The World’s most expensive training course?

Like many football fans, I watched events at Old Trafford yesterday – where the match was abandoned before kick-off after a “suspect device” was found in the stadium – with initial concern, followed by relief that the incident appeared to be a false alarm, and finally a degree of amusement when it was revealed that the mysterious package was in fact a dummy bomb left over from an exercise to train sniffer dogs in the ground several days previously. Several comments on social media at the end of the day expressed the view that they hoped the individual(s) responsible to be fired this morning.

But if your staff were responsible for such an incident, would you be considering dismissing them today? After all, we all like someone to blame, and there’s no doubt that the incident caused massive inconvenience to a lot of people. Indeed, local politicians seem to have jumped on the scapegoating bandwagon

But consider it this way. That error gave the emergency services the best way of testing their disaster plans in the event of a suspected bomb. They successfully evacuated 75000 people from the ground, put in place public transport plans to get them away from the area, and ensured that everything was done without panic or problem. But I’m also sure that they will be reviewing today what worked less well and making changes to resolve problems.

No matter how well planned your training, people will always behave differently when they think the event is actually happening (compare what happens during a planned fire drill and how people behave when they think there is real fire). So rather than blame, we should consider yesterday as a very high profile learning experience. The individuals concerned with leaving the dummy bomb behind will never again forget to carry out basic checks, while the emergency services will probably never have a better opportunity to safely test their procedures in a real life situation.

So blame, or thanks? Which would your company go for?


God Loves A Trier

Much as I like Twitter and find it to be very useful as an source of up to date HR and Employment Law debate and information, there is one really irritating thing about it as a business tool – the urge of some people to tweet “inspirational” or “motivational” quotes which are normally no more than platitudes. One that particularly annoys me, and which bizarrely seems extremely popular among HR people, comes from Yoda in Star Wars


(As an aside, it does bemuse me that people find inspiration from a swamp-dwelling homunculus with the voice of Fozzie Bear and a lack of knowledge of English sentence structure).

Let’s just examine that. Firstly – Do or Do Not. Well if those are my options, I think I’ll do not, thanks. After all, doing seems like a bit of effort.

And then “There is no try”. Nonsense (unless Yoda is referring to the video ref in a rugby match). We try all the time, and encourage others to do the same. What is the standard response when a child won’t eat a new food? “Just give it a try”.

Trying new things is an essential part of being human. It combines the excitement of doing something new, with the risk that it might not be successful. But even if it’s not successful, we learn something from it – even if it’s our own limitations. Look at a programme like Strictly Come Dancing. People who are famous for other things try to learn to dance. Some of them become extremely accomplished. Others find it a real effort and plod around the dancefloor. Occasionally one or two are so hopeless that it becomes difficult to watch without embarrassment. But the key thing is that they all try. And indeed some of the plodders become extremely popular with the viewers because they are seen to be making the effort, even if they don’t succeed.

No try means no learning, no development, no change, no possibilities, no growth. Trying is understanding that “failure” is sometimes the right outcome – and that if you do nothing unless you’re certain of the outcome then nothing is what you’ll do.

In Defence of Classroom Training

“We’re going to send you on a training course” – words that strike horror into many employees and which cause learning and development professionals to bang their heads in frustration. After all, employees hate being forced to sit in a classroom and being given stuff to do about a subject they can’t see the relevance of or practical use for. While L&D people have spent months- even years – devising alternative techniques such as MOOCs, e-learning and other interventions – to ensure that they can provide cost-effective ways to improve people’s skills and knowledge.

Over the last 18 months or so I’ve been asked to deliver a lot of classroom based training – something which I haven’t done for maybe 6 or 7 years. In part it’s because the small employers I work with are recognising that they need to invest in their staff, either to retain them or because the skills they need are lacking

And here’s the news – learners actually like “old fashioned” classroom based training. They value the time away from their daily role to concentrate on a topic; they normally have intelligent questions about the subject matter and can see how they can apply it to work situations; and they like the fact that they get to meet colleagues (or in certain instances people from other businesses) and can get to know them in a non-pressured work situation. A form of low-tech social networking if you like. And many have commented to me that they learn more this way than they would by being asked to complete an online module either in their own time or rushing to complete it during the working day.

