The end of training

The effectiveness of old-style leadership programmes is questionable. One way to reboot the training model is to take a more problem solving approach to learning

Indrajit Gupta

[Photograph: System Administrators attend a training class by Mathew Simmons under Creative Commons]

Is training an anachronism that the business world continues to cling to? You have to wonder about that when you see corporate executives often have to be dragged to attend a training session, kicking and screaming. A friend who is a corporate trainer says it is a common sight to find training folks on the phone every morning before the session begins dealing with a variety of creative reasons why someone is unable to attend the training session.

That’s forced many corporations to adopt military style methods. I know of quite a few leading organisations in India that deny you promotion and dock your pay if you've chosen to bunk a training session that you've been nominated for.

So what does that tell us about the learning culture at India Inc? Why do executives have to be cajoled to attend a training session that is likely to enhance their own employability and help them to perform better at work?

There's yet another dimension to it: many corporate executives see training as an entitlement. A director at a leading bank once told me that many high performers inside his company were likely to feel slighted if they weren't nominated for an advanced leadership programme at a leading US business school, and instead sent to a similar programme at a leading Indian business school.

The effectiveness of such leadership programmes is questionable. A large media organisation nominates a batch of senior executives to a customised leadership programme designed by a leading business school in India every year. Talk to most participants who've been through it and chances are that they aren't able to tell you with any degree of confidence if the programme benefitted them in any real way. Yet the sausage factory continues to roll on, raising critical questions about the utility of the crores of rupees being poured into training every year.

I've often wondered if there is a more sensible way to reboot the training model. Some interesting ideas emerged recently through a conversation with the head of learning at Asian Paints.

Here are some pointers to how they look at training:

1. They've completely disbanded the idea of an annual training calendar.

2. Instead of running a plethora of ritualised training programmes, they've cut it down to just six.

3. They work with their key business units in a disciplined manner to identify key organisational challenges. The attempt is to drill down as deeply as possible on the key outcomes they'd like to drive that year.

3. Once the key outcomes are clearly prioritised, they then create problem solving teams that are brought together once a month over a 12 month period to first frame the business problem, brainstorm solutions and build workable prototypes. They are also supported in multiple ways to achieve their outcomes. That support could be through knowledge management tools being made available to them or access to cutting edge training resources from around the world.

Either way, the ownership of the business challenge always remains with the business managers. The learning teams support the initiatives by helping surface the real business outcomes—and providing a buffet of creative options to solve them.

4. The cookie-cutter programmes on honing negotiation skills or communication skills are now passé. While they fall into the good-to-do list, the new generation of workers are increasingly able to pick up the relevant skills on their own, if you point them to the right set of options available freely on the internet.

While this is still work-in-progress at Asian Paints, I believe there's a very good chance that the model will work. After all, it places the accountability of learning back on the business owners. And links it to clear, well-defined business outcomes. That way, it no longer treats learning as an entitlement, but more as a means to an end.

In the days to come, the internet will open up new learning opportunities and tools that are likely to disrupt existing solutions. Yet the winning organisations are those that will take a more problem solving approach to learning, help separate the wheat from the chaff and look to seamlessly integrate the new tools and approaches into their work, not as an appendage as it is today.

Similarly, this shift will demand greater accountability from the training and coaching community as well—be it the business schools, learning networks and business education ventures—to work with organisations to drive business outcomes—or be prepared to be disrupted.

For corporate executives, the bottom line is clear: stop thinking about training as a sop and take responsibility for results. It’s this obsession with problem solving that separates the real smart entrepreneurs from the rest.

[First published in Business Standard.]

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About the author

Indrajit Gupta
Indrajit Gupta

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Indrajit Gupta is a business journalist and editor with over two decades of experience. He was the Founding Editor of the Indian edition of Forbes magazine. Within four years of its launch, Forbes India became the most influential magazine in its space.

He is the co-founder and director at Founding Fuel.

He has served in leadership positions at many of the leading media brands in the country. Before taking up the assignment to start up the India edition of Forbes magazine, Gupta was the Resident Editor of The Economic Times in Mumbai and before that, the National Business Editor of The Times of India.

Over the years, Gupta has built a reputation for grooming talent and creating highly energised and purposeful newsrooms. He has interviewed several leading global thought-leaders and business leaders including CK Prahalad, Ram Charan, Wayne Brockbank, Sumantra Ghoshal, Carlos Ghosn and Nitin Nohria, and also led cutting-edge joint research-based projects with McKinsey & Co, The Great Place to Work Institute, Boston Consulting Group, KMPG and Coopers & Lybrand.

He won the Polestar journalism award in 2010 and was awarded the Chevening fellowship by the British Foreign office in 1999. Gupta is an alumnus of the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai and a B.Com (Hons) graduate from St Xavier's College, Calcutta.

Gupta teaches a course on Business Problem Solving at his alma mater. He writes a column named Strategic Intent in Business Standard’s edit page. He lives in Mumbai with his wife and two young daughters.

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