A friend recently attended a cross-cultural communication workshop.

The trainer had twenty plus years working around the world and a very impressive resume. But at the end of the week, my friend explained to me she wasn’t sure what the skills of cross cultural communication were. “Are there principles or rules that I can apply?” she asked me. I asked to see the learning outcomes or course outline. There were no learning outcomes, and the outline was a list of vague descriptions about topics the trainer would cover.

I asked how the trainer led these sessions. Did she draw on the participants’ experiences then link them to a set of principles or rules to follow when working across cultures? It Was a Trainer Centered Experience The answer was no. She told stories of her own experiences working internationally and mostly ignored the experiences of participants in the room. This went on for the whole week. She assured participants they’d be encouraged to share experiences. But her stories kept running overtime so participants’ opportunities for interaction kept fizzling out.

Not all training is training

My friend didn’t attend a training workshop. She sat in on the trainer’s “show and tell” session. It was merely a theater show starring the trainer or perhaps an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of really poor skills training being delivered by people who either don’t have the qualifications to facilitate vocational skills learning or are simply poorly organized. I see it all the time both in soft skills and media production training. Why is this so?

The story usually runs something like this. Roger is a TV news director with ten years experience. He was a reporter for ten years before that. His record isn’t sterling but it’s not bad either. In fact he’s well regarded and competent. Roger Tries Training Roger is about to hit the magic age of 50 and sees the TV world changing all around him. He’s going to have to learn new skills to stay competitive. And he’s sick of early morning shift work. At about the same time, his employer sends around an email saying the company needs volunteers to take early retirement. What does Roger do? Well, twenty years ago he taught softball to local high school kids. Why not take a package and teach cameras skills and video production?

Six weeks later, Roger hangs out his shingle and approaches his network of old buddies who hire him to train cadets. “They don’t churn the kids out of college with the same skills we got in the old days, Roger” they tell him. Roger is not a trainer. He’s a good communicator, but he hasn’t studied the science of how adults learn. Or the exciting new techniques designed to speed learning up and ensure people walk out of workshops with real skills they can use. So, he does theater. He lectures. He doesn’t use some of the oldest learning tricks of drawing on participant experience and stimulating interaction. He doesn’t follow the cognitive science of breaking knowledge into manageable chunks which are easy to learn and the various interactive techniques to make sure they’re remembered and applied on the job.

Because Roger is a newsman, not a trainer. Roger doesn’t come from the only profession where people make an instant transformation to trainer. You see it in every industry. Teach gym Now some people argue that having industry experience is more important. They don’t want a so-called trainer who has never done news or met a deadline. They want a news professional to teach news skills. They argue that there’s nothing worse than a trainer who teaches but has never done the job. And they quote that old line, “if you can’t do, you teach. And if you can’t teach, you teach gym.” Sure, there’s no substitute for real experience and knowledge.

No Substitute for a Trainer Who Understand Learning

But there’s also no substitute for a professional trainer who can take that knowledge and turn it into practical skills used in the workplace. And this is where companies waste thousands of dollars on training. They hire people who don’t understand how to make training work. Because of their lack of knowledge of the science of learning, they run theater shows. This was evident a few years back when a training company hired my company to deliver some multimedia training for TV professionals who didn’t have a clue about the new media world. The company was made up of respected TV professionals. You could tell the folks in this training company didn’t know the first thing about learning because all they talked about was what we were going to do on the first morning and the last afternoon. Not once did they talk about the skills participants needed to walk out with. For them it was theater.

Now not everyone who leaves a job and hangs out their shingle as a trainer offers bad training. Far from it. But there are enough people who can’t train or coach who give training a bad name. And when you hire a training provider, you need to find trainers who both know what they teach — preferably from experience — and understand the science of turning knowledge into a practical skill that will add to a company’s bottom line. What to look out for

There are two mistakes amateurs often make when they hang out their shingle to offer skills training, without knowledge or qualifications to teach. The first, is approaching learning sessions as theatre shows, like the cross-cultural communication trainer we talked about. This means they spend much time developing flashy presentations and practice telling their old stories. You can spot these folks because they tend to talk about what their course covers, not the tasks your staff will be able to perform at the end.

Training is About Performance & Skill Development

Good trainers understand the science of human performance and skills development. They’re happy to put reputation on the line and talk about performance outcomes. Amateurs avoid this like the plague and hope for the best. About six years ago I was visiting the American Film Institute. I asked one of the executives how AFI evaluated learning effectiveness. She reached behind her and pulled out an Academy Award statue. “By these,” she said. That’s what we call results.

To this day I am still proud of my colleagues at the BBC who run probably the best television training courses in the world. Participants on a one-week intensive studio directing course often go live the following week. That’s what training is about. Professionals Talk About Learning Objectives When professionals talk about the skills, they usually express them in terms of behavioral objectives. Behavioral objectives are also known as learning objectives and learning outcomes.

When I ran new media training at the BBC I gained a reputation as a “Learning Outcome Nerd” because I insisted on them. Professionals follow a specific grammar which explicitly describes the tasks learners will be able to perform at the end of the session and the standard they perform them to. This of course make learning effectiveness quick and easy to measure. The second mistake is designing curriculum around a trainer’s experience rather than their client’s workflow. “Oh, I always did it this way, so it must be right.”

Wrong. Times are changing and often these days with new technologies, new techniques are discovered and evolve during training classes. The most important thing for curriculum is that it belongs to the learners and the organization. At Talkshow, we try and tie our client curricula to the workflow of our client’s organization. A British newspaper we worked with last year as part of our partnership with Ifra Newsplex tripled its Web audiences after our intensive training project for their journalists. The success lies in linking workflow and curriculum. Invest in training Don’t waste your money on your skills training.

Don't Waste Your Money ...

Having amateurs provide learning to your organization is wasting money when you can’t afford to waste money or fail to develop the skills staff need to keep your company competitive through the recession. Make sure you talk first about what you or your staff will be able to do at the end of the course. Ask your trainer to be specific and give you learning objectives that describe the tasks you’ll do and to what standard. Then ask them to explain what techniques they’ll use to reinforce the learning.

This article was originally published in Britain in 2008.