Brainformative Blog

Training: What it Isn't


 Closeup portrait of puzzled, confused senior doctor, old health care professional gesturing with finger against temple, asking question are you crazy? isolated on white background. Emotion, expression



A couple days ago I was talking to a nursing executive who runs an emergency department. She was pretty fired up because of an email chain between high level decision makers detailing the mechanical failures in her building--mechanical failures that could potentially trigger regulatory violations. The gist of the chain said that the error was a failure of “nurse training.”  As if it was the nursing staff's job was to understand the finer points of boilers, natural gas leaks, and electrical panels. 

As absurd as this glaring example of leadership root cause misidentification is, it gets worse. 

The remedial “training” provided was . . . wait for it . . . an email with two step directions:a  pdf attachment containing a mechanical checklist for clinical staff to perform.    

Yes, you read that right “training” was a checklist. 

This would be akin to Boeing engineers providing a mechanical diagram to pilots, expecting them to perform engine analysis while flying at 30,000 feet, and saying the pilots have been “trained”.


Of course it is, but the practice of calling a brief How To, or a Tip Sheet, a PowerPoint slide deck, or a five minute video, “training” is endemic to corporate education with equally disastrous misaligned expectations that result in harmful performance outcomes.

And this story highlights the root failures of corporate training initiatives: 

  1. Organizations can never be successful if they fail to identify the WHAT and the WHO of training. e.g. thinking that the solution to the building management problem is “training” nurses into becoming facilities managers.

I’ll save this rant for another post but I’ll say this now. Any organization whose leadership arrives at such misidentified conclusion and initiates this as their “training” plan must be fired on the spot. 

  1. The type of “training” given does not align with the desired outcome. The reason “training” is so bad and fails with striking consistency is  . . . people don’t know what “training” is.

Pop quiz. Which of these is training?

  1. Come to my Podcast “training.”
  2. Watch this YouTube Video “training.”
  3. Read this PDF “training.”
  4. Listen to a professor give a lecture while showing a multimedia presentation.  
  5. A learner in an environment where they can repeatedly practice the desired performance outcome. 

If you picked E you would be correct, because unless “training” is learner focused and performance based it is not training. 

A through D might be a sub element of a broader training initiative but they are not, in themselves, training. 

Telling ain’t training

Yes, I know that is a book title. An outstanding book distributed by ASTD press, written by Harold Stolovitch, and Erica Keeps. For anyone serious about elevating corporate training this book is a must read and an essential piece of the organizational library.  

But John, aren’t you just splitting academic hairs?  I have to “tell” the learner something. How else am I going to get the information to them? 

The answer is no, I’m not splitting hairs.

The faulty assumption is this: You talking = THEM learning.

There are many ways to transfer knowledge that don’t require talking.

The fact is until the learner “connects the dots” on new knowledge . . . until the learner says “Oh, I get it” . . . until the learner has an insight. Nothing has happened. 

So without insight there is no learning, and without learning there most certainly cannot be “training.” So Telling Ain’t Training. And when organizations fail to understand this very rudimentary truth they inevitably misalign outcomes and expectations. 

For example, if the CEO thinks someone has been “trained” meaning they have been “told” the CEO expects the person to DO what they were trained. When they can’t, the CEO is confused: “But you were ‘trained’” 

Think of it this way: If someone has been “trained” as a helicopter pilot, the expectation must be that said pilot can take off and land without killing people. Whatever else the pilot can do he must have this criterion as a minimum.  The foundational performance outcome of said pilot is to keep people alive right? 

Now let’s assume that said pilot was “trained” like my Nurses above. Or maybe the pilot’s “training” was to listen to a lecture that read every bullet point on a slide deck.

That’s it! 

Are you crawling in the helicopter with this pilot? 

Why not?  The pilot was “told” how to fly.  Someone talked so certainly they learned, right? 

How about if they got a video to watch after the lecture?  

How about if they got a checklist after the class? 

How about if they were sent the PowerPoint slide deck a couple days after the class to study?

How about if they clicked through the slide deck and checked the box on the course attestation?

Are you going to fly with this pilot?


Why not? 

They checked the box for corporate compliance and got a certificate of completion. Certainly if that is good enough for HR, it should be good enough for you to strap in, right? 

This is the point. In this context, it is very apparent the word “training” is catastrophically misaligned. If one applies fifteen minutes of critical analysis, it becomes clear that helicopter pilot training must require the pilot, to spend hours practicing every related skill required to NOT kill people

And in that same fifteen minute reflection, the inescapable conclusion would also follow that it would be organizational malpractice to distribute a slide deck to new pilots and call it “training.” Yet organizations do this very thing with impunity. 

So John, how should we quantify our corporate educational efforts? If videos and PowerPoint are not training, what are they?  

Well, lectures and supplementary material is my immediate answer, but again to truly quantify any educational effort the first thing that must be done is identify the performance outcome. 

And to achieve that requires two things: 

1. An express understanding of where the audience lands on the Novice to Expert spectrum.



For a full discussion of the Novice to Expert spectrum check out our flagship course Death by Bullet Point . . . No More (Foundations) 

  1. What do you want the learner to DO with the knowledge after they get it? How ingrained must the knowledge be for them to be successful. Is it a process they will perform once every six months? Then a Tip Sheet is an appropriate supplement. 

Will they be flying hundreds of people every day? Then they will have to spend thousands of hours sitting in the same cockpit performing all of the rudiments of flying.  Then the only appropriate training is designed to require the learner to perform at the expert end of the spectrum with his Habits-of-Mind fully ingrained.  


Article_Blog_Novice To Expert Pic v3


Understanding the learners starting place establishes a hard limit on the performance outcome. Learners towards the Novice end of the spectrum have an insurmountable and unavoidable contextual limitation. Therefore to the Novice and Advanced Beginner all knowledge transfer efforts must focus on rudiments, common language, and short processes. 

It isn’t until the learner achieves the Competent stage, where the basics have gelled into insights, that they can be expected to achieve real performance outcomes. By the Competent stage they have mastered the rudiments so they can now take action without having to stop and think.    

Acquiring insights, gaining those wonderful Ah Ha! Moments we all live for as we learn, is a very complex process from concept formation to concept integration. We will not go into details of this process except to say it requires the learner to spend time habituating specific thought patterns. 

The brain must undergo a process of discovery to produce insights and this process literally rewires the neurons so they fire in different and new patterns. This neuronal firing is what ingrain the ideas, that causes other parts of the brain to create its own shorthand.  

And now we have arrived at the threshold of the second criteria: What do you want the learner to DO?

The learner then must take their insights through the rewiring process by working with the ideas over and over and over.

The more the learner retrieves the ideas from memory and uses them, the more the learner moves toward the expert end of the spectrum. This habituation of insights is the foundation of all performance outcomes.

And this is training.

We have only touched the surface of this subject but now you should have a foundation to begin evaluating your organizational training.

Podcasts, videos, lectures, How To’s, et al are training supplements used in a broader training initiative. But training must be created with the learner in mind and then allow the learner  to practice the performance outcome, over and over and over.