Conspiracy of Convenience

September 13, 2016

In the training world, I observe ‘The Conspiracy of Convenience’ (this has been seen by others like Charles Jennings and Nigel Harrison). It goes like this:

1. A business area has a problem. The manager decides training will fix it, so s/he requests training from the L&D department.

2. The L&D department source a suitable training solution from a training delivery organisation.

3. The training delivery team (either internal or external) delivers the training solution to the business area.

Vested Interests

The key point about the Conspiracy of Convenience is that all three parties have a vested interest in pushing up the cost of training:

· Business area managers know that training is a safe option. They won’t be criticised for asking for training and, by doing so, they are seen to be working to solve a problem. Sure, training costs money, but it lets you ‘outsource’ solutions to problems – that’s much easier than other solutions like redefining job roles and processes, or changing obstructive organisational structures. Even if training doesn’t solve the problem, the link between training and business improvement is ambiguous, there won’t be any comeback. So business unit managers are keen to do training.

· The L&D department exists to serve the business. It’s in their interests to find training solutions on request, and the faster the better, to provide a good service to their internal clients. It is not in L&D’s interest to challenge a business unit about their choice of training (if they do, the business will source training direct from a third party in future and cut out L&D altogether). It’s much easier to give them the answer they want, ASAP, and without asking difficult questions like ‘what’s the business problem are you trying to solve?’

· Training delivery teams have a vested interest in developing and delivering as much training as they can. To internal teams it represents job security. To external companies it represents vital revenue. There’s no criticism of the quality of the training here, but we cannot deny the underlying commercial reality that leads delivery teams to provide more training, not less.

All three parties work on the overriding assumption that training is A Good Thing and the more training, the better it will be. It’s such a deeply-held assumption that we don’t even bother to say it, leave alone question it. For each stakeholder the most convenient outcome is to encourage training, but together it happens in a way that leads to wasteful training spend.

Finally, none of the stakeholders have much interest in asking the question ‘how will this training improve the performance problem?’

Individually, each party seeks to be cost-efficient. I’m not suggesting any malevolence here – quite the opposite – everyone genuinely wants a good outcome. But together their need to be seen to be doing something constructive, to find a quick solution, or their subconscious self-interest, all conspire to generate a solution that may be ill-thought-out, unable to solve the problem at hand and a lot more expensive than it needs to be.

Break the conspiracy – Needs Analysis

To avoid this situation, you need to break the conspiracy. You need something outside of the commissioning triangle of business manager / L&D / delivery team. It needs to be done by someone capable of challenging the presumed need and the solution. Needs Analysis (and this may also be called Performance Consulting) is one answer.

There’s no ‘T’ in Needs Analysis

Notice I deliberately do not say ‘Training’ Needs Analysis because that presumes the answer is training (even though others may already have decided it is). Needs Analysis looks at the ‘need’ in the business or performance sense. It is a brief and high level assessment which asks two main questions:

1. How is the problem affecting business performance?

2. What sorts of interventions would reduce or resolve that problem?

Needs analysis should consider the presumed solution and challenge that approach. In my experience there is always a presumed solution, often about right, but rarely well-thought-through and usually missing important details:

· What other approaches would improve the chances/extent of success?

· What is missing/overlooked from the presumed solution in order to ensure a good outcome

Benefits and Challenges

Huge benefits may come from focusing onto the root cause of a problem rather than simply addressing the symptoms. My best example from years ago involved a request for mass training on the responsible use of email: this was completely avoided by a technical solution, restricting access to the organisation’s global address lists.

Similarly, spotting what’s missing from a solution will transform outcomes. For example, the embedding of training is invariably overlooked or under-resourced and falls down the crack: business managers conveniently assume behaviours change forever after 3 hours in a classroom; and L&D see embedding as the business’ responsibility.

Breaking the Conspiracy of Convenience will not always be welcomed, because it makes it much less convenient for those involved in the cycle! Needs Analysis may be seen as slowing the process down when all the parties want to get to some shiny new content. It asks difficult questions about business problems which we’d rather not acknowledge. Traditionally it would fall in the remit of L&D, but in today’s world of stripped-back L&D, the resources (and frankly the skills) are just not there.

However, the wider business ought to welcome rapid and insightful Needs Analysis. It’s an important tool for any L&D team, to break the Conspiracy of Convenience and get learning properly focused on where it makes a difference.

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