As I See It: Where Has All the Training Gone?
August 16, 2004 Victor Rozek
If you’ve never heard of Sakhalin, you are in the majority. It’s a remote island off the east coast of Russia, dotted with small villages, surrounded by miles of subarctic evergreen forest. Frequented primarily by determined sportsmen, the island once hosted Soviet-style boy scout camps, in which wilderness training was augmented with somber doses of communist ideology. Those days are gone, but tradition dies hard. Recently another sort of training camp was discovered on Sakhalin: a training camp for aspiring criminals.
For all appearances, the camp resembled any other youth camp, complete with tents, activities, and kids with ages ranging from 12 to 18 sitting around the camp fire at night, singing off key to the tortured strumming of a poorly tuned guitar. To the occasional outsider, everything seemed normal, with two notable exceptions: the instructors all had criminal records (as did most of their charges), and the activities included studying manuals, which, according to BBC News, “covered, in fine detail, all aspects of burglary, robbery, and swindle.”
We know that criminals have always been on the leading edge of technology, quick to exploit the uses of pagers, cell phones, computers, and the Internet. And now they have discovered the value of training. The apprentice system is alive and well in the Russian underworld, and when even petty criminals understand the value of passing on skills to a new generation of no-good-niks, one wonders why our own corporations are so bent on ridding themselves of as many skilled workers as possible and dumbing down the rest.
Granted that, in our country, criminal training seems to be reserved for top management, but, hey, those of us doing honest work could use a little training, too.
In March of 2000, the Linux Journal predicted that, by 2004, one hundred million Americans were expected to be involved in adult or continuing education and that many of them would be IT professionals. IT training will be on the rise, foretold the Journal. Quoting a 1998 study published by IDC‘s Information Technology Training and Education Service, the Journal projected “that the worldwide IT training and education market will experience a growth rate of over 11 percent, surpassing $28.3 billion by 2002.” So millions of you should have received extensive training over the past four years.
Oh, really? Anyone being trained lately?
If you’re not living in India, you’re probably not getting much training. Maybe if you work for one of the largest corporations and your skill is not easily duplicated in Bangladesh. Maybe. But training, as we know, is the first casualty of economic downturns and is the last of the cuts to be restored. For the past several years corporations have been busy competing in the job-outsourcing Olympics, and they have not been keenly interested in retaining or retraining the skills-challenged–or even the competent, for that matter. Increasing training while cutting the workforce makes little sense in most cases.
More likely, if you’re training at all, you’re training yourself. Under the guise of employee empowerment, people are increasingly expected to tend to their own education. Videos, CDs, and Internet-based training are all the rage, at least according to people in the training business. It’s cheaper and more convenient, they argue. And from the perspective of the fellow paying the bills, it surely is. There are no expensive plane trips, no hotel bills (with naughty cable movies guaranteed not to be listed by name), no inflated meal expenses, no trainers to pay. It’s a dream for human resources: all of the resources, with none of the humans.
Here’s your CD, son. Knock yourself out.
Getting rid of teachers requires having a pompous-sounding alternative. “Individual learning” is what the marketing people came up with, as if people learning in groups do not absorb the material individually. “Self-paced learning” is another variation. Although “learning at your own speed” is universally advertised as a desirable feature, it probably doesn’t work all that well for the large percentage of procrastinators in the world whose speed is always set to slow.
Controlling the pace of learning, however, should be particularly attractive to the very quick and the very challenged, the people who are either bored–or bore others–in classroom situations. For the rest of us, technical education does not resemble the mind-numbing experience of high school classrooms. Upgrading technical skills is seldom a process geared to the slowest learner. There is a specific amount of material that must be covered in a finite amount of time, and each individual is responsible for keeping up. Instructors cannot afford to suffer fools for long.
Within the advantages of computer-based education lie its shortcomings. On the one hand, a computer will provide immediate feedback. But although the system may not accept your wrong answer, it will probably not provide you with an explanation of why the answer is wrong.
Another problem with leaving education in the learner’s hands is that it presumes the learner knows what is most important for him to learn. Constrained by time, self-paced learners tend to skip around to get through the material as quickly as possible. And while random access to class material frees students from the tyranny of the trainer’s outline, structure typically exists in order to group related concepts and to build one skill atop another.
On-demand availability does make information handy, but convenience does not guarantee retention. If the material is confusing or too difficult, for example, who is there to ask for an explanation? Certainly not the automated “help” features, most of which are about as useful as automated customer service.
Of course, if you don’t understand a particular concept, you can rewind the tape or requeue the CD. In this instance, computer-based education has a distinct advantage, especially if you live in an undesirable location: the material will always be available; the trainer, however, will want to leave North Dakota eventually.
Being able to view and review the material at your own pace provides another advantage for people who find it impossible to work without interruption. For those who cannot escape the office, perhaps the only option is to train in spurts; answer the phone, get some coffee, go to a meeting, then pick up where you left off. But even though multitasking is fashionable, how desirable is it to incorporate distractions into the learning process?
The quality of classroom-based training is, of course, largely dependent on the quality of the teacher (which is troubling for the Russian criminal class, whose instructors apparently all had lengthy records, from which we can deduce they were not terribly successful). But the same can be said about the quality of computer-based training materials: what you see is what you get, and no matter how many times you see it, it won’t get any better.
But perhaps the biggest drawback to the individual-learning model is that it’s a lonely affair. There is no opportunity to profit from the questions and insights of others (short of scrolling through forums and chat rooms). Trainers and students often bring “real life” experience and wisdom to theoretical material. Implementation strategies, installation hurdles, strengths and weaknesses of a particular software tool or language–shared experience is often as valuable as shared knowledge. There are no jokes, and there is no laughter. There is no one to complain to, as a peer, about how boring the instructor is or how you’d rather be doing something else when it is such a nice day. During offsite seminars, valuable information is often shared over dinner and cocktails. Talking shop, making business contacts–the cross-pollination of ideas takes place in and out of the classroom.
If classroom education is becoming less available, and computer-based training is inadequate, mentoring would provide a low cost bridge to the training gap. There are, however, more students than mentors, and with everyone doing their best not to look exportable, sharing skills is not always consistent with self-interest.
The Russians, at least, understood the value of mentoring, although for a much less altruistic reason than is commonly associated with that concept. Apparently there is an ethic to being a Russian criminal: the younger crooks are expected to take care of the older ones in retirement. So sharing skills is a form of social security. It’s in the interest of the old guys that the new guys be successful: a simple concept, one that our business leaders seem to have forgotten.
Veteran Russian criminals know something else that would be useful to a number of our elite corporate managers: hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. In the words of the BBC: “not only were [students] taught the skills of professional thieves, but [they] also took part in role-play scenarios on subjects ranging from ‘dealing with the police’ to ‘a life in prison: how to make a good impression on your cellmates’.”
Ken Lay and Martha Stewart could use some of that training. Maybe they will become mentors after they attain this knowledge?