“What are they afraid of?” or “If Kirkpatrick must go, let’s at least give him a good send off!”: Guest post from Tony Martin

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Franklin D Roosevelt

There you go. Nothing like a well-worn cliché to kick off, and with the apparently imminent (again) collapse of the global financial market and the consequent disintegration of democracies around the world, that is probably as relevant and true today as it was 80 years ago. Except of course, the Armageddon scenario won’t happen because throughout time the brave have overcome the one thing that would precipitate such meltdown; the paralysis of fear and the temptation to sit on the touchline and watch the whole sorry saga dissolve before their frozen, staring eyes. (Caveat: if it does happen, by then you’ll have hopefully forgotten that you read it here first and have more important things to worry about.)

Robert Terry’s recent blog All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, or “Kirkpatrick must go! put forward an interesting ‘conspiracy theory’ slant to the whole training evaluation debate, and it got me thinking that the root cause of the lethargy that contributes to the huge sums that are wasted on training events might just be because it’s all a bit scary. Even in such austere market conditions, why are so many of our corporate leaders apparently content to sit back and watch the money flow out through their Learning & Development budgets? Why do they seem satisfied when they have a team who return from their development experience having made some new friends, are a bit more motivated and, at best, have transcended as individuals into better human beings, albeit not actually able to contribute anything of demonstrable additional value to the business?

The answer, invariably, is that they are not. The vast majority of business leaders are acutely aware of the need to drive results: all but a few unenlightened have worked out that the way to do that is through the investment they make in their people. And yet there is a collective agreement not to ask too many difficult questions. For therein lies the ghastly spectre of accountability.

In defence of Kirkpatrick, he’s just a bloke trying to make sense of a complex problem by coming up with a neat model that people can get their heads around. On the occasions that I have the privilege to stand before a group of programme delegates, it is not uncommon to refer to some or other model for the purpose of illustrating a particular point. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against theoretical models. (Other than the fact that I didn’t come up with them first.) They are a useful basis for discussion, but they are never the complete answer.

Where it all goes pear-shaped is when attempts are made to shoe-horn arbitrary measures into a matrix to satisfy some unclear purpose. You see, there is something about ‘process’ that too frequently results in the ‘tool’ becoming the ‘workman’. I’m sure the person who first came up with the Performance Appraisal Form was full of good intent and would not have foreseen that their baby may, in the wrong hands, one day grow to become a monster, capable of driving unintended and undesirable behaviours and spawning a process that could solve the unemployment problems of a small country overnight.

The challenge that remains, however, is how business leaders, L&D specialists, trainers, consultants and, lest we forget, the ‘people’, conspire to ensure the sharp needle of accountability is felt throughout the organisation. Easily said, but a very brave stance to take – and one that sits at the very heart of true leadership. This doesn’t need to involve devising specific ‘projects’ for delegates to work on to prove their newly acquired skills and knowledge (although such assignments have their place): it’s simply being very clear what it is that each individual needs to do for the business to succeed and then investing appropriately to help ensure they achieve it.

Sometimes that will involve training, sometimes individual coaching, direction, motivation, and sometimes just being left alone to get on with it. But at all stages it requires a cohesive and collaborative approach to ensure that everybody in each of those functions knows the part they have to play and the consequences of success or failure. No evaluation tool is ever going to prove that a training programme is single-handedly responsible for an improvement in business performance any more than it can directly pin the blame for static or deteriorating positions.

As an analysis tool though, and a basis for some honest discussions between all partners involved in the success of any programme, it can be invaluable. By all means measure the Level 1 stuff if you like. Sometimes it’s good to know that the delegates had a worthwhile time, the event was well put together, the trainer wasn’t a waste of space and the coffee machine was working ok. But as a measure of ROI it’s irrelevant.

Sadly business leaders will shift training approaches, change consultants, adopt different leadership models, restructure organisations in the hope that next time it will be different, without first addressing the really brave question: “What’s the point?” And then allow the measurement to fall into place around this defined purpose and attach the accountability for making it happen across the business. That can be a daunting prospect, but fortune favours the brave.

Oh, and what would happen if you scrapped your performance appraisal paperwork altogether next year and relied on leaders to do what they are paid for? How much could you save if they were really good at their jobs? And how much could they deliver? Go on: I dare you …

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