ATD Blog

Not Everything Is a Nail

Thursday, April 18, 2013

There is an old saying that “to a young boy with a hammer, everything is a nail.”  

Unfortunately, for some managers, training is a hammer and every performance problem is a nail. As we all know, however, there are many different causes of performance gaps. Training helps only when the core issue is a lack of skills or knowledge. It’s useless—or worse—when the real issue is a lack of motivation, inadequate feedback, muddled goals, abusive management, and so forth.

Every time we agree to implement a training program when training is not the right solution, we shoot ourselves in the foot. It’s one of the reasons that training gets a reputation for not being very effective—and it contributes to headlines like “So Much Training, So Little to Show for It.”

How big a problem is it? For the past year or so, we have been asking participants in our 6Ds® Workshops to answer this question:

“Of all the training your organization conducts today, what % is for issues where training is not really the solution?”

Write down your own answer before reading on.


We have been shocked to find that training professionals, even in some very well-known and respected firms, believe that 15 to 50% of the training they do is misguided. That means that 15-50% of their efforts are doomed to failure from the get-go. Learning how to say “no” to training that won’t work would dramatically boost our overall success rate and sense of accomplishment.
What can we do?

In Transfer of Training, Broad and Newstrom gave us a good starting point when they wrote: “Training is expensive to design and deliver; it should be the last, not the first, intervention the HRD professional and the organization should consider in order to improve employee performance.” Business managers understand the meaning of the word “expensive” and are interested in suggestions that will save them time or money.  

So when we are asked to deliver training, we might respond along these lines: “I can certainly help you, and we can certainly design a program. But because training is expensive to design and deliver, I want to help you be sure there isn’t a quicker or less expensive solution first.”


Bob Mager (Analyzing Performance Problems) proposed that the critical question in trying to decide whether training is warranted is: “If their lives depended on it, would they still not be able to perform?”  That is, if an employee could not adequately perform a task if his or her life depended on it, then that suggests a lack of skill or knowledge that training can help close. On the other hand, if people can perform but simply aren’t (they answer “no” to the “Will I?” question), then the problem is environmental or managerial, and training won’t help. Indeed, it could make the problem worse.

Corporate training is an important source of competitive advantage provided it is directed toward improving performance where a lack of skill or knowledge is the impediment. It is a waste of time that generates learning scrap [link to blog on scrap] when it is applied to the wrong problem. We can improve the overall success and reputation of training by avoiding misapplication.

Want to learn more about how to increase learning transfer, reduce training scrap, and improve business impact? Attend the pre-ICE Learning Transfer Certificate Program, May 17-18, 2013.

About the Author

Andy Jefferson, JD, is President and Chief Executive Officer for The 6Ds Company.  He is co-author of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning and Getting Your Money’s Worth from Training and Development. Andy is a frequent and popular global presenter who excels in helping companies maximize the value they realize from their investments in learning and development. He is an accomplished executive with deep line-management expertise as well as experience in strategic planning, sales and marketing, productivity, and technology development. Andy views learning as a critical source of competitive advantage in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. He knows the challenges of running a company and making every investment count. Prior to joining The 6Ds Company, Andy served as the Chief Executive Officer of The Fort Hill Company, CEO of Vital Home Services, and Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel of AmeriStar Technologies, Inc. Andy is a graduate of the University of Delaware and graduated Phi Kappa Phi with honors from the Widener University School of Law, where he served on the school’s Board of Overseers.

About the Author

Roy V. H. Pollock, DVM, PhD, is Chief Learning Officer of The 6Ds Company and co-author of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning and Getting Your Money’s Worth from Training and Development. Roy has a passion for helping individuals and teams succeed. He is a popular speaker and frequent consultant on improving the value created by training and development.

Roy has a unique blend of experience in both business and education. He has served as Chief Learning Officer for the Fort Hill Company; Vice President, Global Strategic Product Development for SmithKline Beecham Animal Health; Vice President, Companion Animal Division for Pfizer; and Assistant Dean for Curriculum at Cornell’s Veterinary College.

Roy received his BA from Williams College cum laude and his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and PhD degrees from Cornell University. He studied medical education at the University of Illinois Center for Educational Development. Roy served as a member of the faculty at Cornell for eight years, where he received numerous awards including the Ralston-Purina Research Award and Veterinarian of the Year.  He is a Fellow of the Kellogg Foundation National Leadership Program.

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