The Dilemma of Training

Skyscrapers of Singapore at Central Business District near Marina Bay Financial Centre.

It was a dreary school day in 2005. The undergraduates were gathered in a lecture hall for a lesson of advanced Mathematics. Back then, OHP was still in use, and the lecturer was frantically scribbling away rows after rows of formulas. The topic of the day was derivatives, and the lecturer had gone into the 5th dimension. Each time he goes into a deeper level of dimension, his tone became more gleeful and his pace quickened.

Little did he realise that he had left his lecture hall full of undergraduates at the 3rd dimension. Each time he went down one more level, there was a wave of gasp; he took that as a gasp that mirrored his excitement, when in actual fact, the students were bemused at how self-engrossed the lecturer was, oblivious to the bewilderment of the rest of the world, oblivious that he was leaving them behind.

Earlier this year, I talked about the paradox of training: top leaders view it as a key company objectives, but implementation is tough because the ground possess deep inertia when managing training gaps.

Training being a complex subject, does not just have paradox that act as an obstacle for effective learning and development.

For example, there is this constant debate over engaging SMEs or Experts in training – which of them should training managers leverage on?

Wall depicting images of being misunderstood, for Yellow Ribbon Project.

Does An Expert Want and Can Train Others?

Traditionally, trainers are people who have intimate knowledge of a subject, developed over decades of experience. By virtue of their experience, they were then tasked to ensure that experience is passed over to the next generation, under the pretext of “training” or “mentoring”. It was hoped that the next generation will skip a few years of having to pick up those knowledge under such formal training, and can develop new insights in their career.

That process is slow, and it really depends on whether the “guru” can and wants to conduct training.

In the opening example, there was no doubt the lecturer was the expert in the world of Mathematics, but he was no good in delivering the required knowledge. Therefore, it was not a matter of whether he want to deliver, but a matter of whether he can deliver. What he lacked was the ability to deliver and help learners retain and transfer the knowledge (which I had mentioned was the key to a good training in an earlier post LINK HERE).

Railjet train of DB Bahn, pulled in at Munich main station, Germany.
Not exactly what I’m referring to…

Trainers Train

Training research developed over the years provided insights on how knowledge can be delivered and transferred to the workplace, focusing mainly on adult learning principles.

Trainers who utilise such knowledge will then be able to transfer that precious trade knowledge more effectively, thereby allowing even more time for the next generation to further develop the trade knowledge. Companies’ survival are also enhanced.

The thing is, not all SMEs want to be trainers, or believe that their knowledge require the expertise of training research.

For the latter, some SME-turned-trainers believe that knowledge in itself transcends training skills; if I have the skills, I can deliver the skills regardless of what methods I use to teach my learners. If I have to make use of a 3rd party leverage to deliver that knowledge, it also meant my knowledge was not deep-rooted in the first place.

Believing in the above is like believing knowledge can be transferred through osmosis, and I can just blurt out the lyrics of Bad Romance and you can still absorb whatever knowledge that I have.

However, the Math lecturer was just one of the many examples that proved Expertise != Ability to Transfer Knowledge. How many times have we slept through a class, even though we know deeply that we needed that knowledge for our work?

Unfortunately, this situation is what Training Managers are left with most of the time: They have either SMEs, or people who are good in training, but they rarely have both.

For inexperienced Training Managers, this becomes a dilemma; the root of this dilemma lies in possessing a wrong perspective: the Training Manager wants the expert to transfer his knowledge.

Cityscape off the rooftop of Deutsches Museum Munich.
This may look like a clock tower, but it tells the air pressure. Don’t be quick to judge.

Don’t Ask The Fish To Climb A Tree

The expert is an expert in his own field; someone good in selling TV cannot be expected to be good in washing cars or a tennis player cannot be expected to be an expert in singing. The only person who can be expected to be good in training is a training professional himself.

Therefore, unless the SME possess the competencies (and willingness) to be a trainer, we should not expect him to train in the first place.

