Compliance of an industry

1. compliance – acting according to established and accepted standards.

Mandated training is a standard response by industry regulators when dealing with human performance issues. This is “compliance training”. The training industry (internal or external) then develops the training and as more compliance training gets loaded onto organizations, we have an excellent excuse to buy some technology systems to manage it.

The owners of compliance, whether authorities like government and regulatory bodies, professional bodies, or  internal legal  counsel, are stuck in a mindset that in order to get compliance you must have training.  They see it as the only way. To them it’s simply a way of keeping the chairman and CEO out of prison if something goes wrong.  If something REALLY goes wrong, the fact that someone had been through a training program and has obtained a tick in an LMS box just means the difference between a few years in jail.

That mindset also permeates the training industry. Too many people in the training department make the leap from a performance issue (lack of skills, abilities, knowledge; lack of access to appropriate data and resources; etc) directly to training as the only solution. This is the wrong approach and the most costly. Management plays into this, with statements like “We have a training problem” and no one challenges that statement. There is no such thing as a training problem.


Here are some “training problems” that are not solved through training:

  • Poor communications
  • Unclear expectations (such as policies & guidelines)
  • Inadequate resources
  • Unclear performance measures
  • Rewards and consequences are not directly linked to the desired performance

These barriers can be addressed without training. Only when there is a genuine lack of skills and knowledge, is training required [repeat as necessary]. Training should only be done in cases where the other barriers to performance have been addressed. A trained worker, without the right resources and with unclear expectations, will still not perform up to the desired standard. Would training have helped avoid BP’s problems on its oil rig? Not likely.

Examining existing compliance training to see if it could be replaced with performance support would be a start. Performance support is quite appropriate:

  • When performance is infrequent
  • When the situation is complex
  • When the consequence of errors is intolerable
  • When performance depends on a large body of information
  • When performance is dependent on knowledge or information that changes frequently
  • When performance can be improved through self-assessment
  • When there is a high turnover rate
  • When there is little time or money for training

2. compliance – the act of submitting; usually surrendering power to another.

So why doesn’t the industry raise a fuss over wasteful and ineffective training? Is the training industry exhibiting compliance à la définition #2? When regulators demand compliance training, where are the protests from ATD, CSTD or other professional associations? Would the training department be slashed without all that compliance stuff? Would you be able to justify the six figure price-tag of that learning management system without the sword of compliance over the CEO’s head?

If physicians were told they had to give treatments without a diagnosis would they remain compliant? Where are the learning professionals lobbying for change? Some folks, like Will Thalheimer are trying to push us to base our work on research, but for the most part the training industry is a bunch of sugar pill pushers. Don’t say we have no choice. We’re supposed to be the professionals. As workers and organizations become more connected, perhaps they’ll recognize the training scam for what it is. Until then, the industry will keep selling training; for all that ails you.

9 Responses to “Compliance of an industry”

  1. Allison Rossett

    Agreed. Good points.

    And not only does the training not work, it produces cynicism in employees about the value of development. You see it often with teachers. They should be most keen on learning and many would say they are not. Why? The organization is not aligned to advance the many messages they are taught. Principals ignore it. Software goes uninstalled. It’s not what’s on the test, not consistently. This makes teachers unhappy and cynical. Grrrrrrr.

    • Harold Jarche

      Allison; there are no unhappy & cynical folks in our business 😉

      Yes, that’s a great post, Jane and I love Dick Carlson’s comment. Your four quadrant chart is similar to my more elaborate chart, and gets the point across better, IMO. My chart is based on Mager & Pipe’s Analyzing Performance Problems.

  2. Don Bolen

    To the above points, the under appreciated What Every Manager Should know About Training, Robert Mager.

  3. Ray Jimenez


    This is bold, cut and dry and thanks for the exposition.

    I see debilitating effects across the training industry when many of our training colleagues accept “compliance” as the norm for training. a good example is the blind loyalty to testing for retention with little concern for applications in real-job situations.

    Why not fight this culture? I might be wrong, but our industry might be too “onion-skinned” to accept self-reflections and self-criticisms that we rather continue to hide the dirty linens than confront them.

    How do we lift ourselves out of this mindset?



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