The Future of the Training Department

Corporate training needs to evolve if it is to stay relevant for today’s learners. Check out this thought-provoking guest post by Jay Cross and Harold Jarche:

Complexity, or maybe our appreciation of it, has rendered the world unpredictable, so the orientation of learning is shifting from past (efficiency, best practice) to future (creative response, innovation). Workplace learning is morphing from blocks of training followed by working to a merger of work and learning: they are becoming the same thing. Change is continuous, so learning must be continuous.”

The latter 20th Century was the golden era of the training department. Before the 20th Century, training per se did not exist outside the special needs of the church and the military. Now the training department may be at the end of its life cycle. Join us for a brief look back at the pre-training world and some thoughts about what may lay ahead.

Before industrialization, work was local or industry meant cottage-industry. People had vocations, not jobs. Sometimes guilds helped apprentices learn by doing things under the eye of a master, but there weren’t any trainers involved.

About three hundred years ago, work became an organizational matter. Factories require groups of people working together. To coordinate their activities, groups need a shared understanding of who is doing what. Orders from the top of the organization kept everyone on the same page. Managers showed workers how to do things and made sure they were doing them the right way. A little training went on, but there still weren’t any trainers.

Fast forward to the 20th century. The pace of progress is unrelenting. Clocks measure working hours instead of the sun. Railroads and communications links span the globe. Competition fuels change. Efficiency becomes paramount. Frederick Taylor uses time-and-motion studies to find the one best way to do individual pieces of work. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management becomes the bible in the crusade for maximizing efficiency.

Training was invented in the first half of the 20th Century. GE started its corporate schools. NCR delivered the first sales training. Factory schools appeared in Europe. Mayo discovered the Hawthorne Effect, opening the study of motivation. B.F. Skinner constructed teaching machines. The U.S. military formalized instruction to train millions of soldiers for World War II. ASTD is born.

The second half of the 20th Century was arguably the Golden Age of Training.  Every corporation worth its salt opened a training department.  Xerox Learning, DDI, Forum Corporation, and hundreds of other “instructional systems companies” sprung up.  Thousands upon thousands of trainers attended conferences to learn about new approaches like programmed instruction, behavior modification, roleplay, certification, CD-ROM, sensitivity training. corporate universities, and the Learning Organizaiton.  Training was good; efficient training was better.

Most of this training activity assumed that you could prepare people for the future by training them in what had worked in the past. Yesterday’s best practices were the appropriate prescription for curing tomorrow’s ills. That works when the world is stable, and things remain the same over time.

At this point in the 21st Century, the game is changing once again. Complexity, or maybe our appreciation of it, has rendered the world unpredictable, so the orientation of learning is shifting from past (efficiency, best practice) to future (creative response, innovation). Workplace learning is morphing from blocks of training followed by working to a merger of work and learning: they are becoming the same thing. Change is continuous, so learning must be continuous.

To justify its existence from here on, a training department must shift direction in three areas:

  • Embracing complexity and adaptation to uncertainty
  • Inverting the structural pyramid
  • Adopting new models of learning

Embracing complexity

Nothing is for sure any more. Consultant and management theorist Dave Snowden has come up with a framework for management practice in complex environments.

Snowden’s Cynefin framework has been used in the study of management practice. It can also help us make decisions for our organizations. Understanding what type of environment we are working in (Simple, Complicated, Complex or Chaotic) lets us frame our actions. When the environment is complex: the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond and we can sense emergent practice.


From the Cynefin perspective, best practices are only suitable for simple environments and good practices are inadequate in responding to constant change. Both approaches look to the past for inspiration, or as Marshall McLuhan wrote, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

Most of our environments are complex so first we need to probe, or take action, and then sense the results of our actions (Probe-Sense-Respond). This approach has already been adopted by Web services, where Beta releases are launched and tested before they are finalized. For example, Google’s ubiquitous GMail service is still in Beta. The phrase, “we are living in a beta world” is increasingly being used outside the Web services domain.

In complex environments, it no longer works to sit back and see what will happen. By the time we realize what’s happening, it will be too late to take action. Here are some practical examples for learning professionals:

PROBE: Prototype; Field test; Accept Life in Beta; Welcome small failures
SENSE: Listen; Enable conversations; Look for patterns; Learn together
RESPOND: Support the work; Connect people; Share experiences; Develop tools

Inverting the Pyramid

So what models will work for our complex environments? The hierarchical organizational pyramid is a model that has worked for centuries. It’s premised on the beliefs that management has access to the necessary strategic information and knowledge. Because knowledge is thought to be power, management best understands the outside world and can clearly tell the workers what needs to be done and how.

hierarchy 1

In a complex, networked environment the lines of communication are no longer clear and the walls between the workers and the outside world are porous. Many workers know more about the outside environment than management does. Today, the relationship between workers and management is not as clear as it once may have been. Effective organizations are starting to look more like inverted pyramids.

