the most comfortable. In fact, in his first two years as director, he went through three marketing communications managers, because none of them met his standards of excellence. In the meantime, the other parts of the marketing organization (field programs, marketing strategy, etc.) suffered from his inattention. I call this “functional myopia,” where you are so focused on your small part of the business that you have little perspective on the many other aspects of the business that make the organization whole.

The higher one rises in the organization, the greater problems functional myopia creates, and the greater the need to develop business acumen. For example, if you find yourself with an extra $100,000 in the marketing budget, where is that money best spent? As a business unit manager, should you focus your investments in new product development, improving the manufacturing process, marketing, or employee training? Without business acumen, these types of questions are impossible to answer.

The third area of development needed by Hi-Pos is execution skills.” In many companies for which I have worked as an employee or as a consultant, the company’s leadership team has declared a goal of increasing revenue by, let’s say, 10% in the next fiscal year, where the company has shown steady growth of 3% to 4% over the past several years. And in most of these companies, employees have been given no guidance or direction on how the company is to accomplish that goal. When you continuously set ambitious goals and provide no guidance on what people must do differently to achieve those goals, all you do is frustrate employees (especially if their bonuses are dependent on the company reaching its goals). Leaders need execution skills in order to plan how to accomplish the goals they set.

In my next blog post, I will focus on how the four elements of the leadership development program model can help develop all three areas: leadership skills, business acumen, and execution skills.

Feeding Your Leadership Pipeline

An effective leadership development model – Part 1: Identifying High-Potential Employees

In my book, Feeding Your Leadership Pipeline: How to Develop the Next Generation of Leaders, I present an effective model for putting together a leadership development program within an organization. While there are many models for leadership development in the marketplace, this is a model I developed almost 20 years ago from my own experience and the experiences of many other companies that I have researched for my books and others with which I consulted, and it is a proven model.

In this series of blogs, I will present the essence of this model. You will find more detail in my book and in some of the articles on my website.

This first part discusses how to identify candidates for your leadership development program, i.e., those employees who are believed to have high potential for future leadership roles within your organization. To learn more about this, please click on the “Articles” tab at the top of this page and then on my article “Competencies and Indicators of High Potential.”

I hope you find them of value to you as you strive to develop your own organization’s next generation of leaders. As always, I welcome your reactions and feedback — I am always on the lookout for new ideas.

Dan Tobin

Are you getting your money’s worth from investments in leadership development?

Many companies have spent large sums sending a “high potential” individual to an external leadership development program, only to complain that they got no value from the investment. The major reasons why there has been little to no return are that the organization has not done a proper job of planning what that person needs, has not prepared the person before sending them off to the program, and done little-to-nothing to follow-up with the individual after the program. In my article, “How to Get Maximum Value from an Executive/Leadership Development Program,” I present a multi-step approach that will ensure that the individual attending the program and the organization as a whole get maximum value from it. Click the “Articles” tab above and click on the article title to read it.

As always, you comments and your own stories of experiences with these types of programs is most welcome.

Working with Subject-Matter Experts to Develop and Deliver Training

At one time or another, training personnel must rely on subject-matter experts to help them develop and/or deliver training. Over the course of my career I have learned a lot of lessons on what works best in these situations. For more information, please click on the “Articles” tab above and read my article on this subject.

As always, your comments, suggestions, and war stories are more than welcomed.

Dan Tobin

The Virtual Follow-Up Session

Here’s an idea I came up with and used successfully when I was at the American Management Association: The Virtual Follow-Up Session.

How many times has a student attended training and was eager to try out the newly-acquired knowledge and skills back on the job only to be stymied. When we attended the training, we may have thought we understood what was being taught, but back on the job we find that we didn’t understand it as well as we thought, and rather than make errors in applying it to our work, we return to the old methods. Or… we run into a roadblock in the implementation that wasn’t discussed in class and we’re stymied?

What now? The class is over. The instructor isn’t available to us. What do we do?

As trainers, we may have received great ratings in the end-of-course evaluations, but what good is the training if the participants can’t use what they learned back on the job?

The Virtual Follow-Up Session is a 60 – 90 minute video conference or conference call held about two weeks after the class concludes. The host can make use of a conference software (you can take look at this now here) to schedule the event beforehand and send out the invites. Several days before the call is scheduled, the instructor sends an email to participants to collect their questions and concerns. These may include questions such as
– “I thought I understood this topic when we discussed it in class, but back on the job I find that I didn’t fully understand it. Can you go over this topic again?”
– “I ran into one of the problems we discussed in class and I tried what was recommended, but it didn’t work. Can you suggest another approach to overcome this problem?”
– “I ran into a roadblock that we didn’t discuss in class. Any suggestions on how to get through it?”

At the AMA, we tried holding these sessions for our corporate customers. We found that only about one-third of those who attended the class participated in the follow-up session, but almost everyone who took part in the follow-up session felt it was very valuable.

Give it a try, and let me know how it goes.

Cost versus Time versus Quality — An Essential Aspect of Critical Thinking

There is an old saying that goes something like this: Cost, Time, and Quality – pick two out of the three. That is, if you want high quality fast, it will cost you a lot of money. If you want high quality and low cost, it will take a long time to develop. And if you want low cost and quick development, the quality will suffer. In today’s global business environment, you want all three: high quality, low cost, and fast development. But in developing any new product or service, the job of management is to use critical thinking to consider the trade-offs among the three and select the optimal combination.