I’m sure some L&D professionals will point out to me studies that show training courses are the worst at delivering changes in behaviour in the long term, or have the lowest “return on investment”.  To which I would say you may be right. It may be that classroom training is simply an example of the Hawthorne Effect. But properly designed, my observational evidence with a number of diverse businesses is that it is still an effective way to deliver training, and should still be an important part of the learning and development “mix”

If you’ve done 6 impossible things before Breakfast….

At the age of almost 6, I remember being woken up in the middle of the night by my parents to come downstairs and watch, on a grainy black and white TV, the first steps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. I felt a similar sense of excitement and history being made last week as I watched the scenes from Mission Control as we (and they) waited to find out if the Philae probe had landed on Comet 67P.

In so many respects, the Rosetta mission exemplifies what we in HR would like to see happening in every workplace -albeit on a slightly smaller scale.

It had a clear and incredibly stretching objective (I’d love to have been at the meeting where someone said “I’ve got a good idea – let’s see if we can land something the size of a washing machine on a comet 400 million km away and moving at 34000km an hour. To make it really interesting, we’ll have to send our instructions to the rocket half an hour before we need it to do them, and we’ll then have to wait another half an hour for the answer”)

Allied to this clear purpose was team working and collaboration – the effort involved not only different nationalities but scientists of different disciplines, engineers, computer programmers and mathematicians. And suppliers (such as those who built parts of the lander) were just as involved as the scientists working directly. (One other nice thing was the diversity of those involved – there were almost as many women scientists and engineers involved as there were men).

There was learning from failure – not everything went exactly right (Philae’s now famous bounce on landing being a particular example) but everything that happened was used to gain greater knowledge and to plan for the future.

There were clear and consistent values throughout – virtually everyone interviewed talked of the desire to do something new and the potential benefits of the things they were hoping to discover.

And finally, while the technology and the science were clearly important – the mission was only achieved through committed and motivated people. The scenes at the point of landing were not of the lander itself, but of the team at Mission Control anxiously waiting to find out what had happened. The expressions on their faces in the final 20 minutes, which varied from tension, nervous laughter, nonchalance (one team member appeared to take a call on his mobile with less than 10 minutes to go) to complete joy as the signal came through, emphasised how essential the people were.

The day after the landing, a trending hashtag on Twitter was #WeCanLandOnACometButWeCant…If I were of a cynical mind, I’d conclude that tweet with “Build Better Workplaces”. But I’d like to believe, in the words of a certain US politician “Yes We Can”.

The Right Deed for the Wrong Reason?

One of my daughter’s current favourite reads is the utterly brilliant Clarice Bean series by Lauren Child. In the third in the series, Clarice and her friends are asked by school to go and visit the old people in the home where Clarice’s mum works. Clarice’s friend Karl Wrenbury refuses, and when Clarice asks him if it’s because he doesn’t like old people, Karl responds that he does like old people a lot, but he doesn’t like being made to feel that he has to visit them.

I could sympathise with Karl when I read about the publication of a new CIPD report entitled “Volunteering to Learn – Employee Development through Community Action”. It’s a part of the entirely laudable programme the CIPD are running to encourage employers and HR professionals to tackle youth unemployment. But I really do have concerns when I read phrases in the report from companies such as ‘We are using community action as a recognised tool for personal development.’ ‘Volunteering activities are effective in boosting employee morale’ or (for me the worst) ‘Clients are asking more and more about our social contribution.’

Now there may well be some charities (including some of my current clients) who may say “we don’t care about the individual’s motivation for volunteering – they are doing good by doing it”. And it’s certainly true that by volunteering individuals can gain or develop skills they might not get elsewhere, which they can then bring into the workplace.

But the point of volunteering is that it’s voluntary. It’s not something you feel pressured or coerced to do (which was one of my many objections to last week’s craze for Ice Bucket Challenges). And if employers want to support employees who want to fundraise or volunteer, great. But I do find it suspect when employers are using the mask of “corporate social responsibility” as a tool for cutting training costs or enhancing their own business prospects.

Social entrepreneur Liam Black once wrote a powerful post entitled “The Poor Are Not The Raw Material for Your Salvation”. They aren’t the means to your promotion, a cheap way to develop staff, or a brownie point for a new client either.