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Best Training Practices
Will Kenny
3927 York Ave N
Robbinsdale, MN 55422

How Does the Past Drive
Your Training Efforts?

use training to fix past problems, but also to capture past knowledge

(reprinted from The Training Tipsheet)

The last issue of The Training Tipsheet discussed "Training for your Past, Present, and Future." Dealing with lessons from the past is a major training function in many organizations, but some places handle it better than others.

The Dangerous Past

To be sure, correcting past problems and ensuring that they don't recur drives many training efforts. Indeed, this may be the main reason you even have a training function in your company.

Many training activities driven by past problems are connected to potentially disastrous outcomes. Think of litigation, over sexual harassment, over discrimination based on any of a number of factors, over product liability. Consider the possibilities for regulatory enforcement triggered by pollution or poor environmental practices, by accounting and disclosure failures, by safety issues. Ponder the consequences of massive customer service foul ups, or highly embarrassing public relations disasters.

Some companies are reluctant to admit their past mistakes. Painful errors drive the creation of training programs, but the employees being trained never hear about what went wrong in their own company. By contrast, some of the most powerful training events I've seen draw on real-life examples, from the company's own past and from others in the industry, to help employees embrace the best possible practices.

Your staff are always going to do a better job of executing practices that have a clear link to your business. But guidelines and procedures that are done a certain way "because we said so" are likely to be the victim of precisely the kind of shortcuts that lead to problems with customers, suppliers, investors, regulators, and the media.

The Valuable Past

If many organizations try to hide their past problems, many more -- if not most -- miss opportunities to conserve valuable experience. They codify procedures that correct particular problems, but they do a very poor job of capturing many of the methods, tricks, even, that experienced workers have developed, not to fix something, but simply to do it better.

Oh, some companies have "best practices" programs that are supposed to do this, but in many organizations these are highly ineffective (see "Best Practices" : Gain, or Just Pain?). They tend to depend on employees "nominating" practices to be shared in other departments or locations.

But the secret to capturing better methods, as well as internal networks and contacts, that have been developed over years is to look for people, not procedures. Find experienced people who do their work well-- especially those nearing retirement, whose knowledge may soon be lost to you forever -- and then see what they have to tell you. Often, these employees have wonderful expertise, but they would never think to volunteer that knowledge, or even realize how valuable it is.

If you truly want to benefit from your past, you'll have to go hunting for it, not wait for it to come to you.

The Irrelevant Past

One of the more insidious influences of past mistakes, within an organization, is that the most painful lessons may survive longer than is necessary or beneficial. For instance, I have seen employees trained in procedures that included steps aimed at threats, or focused on functions, that simply no longer existed.

When the reason for training someone in a particular practice or behavior is simply, "because we have always done it that way," it is time to re-examine things. Sometimes a particular member of the executive team was burned by a past problem and is reluctant to give it up. Sometimes a particular function -- e.g., legal -- simply adopts the approach that we only add to the list of dangers to protect ourselves from, we never take anything off the list.

Training resources are tight these days. If you are using yours to teach employees to deal with situations that have long been irrelevant to your business, you're losing credibility and wasting time and money on activities that produce no returns for your company.

The past is an important element in choosing what employees need to learn to contribute to success. Just make sure you are building on the right lessons from the past to build a better future.

© 2009 Best Training Practices -- Will Kenny

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