when training is the wrong solution

Training is too often the proverbial hammer in search of nails. It’s an easy check mark to show that action has been taken, assuming that improving individual skills is the core issue that needs to be addressed. But training does not improve diversity.

Firms have long relied on diversity training to reduce bias on the job, hiring tests and performance ratings to limit it in recruitment and promotions, and grievance systems to give employees a way to challenge managers … The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash. … That’s why interventions such as targeted college recruitment, mentoring programs, self-managed teams, and task forces have boosted diversity in businesses. Some of the most effective solutions aren’t even designed with diversity in mind. —HBR 2016-07

In another experiment with 10,000 employees of large global corporations, diversity training had little impact where it mattered.

We found very little evidence that diversity training affected the behavior of men or white employees overall—the two groups who typically hold the most power in organizations and are often the primary targets of these interventions. —HBR 2019-07-09

Neither does training address unconscious bias, as shown by Donald Clark, even though it continues to be sold and used in many organizations.

Unconscious is the wrong target — Apart from the dedicated racist, few will admit to being racist in surveys … As Tony Greenwald, one of the creators of IAT (Implicit Association Test) said, “I see most implicit bias training as window dressing … After 10 years working on this stuff and nobody reporting data, I think the logical conclusions is that if it was working, we would have heard about it.” … Even the people who work in this area warn against the inference that reducing unconscious bias reduces racist or sexist behaviour.

Training does not change attitudes. For example, a mandatory education class in Ontario, Canada — complete with videos and health care professionals as advisors — has been useless in getting parents to accept vaccinations for their children.

But since it was introduced in 2017, thousands of mothers and fathers have dutifully watched the video, collected their ‘Vaccine Education Certificate — then continued to duck the shots.

As one public health manager put it: “We had a zero percent conversion rate.” — National Post 2019-03-15

Training advisors today need a comprehensive view of the performance systems they are supporting. For example, in the case of preparing pilots to fly the Boeing 737 Max, simulator training was likely only part of the issue. Classroom training that promoted rote learning tended to result in rote pilots. Changes in aircraft design needed an understanding of all the resulting effects and perhaps required changes in the regulations for simulation time, checklists, and procedures, which was not done. Yes, the pilots were trained, but was their ability to safely fly this aircraft fully supported by the entire aviation system?

Removing barriers to learning should be the role of learning & development professionals. For instance, many organizations block access to resources, reserving critical information to certain departments or levels of authority. Some do not promote time and space for reflection. Often 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 working and learning, should replace most course development and delivery. The focus should be on increasing insights.

So what about diversity training? Improving diversity is not really a learning issue. All the L&D department can do is work to improve diversity in knowledge-sharing, which is just one part of the solution.

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