As the Cluetrain Manifesto succinctly stated almost a decade ago, “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchies”. Hierarchies may not die in the future but they may have to co-exist with a new form of workplace organization, the Wirearchy.


Researcher and analyst, Jon Husband, says that wirearchy is, “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on information, knowledge, trust and credibility, enabled by interconnected people and technology”. The Internet has created interconnectedness on a massive scale. Power and authority must now flow two ways for any organization to be effective. This requires information, knowledge, trust and credibility. Wirearchy in action is evident in open source software development projects, with minimal command and control, yet able to compete directly with large hierarchical corporations.

A New Model for Training

Workers at the bottom of the traditional organizational pyramid are those who interact closest with their environment (market, customers, information). To be effective today they need to be constantly probing and trying out better ways of work. Management’s job is to assist this dynamic flow of sense-making and to respond to workers’ needs, within a trusted network of information and knowledge sharing.

hierarchy 2


The main objective of the new training department is to enable knowledge to flow in the organization. The primary function of learning professionals within this new work model is connecting and communicating, based on three core processes:

  1. Facilitating collaborative work and learning amongst workers, especially as peers.
  2. Sensing patterns and helping to develop emergent work and learning practices.
  3. Working with management to fund and develop appropriate tools and processes for workers.

The only certainty about the future from here on out is that it won’t resemble the past. For example, instructional designers no longer have time to develop formal courses. Survival requires people who can navigate a rapidly-changing maze at high speed. They need to find their own curriculum, figure out an appropriate way to learn it, and get on with it. It’s cliché to say that people have to learn how to learn. Management needs to support self-learning, not direct it.

Workers will also have to be their own instructional designers, selecting the best methods of learning. Furthermore, given the increasingly reciprocal nature of knowledge work, they will have to know how to teach. Each one-teach-one is at the heart of invent-as-you-go learning. The training department should be encouraging and supporting these activities.


Will training departments survive to address these issues? The cards are still out. After all, we are in a global economic depression, and training is the perennial first sacrifice. What would happen if you called for closing your training department in favor of a new function?

Imagine telling senior management that you were shuttering the classrooms in favor of peer-to-peer learning. You’re redeploying training staff as mentors, coaches, and facilitators who work on improving core business processes, strengthening relationships with customers, and cutting costs. You’re going to shift the focus to creativity, innovation, and helping people perform better, faster, cheaper.

You might want to give it a try.

Post Script: 


In an earlier article, eLearning Is Not the Answer, I’d pushed (NB: irony), the importance of Pull Learning. You can’t dump training without it.

Concepts at work in pull learning include:

  • Learning on demand, immediate reinforcement
  • Learning while working, not separate from working
  • Self-service, flexible delivery, convenience
  • Peer learning, communities of practice, collaboration
  • Small chunks, links for further discovery
  • Holistic, process orientation

Facilitating pull learning requires building learning ecosystems that bind workers together instead of developing courses and events. Replacing instructor-led events with living networks yields astounding gains in productivity.

Pull learning is not always appropriate; its application calls for judgment. For example, regulations specify push learning for compliance training. Highly structured learning is appropriate for learning some technical skills. Face-to-face is unparalleled for changing behavior and rallying emotions. Simulations fall into a space somewhere between push and pull. Virtual Princeton will never be the same as being there in person. Nonetheless, most corporate learning is informal; improving the channels for pull learning makes it more effective.

— Jay Cross

About the authors:

Jay Cross helps people work and live smarter. He was the first person to use the term eLearning on the web. He literally wrote the book on Informal Learning.

Harold Jarche helps organizations learn, work, and innovate in the network era. He has been described as “a keen subversive of the last century’s management and education models.”


My thoughts

While I agree with the authors’ thesis, as a creativity and innovation expert, I caution against replacing skilled facilitators and trainers, unless staff themselves have the appropriate expertise to create a healthy ecosystem for innovation, which includes:

  • Creating a culture that supports creativity, collaboration, prudent risk-taking and innovation
  • Providing a language and structure for creativity and innovation
  • Developing creativity skills, including artistic intelligence and design thinking processes
  • Developing critical thinking skills,
  • Coaching learners

In the past couple of years, I have noticed much more openness on the part of corporations to learn new ways to learn. And there is a definite groundswell of Powerpoint fatigue.

— Linda Naiman

See also my reflections on working with centers of excellence

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