The myth of train the trainer

January 31, 2007

In the majority of cases, train the trainer is doomed to failure for 3 reasons:

  1. Training the wrong people
  2. Pushing work downwards
  3. Playing Chinese whispers

Online training and video is the only solution that provides on-demand availability, consistency of quality and clarity of message all with a relatively low time investment.

Training the wrong people

By definition, train the trainer does not include training the average user. So, two alternatives remain, train the superuser or train the non-user (e.g. team manager). Unfortunately, both make lousy trainers.

Superusers are very knowledgeable about the system, but overwhelm average users with their skill, jargon and speed. The result is an impression that the system is best left to the experts, one of whom happens to be readily accessible and now assumed available for 24x7 support. (The same problem faced by computer nerds when helping their family setup a PC.)

Non-users don’t have the ongoing interaction with the system to keep their skills fresh, or even the basic system knowledge needed to conduct training. The result is shallow training sessions with an impression that the system must be difficult to understand if even the trainer can’t use it properly.

Pushing work downwards

Train the trainer is a beautiful trick that allows project owners to tick the box on training while handing over ongoing responsibility and ownership for use of the system. Arriving with hopes of a nice buffet lunch, the new “trainers” leave with a few PowerPoint slides and a major new unexpected component to their job.

Project owners are given time and resources to raise the bar and change behaviour through the implementation. If they can’t find time to prioritise training, there is no way that users or managers swamped in their day to day tasks can do so. The result is a gap, which no one owns and everyone will eventually refer to knowingly as “the training issue”.

It’s proven again, you can’t get something for nothing.

Chinese Whispers

Training is important in terms of showing people how to use the system. But, it’s vital in terms of convincing people that the system is useful and helpful. Teaching someone a skill is not the same as motivating them to use it.

Unfortunately it’s this motivation and drive that is most quickly lost and distorted through the train the trainer chain. Each generation of trainer interprets the usefulness of the system and the important parts of the system differently, adding their own spin.

Exacerbating this loss of knowledge through imperfect copying is the natural inclination in a casual training session to skim through the material, downplay it’s importance and just skip the parts we don’t understand ourselves with an embarrassed laugh.

Train the trainer is like being in high school and asking your friend to talk to the cute girl across the room. They mean well, but feel silly doing the task, are vague in their message and don’t share your commitment to the outcome.

Alternatives to train the trainer

Typical turnover for a business is 20-25%, so new people are starting continuously and every single one requires training in the system. The need for training is relentless and always urgent.

In my experience, on-demand training packages (e.g. online, video) is the only viable solution giving the required flexibility and control over message while keeping resourcing to a minimum. These don’t need to be highly professional or polished, but do need to be reasonably easy to update and maintain.

Making train the trainer work

Despite the common problems above, train the trainer can work when:

  1. Trainers are actually trained in how to lead the training (not just taken through the training themselves). Materials should be prepared and core messages clarified for consistent and continuous delivery to new recruits. Make it simple and time efficient to conduct training.
  2. Trainers are chosen who have some interest in providing training. Whether this interest is intrinsic (I love to share knowledge) or extrinsic (increased chance of bonus) it must keep the motivation level high to conduct quality training with the core messages intact.
Comment by Anand on February 12, 2009 10:47 PM
I found this article useful.
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