When I ask the training and development leaders who participate in my ATD Essentials of Developing an Organizational Learning Culture workshop to say what percentage of employees who attend training programs Trainrobbery actually apply what they’ve learned on the job, the answers range from about 10% to about 50%, with most at the lower end of that range. This indicates a dismal state of affairs. It’s what some authors have called “The Great Training Robbery.”

Rajeev Peshawaria wrote about “The Great Training Robbery” in a Forbes blog post in 2011. He was talking about the failure of leadership training to have a significant impact on companies. He argued that before leadership training can make a difference, leaders must have “clarity of purpose and values.” Then the training must be followed up with more learning on-the-job. He writes:

Emotional energy fueled by clarity of purpose and values, accurate knowledge and attitudes acquired by the right training, and on-the-job experience including failure are all important aspects of leadership development. Careful planning about how to spend a company’s training & development investment can yield long lasting excellence, but it is key to avoid the all-too-familiar traps of maximizing butts in seats in programs that offer formulaic recipes for leadership effectiveness. Unfortunately, what we see all over the world is the great training robbery, in which over $60 billion is wasted every year on ineffective [leadership] training and development activities that don’t make a difference.

Michael Beer, Magnus Finnstrom, and Derek Schrader, in a Working Paper for Harvard Business School titled, “The Great Training Robbery”, make the point that companies are not getting much from their investment in training and education programs. They write:

In 2012 U.S. corporations spent $164.2 billion on training and education Overwhelming evidence and experience shows, however, that most companies are unable to transfer employee learning into changes in individual and organization behavior or improved financial performance. Put simply, companies are not getting the return they expect on their investment in training and education. By investing in training that is not likely to yield a good return, senior executives and their HR professionals are complicit in what we have come to call the “great training robbery.” 

As the authors point out, the cost of low transfer of learning is not only in dollars, but also employees become cynical towards training and organizational change and leaders remain misguided regarding their critical role in learning and performance improvement.

This failure of training to change organizations has been known for decades. Rob Brinkerhoff and I wrote about the shortcomings of training in our 1994 book, The Learning Alliance, which was based on the research and experience of others who came before us. So why do organizations, after decades of contradictory information, continue to try to solve problems with more training?

Roberta Holland, in her summary of an interview of Michael Beer for Harvard Business School’s “Working Knowledge” blog, provides an answer:

Too often CEOs turn to HR to create a training program when faced with a problem. The CEO avoids opening a Pandora’s box of larger organizational flaws, and HR is happy to comply because it puts the function more at the center of things and avoids a risky conversation with the CEO about why training might not solve the problem.

Because organizational problems remain undiscussable, and HR and trainers don’t want to admit that training is not the answer, HR and training departments keep "robbing" their organizations of precious resources.

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