A Seat at the Table

By: Greg Owen-Boger, VP & Trainer, Turpin Communication
July 28, 2013

"When I'm training employees, I want them to be entertained and have fun," said a senior trainer in one of our recent workshops. We'll call her Linda. Linda's manager had brought us in to prepare Linda and her team to deliver a nation-wide training initiative.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Training can be so boring for them, I just want them to enjoy themselves," she said. "If they're having a good time, it makes the whole process less awful for all of us." Linda's peers agreed.

"So, what do you normally do," I probed, "to make sure they're having fun?"

They answered by explaining a few ice breakers that they conduct, jokes that are sprinkled throughout, a team building exercise involving K'NEX toys, giving out $25 gift cards for winners of contests and so on. They also showed us some handheld devices they use to "test for knowledge transfer." "We add funny questions to keep them on their toes," one of them added.

We hear these sorts of things a lot from corporate trainers. I can certainly understand wanting to make the "whole process less awful" for learners, but I'm dubious about some of the techniques they use to achieve it. At Turpin Communication, we believe that adult learners should not be forced to have fun or be bribed into participating in activities, but many of the techniques used today assume the opposite. You only need to attend one adult learning industry conference to see what I mean.

What We Hear From Training Managers
By the time learning leaders, such as Linda's boss, contact us to work with their teams to improve their effectiveness in the classroom, there's usually trouble brewing. We always ask them, "Why now? What happened that made you contact us at this particular time?"

Their answers vary, of course, but they usually include stories that add up to these themes:

  • There's a general lack of respect for training at the organization
  • Low morale among the trainers
  • Disengaged learners
  • Workshop evaluations are poor
  • Internal customers are looking outside the organization for training already offered internally
  • Subject matter experts go rogue with instructional designs

It's not unusual for a learning leader to say something like, "I want a seat at the table, but that will never happen under this set of circumstances."

So what this adds up to is (1) a frustrated learning leader who recognizes there's a problem and (2) a group of trainers holding on to some troublesome gimmicks that play a role in causing the problem in the first place.

So, What Can Be Done?
We help people see for themselves that their current behaviors and ways of thinking are not helping them achieve their goals. At the beginning of every workshop, whether we're working with trainers, facilitators or everyday business presenters, we ask them how they want to be perceived as a whole. We chart their responses and it becomes a list of goals for the session. Here's a chart from a recent workshop. It's a good example of what most business people bring up during this discussion.


Once this chart is made, we help the individuals understand that every learning module, everything they do and say, every exercise and facilitated discussion must support those goals.

For example: If they're doing something that isn't relevant to the learning objective and to the learner, it should go or be revised until it does. An icebreaker where they go around the room briefly describing their favorite birthday gift as a kid should either be pulled or replaced. A relevant discussion of the three big things the group would like to take away from the training would be a better, more relevant, exercise.

Another example: If the trainer is reviewing Bookkeeping 101 with a team of mid-level accountants, the module should be pulled. That would be a waste of time for that particular group of adult learners because they already know a lot about bookkeeping. Their existing knowledge needs to be respected. Imagine the rich conversation that could take place if the facilitator were to tap into their knowledge and use it to enhance the overall training!

We encourage trainers to scrutinize everything including their group facilitation skills. One of the more common missteps we see is that they've replaced facilitation with remediation. Remediation is about getting to the "right" answer and teaching to the test. This is, of course, not an effective way to encourage deep thinking and retention. Facilitation, on the other hand, is about nuance, information sharing, and critical thinking that lead to understanding and application.

Making these changes is a difficult thing for people to do. It's hard to let go of long-held beliefs, habits and industry trends, but it's a necessary thing. Adult learners, not to mention the businesses they support, don't have time, money or patience for anything else. Nor should they.

But Won't That Make Training Boring?


I'm not advocating for dull, lifeless learning events. Quite the opposite. I'm advocating for compelling, relevant learning experiences that show respect for learners while being an enjoyable experience for all.

When that happens, learners will eagerly participate in learning. They'll see the relevance, and apply their learning to their jobs. The business will see improved productivity, and the learning leader just may get that seat at the table.