(On a related note, read this article describing the work expectations of employees; it has the underlying message that some people just want to remain as experts in their own fields, rather than being asked to do something outside of that field. LINK)

Training is Knowledge Management

The 2nd adjustment to traditional perspective is to understand that we only wanted the SME’s knowledge to be transferred. We are talking about knowledge management, and whether the medium of transfer is in the form of the expert who possessed the knowledge, or someone who is good in transferring the knowledge is the focus.

If it’s hard to grasp, think of this:

You ordered stuff from Food Panda. The cook (who is the expert in cooking good dishes) can either deliver the food himself, or he can delegate it to the delivery man. The importance is in the conveyance of food; if we leave the cook to focus on cooking, he can continue to make more food, or have time to research on making better food. At the same time, the delivery man is familiar with the road conditions, and therefore will be able to find a way to deliver the food in the shortest possible time.

Back to the topic of training, we can always ask the SME to document his processes and have someone else can look through the documentation to understand how the process is done. I mean, haven’t we at some point in our careers been asked to learn what is going on, by reading up on SOP/manuals or even past email correspondence? In this aspect, not only are we skipping the process of getting an SME to transfer the knowledge, we are relying on a medium (on the other end of the extreme) that is dead and cannot help guide us in our learning!

Having a skilled trainer just means we are transferring the knowledge in another form; the value add of the trainer (over emails or manuals) is that trainers can provide learning guidance and teach us, rather then tell us, how to solve the problems at work.

Along the same argument, if engaging the trainer does not result in shorter learning time or higher performance output, the trainer should not be engaged in the first place.

Therefore, when faced with transferring of knowledge, a training manager should consider these points in sequence:

  • Is the SME willing to train? If yes,
  • Does the SME possess the competency to train? If no,
  • Can the knowledge be documented and transferred solely on reading? If no,
  • Is a trainer required for classroom training, on-the-job training or other forms of training?
Pikachu mascot at Hokkaido New Chitose Airport, Pokémon Centre, dressed in pilot attire.
What can you expect from Pikachu when you ask him to be a pilot?

Expectation of a Learning Facilitator

A facilitator need not be an SME in the topic he’s training, because he is supposed to facilitate the learning. A skilled facilitator knows how to direct learners to documented knowledge, process the knowledge, and transfer that knowledge into workplace environment.

A newcomer might be able to read through the manuals quickly, but does that mean he can digest the knowledge and transfer it effectively to his work? Or he might be able to transfer the knowledge effectively, provided he is given 3 months to pore through the manuals.

In the first case, of course we need a facilitator in order to ensure the knowledge is correctly applied in the workplace. In the latter case, if the company can afford to wait for 3 months, there is no need to engage a trainer to facilitate the learning, unless of course, there is a concern that the learning is not applied in the workplace correctly.

A facilitator is supposed to help a company save time and/or guarantee performance post-learning. In the same argument, a training manager cannot expect a facilitator to deliver beyond this scope.

When compared to an SME, a skilled facilitator has a more consistent rate of success to meet those objectives than an SME whose main portfolio is not in training.

To wrap up this blog entry, I know that some traditionalists will still insist, “Only SMEs can provide anecdotes to learners to contextualise the knowledge!”

In the eyes of a skilled facilitator, such anecdotes are important, but like I mentioned, the physical presence of the SMEs is not critical (we are only concerned with the anecdotes).

We can film an interview of the SME for him to share a related incident; we can rope him in during the consultation phase of coursware development. We can arrange for him to come in for a 30-min dialogue with the learners.

There are so many ways for us to tap on the expertise of the SME, without forcing the SME to do something they are not good in or are unwilling to do!

I shall end this piece by raising another analogy from aviation.

Many a times, an airline will convert a passenger B747, near its end of its prime, to a freighter. It is possible for a B747 to be converted to B747F, however, not all of them end up as a freighter plane. A lot depends on the condition of the plane, whether there is a demand for freighters, and whether it is economical to do so.

The ideal situation would be to convert the plane, so as to maximise its value, but only if all factors are in favour.

The same goes for converting an SME to a trainer. It is possible, and it will be terrific if they can play dual roles well, but a lot depends on their willingness and their ability to conduct training.

Many a times, it is just more economical to get a plane designed to be a freighter.

Singapore Airlines A350, with registration number 9v-SMB, seen from below.

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