One facet of my first job as a software services curriculum specialist at Digital Equipment Corporation was to provide training for the field software specialists in their role as sales support, i.e., helping sales reps configure solutions and put together their sales proposals. The challenge was that the information they needed was spread across literally dozens of sources generated within the company, ranging from sales update magazines published by the sales training organization to technical product specification sheets produced by engineering groups to product brochures produced by various marketing groups. When I asked one of the specialists in my area how she kept up with all this information, she took me to her car and opened its trunk. The trunk was full of the mailings she received from various corporate groups. She estimated that if she stacked one month’s worth of the mail she received from these groups, it would be 12 to 18 inches high (per month!) – no wonder she wasn’t able to keep up-to-date.

[PLEASE NOTE: This was well before the introduction of the world-wide web, and while Digital had one of the largest internal networks in the world, the tools for creating what we now call web pages were years away.]

My solution was to create a “Network Presales Handbook” – a loose-leaf notebook that contained all of the information needed by software specialists in their sales support roles, with one tabbed section for each of the products in the networking arena. The notebooks would be updated once per quarter with the provision of any new or revised materials. Today, we would do this all on-line, but then there was no way of doing that, so we did it with print materials.

The response to this “training product” was overwhelmingly positive. But it took 6 months to get it out to the field. For the initial edition of the handbook, the development work was done in a little more than 2 months, but production seemed to take forever. I asked the production people why it took so long. The answer I got was that their standard operating procedures required them to go out to bid on each part of the job. That meant separate bids for the 3-ring binders, the tabbed sections, the printing of the materials, the printing of the tabs, and the assembly and packaging of the materials. And then, after getting the lowest bids on each job, the coordination of all the pieces so that the handbook could be assembled and mailed.

Once this was all done, and the initial mailings took place, I asked the procurement people to choose any one of the selected vendors and ask what the price would have been for that single vendor to do the entire job and, along with the consolidated price, to estimate how long it would have taken to do the entire job and have the handbooks ready for shipping. The answer came back that it would have added 27 cents per copy to the total price and that the job could have been done in 30 days. So, for a savings of 27 cents (on a total price of $37 for the four different vendors used) the publication of the materials was delayed for more than 2 months!

One of the key aspects of critical thinking is to question assumptions and beliefs. Was the savings from the use of multiple vendors in this case worth the delay in getting vital information to the field?

Be a “Smart Dummy”

One of my first jobs strictly in the training field was as a curriculum specialist for networking products in the software services training organization at Digital Equipment Corporation.  In this job, I received information on new products and product revisions, then planned what training would be needed by field software specialists to support the products.  I then contracted with an internal training development group to create new or revise existing training materials.

The training group I joined had been in existence for many years before I arrived and had longstanding methods and systems to accomplish its work across all of the company’s products.  I saw my two major challenges in this job as follows:

  • There was no master calendar of product introductions for new or revised products. My information on these products came from a variety of sources:  engineering, customer services software engineering, product managers, or marketing managers.
  • There was no standard way of determining what training would be needed for any new product. What was needed could range from a simple update to product documentation to a quick computer-based training module, to a new instructor-led training program or the revision of an existing instructor-led program.

As a result, I found that I was spending about 30 to 40 percent of my time answering questions from various corporate and field offices about what training I was planning for various new and revised products.  My colleagues, who had responsibility for other product groups, were similarly spending as much time with the same tasks.

My solution was to convene a quarterly meeting with the heads of product management, engineering, marketing, and other relevant groups to create a master calendar of the products in the pipeline over the next six months and, for each product, to discuss what level of training or information provision was needed.  I then created a master calendar, which I updated quarterly, from which I could plan development efforts and provide information to the field software support groups.  As a result, the amount of time I spent on the phone answering questions was reduced from 30 to 40 percent to about 10 percent, and I was able to spend that additional time working on the quality of the training products.

The group I worked for had been doing the same things the same ways for more than 10 years, and they got the job done.  My approach of convening the advisory group and creating the master calendar was adopted across the group and greatly improved the group’s efficiency.  Was this a revolutionary improvement in training methodology?  No, but we all fall into the trap of continuing to do things as they have always been done because we know the methods, are comfortable with them, and know they get the job done.  It is often helpful to bring in someone who is not familiar with the old methods to see if there might be a better way.

A senior vice president at a Fortune 500 company once told me that when he put together a task team to tackle a longstanding challenge, he always included a “smart dummy” on the team.  A “smart dummy” was a very bright person who had no background in or knowledge of the problem under consideration – someone, he said, who could ask the “dumb questions” that no one else would ask and question the assumptions under which the others were working.  This is the essence of “critical thinking” – being able to question basic assumptions and biases that affect peoples’ judgment and behavior.

When I first suggested the approach of putting together the advisory group and the master calendar, my group’s manager said that it couldn’t be done – the product managers, engineering managers, and others I planned to invite were too busy to take time to meet with me, and that these people considered training as more of a necessary nuisance that as an added-value service.  I found that these people were anxious to participate because they too were constantly interrupted by calls from people wanting to know what was planned.  So my solution not only benefitted me in my work, but also was a benefit to them.

Have you really looked at the assumptions and biases you carry with you every day and which affect your decision making?  Try being a “smart dummy” for a while and see if you can identify ways in which longstanding beliefs and practices are holding you back.