the uncertain future of training

Training courses are artifacts of a time when resources were scarce and connections were few. That time has passed.

The roots of training are to get a lot of people to do the same thing competently. The Roman army trained soldiers for battle and many other duties, like building roads. Standard methods were developed. Drill and feedback over time helped to develop competence. But the modern training field exploded after 1945. Large organizations created training departments, now called ‘learning & development’ or some other variant, but still focused on one thing: looking backwards. Training looks at how people currently do work and then gets others to replicate this. These are described as competencies, made up of certain, skills, knowledge, and attitudes. The assumption was that what works today will work tomorrow. The training department assumed the status quo.

No More Courses

The notion of best practices still permeates the business of training. By looking at what is currently being done well we can replicate this and pass it on through training. Best practices, and even good practices, assume a state of order. They assume that we will get the same results each time we do something. But humans are complex. So are most of the work challenges we face. Any best and good practices are being automated by software and machines. If the work is standardized and repetitive it will be automated. Driving a car is one of these. So is handling standard banking procedures, like deposits and withdrawals. A local bank teller told me that her work today is mostly dealing with exceptions. Online banking and ATM’s handle the routine transactions.

The world is not stable. Work is not routine. Problems are not standard. What worked today may not work tomorrow. I call this a state of perpetual beta where our mental models and how we work need to change with the environment. Strong opinions, loosely held are better than a fixed mindset.

If training cannot prepare us for an uncertain future, what can? The best tool we have to deal with uncertainty is human learning. The human brain is not a computer. It makes intuitive leaps beyond any silicon-based artificial intelligence. Humans also learn socially. It is how we developed our civilizations. We share what we do and learn from each other. No other primates do this. We learn over time.

Training as knowledge delivery is dead. When this is needed, such as learning how to do a procedural task, it will be automated through simulation. The machines will be infinitely patient.

Focus on Learning

The future of training is a refocus on learning. Learning is not something we can do for others. But there will always be a need to help others become better learners. Modelling with our own practices is that way. Removing barriers to learning is another role for the now-defunct training department. Many organizations block access to resources. Some do not promote time and space for reflection. There is little accommodation to actually learn lessons from our collective actions. Increasing the speed of organizational learning should be the new focus. Promoting self-directed learning, supporting social learning, and removing barriers to learning should replace course development and delivery.

Supporting modern workplace learning is much more difficult than delivering 20th century training ever was. I have worked with companies making this transition. It takes time, measured in years, not months. Many people cannot make the leap from course development, to performance consulting, and social learning. I have watched with sadness as people are let go because they have a fixed training mindset. If you are in the training field, now is the time to expand your mental models and build capabilities in social learning support. First, become an expert learner. Then you may be ready for an uncertain future.


the missing half of training


5 Responses to “the uncertain future of training”

  1. Will Thalheimer

    Harold, while I agree that we should leverage non-training learning, and I agree that we need to help people learn how to learn, you are making a fundamental error in saying that knowledge is not needed. Specifically you say, “Training as knowledge delivery is dead.”

    Deep knowledge is needed in making decisions, in learning something new, and in being creative. This blog post makes some of this clear:

    Thanks for pushing us away from a one-trick-pony mentality, but beware that that one trick might be a good one.

    = Will

  2. Mirjam

    Hi Harold, thank you for your insightful blog. I agree with the overall message but I also agree with Will. What I also think is a bit of a shame is that we now, in trying so desperately to get across that ‘training’ shouldn’t be the first go-to (which in itself is a bit vague cause training can mean a 1000 different things), we seem to forget that there are many professions that heavily rely on training and have been very successful (aviation, military, Healthcare, police, etc). What exact group of employees do you have in mind when you argue that we no longer need training?

    • Harold Jarche

      I have designed and developed training for military personnel, such as helicopter pilots. I know how important it is. But the military has the luxury of coupling this with collective training (informal & social). Non-military organizations do not. Training is just a small part of the equation. There are many good ways to do it. Simulation is the best. I developed flight simulation training. I also participated in many NATO war game simulations.

      Over the past 75 years, civilian organizations have imitated the military approach to ‘individual’ training, but have failed to see that it requires ‘collective’ training to make an organization perform. Military units only perform after they have learned to work together. They also keep learning, as my Regiment did:


      When I arrived at my first operational unit, after one year of infantry officer training, I was told to forget most of what I had learned, as I would learn how to do things correctly now. I would now learn informally, through games, and simulations. I would also learn socially, working with my fellow soldiers. The military calls this collective training. It is not run by training specialists, but rather the operational staff. The civilian equivalent would be that the lines of business, rather than HR or L&D, would develop all training inside an organization. The military understands that collective training, which fosters social bonding, is necessary for the complexity and chaos of battle.


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