just checking the box

Were the two recent crashes of Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft a result of inadequate training, or design and safety flaws resulting from a lack of regulator oversight? I don’t know and I cannot speculate. However, I am interested in how training design decisions are made and what role Learning & Development (L&D) professionals play in the relationship between building aircraft and flying them. Is there something to learn here?

“The captain of a doomed Ethiopian Airlines flight did not practise on a new simulator for the Boeing 737 Max 8 before he died in a crash with 156 others, a pilot colleague said … The 737 Max 8 was introduced into commercial service in 2017, but pilots of older 737s were only required to have computer-based training to switch, according to Boeing, airlines, unions, and regulators.” —CBC 2019-03-21

We know that not all the crew received all the potential training on this particular aircraft. But is there some place where we can go to find out what is the appropriate amount and type of training? I doubt it. I worked for five years developing training standards for aircrew and technicians on a newly purchased aircraft — the CH146 Griffon utility helicopter. During that time I researched how to determine the optimal training methods, particularly simulation.

I arrived on the project team after we had purchased a fleet of 100 helicopters plus a full motion combat mission simulator — background story here. The simulator we received had been part of the overall purchase but there was no specific learning or training rationale for it. It was like — well everyone else uses one! But as I describe in the background story, we did not buy cheaper part-task trainers or procedural trainers in the initial project budget. No training expert had ever developed a methodology to determine the right mix of training resources. This was a $1billion project. Our training experts were too busy designing courses. [Now ask — what are your training experts doing?]

One thing we realized after installing the simulator was that some manoeuvres in the simulator were not identical to doing them on the aircraft, and the result was ‘negative transfer’ of training from the simulator to the aircraft. Therefore we taught these only on the aircraft. I became interested in how other nations made decisions on how to develop simulation. I had access to some classified documents at the time and found out that some countries had developed initial methodologies. But Canada had not at that time (early 1990’s). As my background story tells, I made several recommendations before leaving the military, passed these on to a civilian contractor to the military in 2009, and found out that no methodology had yet been developed in 2013.

The references I used as a civilian included:

My analysis concluded [not sure if this is still valid] that two fidelity categories should inform decisions on developing simulations:

  1. Physical – Spatial, tactile, and appearance
  2. Functional – Format, content, and response

I suggested that high physical functionality is always necessary for any tasks that have been determined necessary (in a training needs analysis) for job-ready performance. Functional fidelity can be lower, depending on the task. For instance, the functional fidelity of a cockpit procedure trainer — to develop skills in start-up or shut-down sequences for example — can be lower than a mission simulator where the pilot is using all systems.

I would be interested if training is still a mere ‘check box’ in the production of aircraft and preparation of crews to fly them. Do we have tested methods in place to know what type of training and what level of simulation is best? Or is the L&D profession content with the best-guess of an engineer, and willing to be order-takers to develop training packages? Is our profession compliant?

As we have witnessed in the past few months, there may be a very high cost to just developing compliance training and not making a very strong case to connect learning AND working.

My question to the Learning & Development field is — What are the methods/frameworks/models to determine the appropriate types of simulation and/or emulation for difficult-to-acquire physical/cognitive skills? How do we start? Are there methods particular to aviation or do these cross domains?

2 Responses to “just checking the box”

  1. Nancy Dixon

    Harold, your worry about T&D is important. Thanks for the thorough review. I worry about that with KM as well. For example in the VW emissions scandal, people rightly lost their jobs. But was KM called in to understand what practices within the organization allowed such a thing to happen – a lessons learned. We could ask the same about the sexual abuse in companies. Does KM not have a role in making sense of practices or culture that allow that to happen? Is their a role for KM to look at a recent merger to review what the organization learned about how to do mergers and what impact they have? Or is KM’s role in an organization just about making sure individuals get the right knowledge at the right time to increase the organizations bottom line.

    • Harold Jarche

      Excellent points, Nancy. I find too many people in support fields like KM and L&D play the role of order taker and don’t push for the integrity of their discipline. Medicine has done this, why don’t we?


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