Training departments will shrink

The Epic social learning debate for Summer 2011 states:

“This house believes that as social learning grows, so the requirement for traditional training departments shrinks.”

Let’s examine why they grew in the first place. Training on a massive scale was a requirement for preparing citizen soldiers for war and initial methods were tested during the second world war (1939-45). A systems approach did not become standardized until after the war, led by applied research done by Robert Gagné, as noted by Donald Clark:

One of the interesting system development projects discussed in Gagne’s book is building a revised course of instruction for armor crewman training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The project was code named SHOCKACTION and undertaken during the late 1950s. The course trained tank crewmen to act as a tank commander, driver, gunner, or loader of the Army’s main battle tank. The course was considered important and worthy of considerable investment of research and development funds. It was noted by officers that the present course was not training armor crewmen to a level of proficiency.

The famous ADDIE model did not get adopted until 1975, just as the baby boomers were entering university and the business world. There was a need to train lots of people in North America and later elsewhere as economies grew. Training departments rose to the challenge.

For thousands of years people have developed work skills through apprenticeship. This worked for small numbers and developed into the highly structured guild system in Europe. Industrialization marked the fall of the guild system. The nation state and the industrial economy adopted a new competency development framework, from which we have modern training departments, professional associations, job competency models, etc. But the industrial economy no longer drives the developed world. Even the information economy  is giving way to the creative economy.


In Social learning, complexity & the enterprise, I go over many of the factors that are forcing us to change how we think about learning and work, which is what training departments are supposed to focus on. The most significant change is in how we relate to, and deal with, information and knowledge. We no longer have to go to the library to get a book and we have access to a growing network of expertise from people (like bloggers) who are willing to share their knowledge for free. Instructional content is no longer a scarcity. Neither are “instructors”. Expertise is becoming ubiquitous though the likes of Wikipedia and social networks.

The draining of the hierarchical pyramid will change not only training, but also intellectual property and the social contract with workers. In a shifting networked world, every artificial  structure will be affected, so why should the training department be impervious to these effects? Even money will change, as this article about  The Bitcoin Epoch being akin to the Printing Press Revolution shows.

We are in a management revolution, testing out new models such as the social enterprise, democracy in the workplace, chaordic organizations and networked free-agents. Will the rise of social learning be the “cause” of the shrinking training department? Probably not. But it will be one of the effects.

5 Responses to “Training departments will shrink”

  1. Guy Boulet

    Call me old school if you want but I believe that there is a clear difference between learning and training. To me, learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge, which is what your pyramid refers to: information, publication, group discussions. Training is the process by which this knowledge is transferred to skills. (You learn things but you train to DO them)

    Browsing the web and joining groups to learn everything there is to know about aeronautics won’t make you a pilot nor an engineer. You need to apply this knowledge in order to develop skills: this is training.

    Will airlines or aeronautics firms let people who learned everything from the internet pilot a jet or design airplanes without any practical experience first? I doubt it.

    My opinion is that training departments will not srink, they will evolve. There will be less teachers and MORE coach, tutors and mentors. Internet contains a lot of INFORMATION but is very poor at giving opportunities to apply this information.

  2. Harold Jarche

    Developing basic skills to fly an aircraft requires formal training (I know, I worked in aviation training for several years). However, there is a continuing need for social learning, as is evident by regular CRM (crew resource management) sessions. Malcolm Gladwell highlights the critical aspect of social norms in his book Outliers, in describing what caused several crashes of Korean airlines in the 1980-90’s:

    Social learning is not social media.

  3. Donald Clark

    Hi Harold,
    First, thank you for the links to my sites. I tend to disagree that training departments will shrink for a few reasons:

    1. Manufacturing – While the number of manufacturing jobs has deceased, we still remain one of the largest manufacturing countries in the world. This is mainly due to our efficiency, such as better processes and technology. While it is hard to compete with some goods, such as blue jeans, TVs, etc.; we remain strong with more complex goods, such as planes and automobiles.

    This increased efficiency leads to more manufacturing, for example, both Intel and AMD are building new plants in the U. S. Another example is Boeing tried outsourcing many of the parts for its new Dreamliner that would have traditionally been built in the U.S. It is now scaling back on outsourcing because as it discovered, project teams are not easily interchangeable in manufacturing complex products.

    As other countries increase their standard of living, they of course have to pay their workers better, thus the huge advantage they have lessens.

    Thus, manufacturing jobs will rise, perhaps not to the level it was in the past, but it will certainly rise.

    2. Our service economy is growing – And just like manufacturing, this sector of the economy relies on processes and technology, which means training. I worked at one of Starbucks’ roasting and distribution plants for a number of years. As they grew, competitors arose and of course we had to learn new ways to remain competitive, which meant new processes and technology, which of course has to be trained. Since they operate retail stores, this part of the company also has to be trained and retrained when new products come out.

    3. Formal learning and informal learning rely on each other – Estimates show that each hour of formal learning spills over to four hours of informal learning (Bell, J., and Dale, M. (1999) Informal Learning in the Workplace. Department for Education and Employment Research Report No. 134. London, England: Department for Education and Employment, August 1999.)

    When informal learning leads to better processes and technology, they are often adapted by the organization, which means training people formally what was discovered informally.

    This has interlocking consequences. For example, I train organizations on how to conduct AARs (After Action Reviews). The people then take what they learned formally and use it to learn things informally, which then at times have to be trained formally to others!

    Training Departments will certainly change (after all, they also learn and grow), but I for one do don’t see them shrinking.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks very much for your well-considered comment, Don. We have different perspectives on this situation, but I respect your views. I guess only time will tell.


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