Monday, March 24, 2014

The Logical Fallacy of Training

A classic scene from The West Wing provides a pithy definition of post hoc ergo propter hoc, a Latin phrase which defines a logical fallacy translated as "after this, therefore because of this." The fallacious argument is that if X occurs after Y, then Y must have be caused by X.

We see this argument often when consulting with clients and business leaders, and we even see it slip into the thinking of Learning people. I recently read an otherwise very intelligent article that provided a perfect example: employees are not following a procedure, and the assumption is that a lack of knowledge is causing the employees’ failure to follow the procedure. Leaping off from there, an elaborate business case follows: if we could just improve retention of learning, improved performance ensues.

Correlating a performance failure (“the employee who fails to follow proper customer-service principles and ends up driving a loyal customer away”) with poor learning transfer is fallacious, since the root cause of that fail is much more likely to be related to non-training factors. How many times do we see training promised as a panacea for performance problems? Excellent training is provided to employees, and Kirkpatrick-esque multi-level evaluation is used to establish the efficacy of the training. Then, after the performance indicators don’t move, the failure is attributed to the training, instead of the business executive, who is ultimately accountable for the result. Now we face a lose-lose situation, where not only did the performance not improve, but the training department is the scapegoat.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the nobleman Cassius says to Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves.” We could adapt that notion for an executive to say: “the fault, dear comrades, is not in our supporting staff functions, but in ourselves” Fans of Thomas Gilbert, the “father of human performance technology,” recall that the point of his Performance Engineering Model is that the root cause of employee performance problems is far more likely to be non-training factors, such as flaws in process design, incentives, expectations-setting and other work environment issues. “Before we throw training at a problem,” the enlightened business leader continues, “let’s make sure that we understand the root cause of the performance issue.”

Learning professionals, take heed and seek the root causes of the performance issues before moving towards a (very expensive, very time-consuming) training solution. Business people don’t automatically think this way, so we, as advisers, need to teach them. When training is actually implemented, a useful metric beyond knowledge transfer would be to see a correlation between the effectiveness of knowledge transfer (Kirkpatrick Level III, if you will) and performance. Don’t make an assumption about root cause. Otherwise, you fall into the trap of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

This type of thinking can change the game. The game for most learning professionals has traditionally been to drive usage of training, creating the illusion of Learning as an indispensable function. The new game will be to create as much business value with as little training as possible.

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