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The art of training — Is it really art?

I, personally, am all for art for the people. I love art (well, at least the one I understand, I have to admit there’s a lot of the modern artistic expression I don’t really get). Still, I think we tend to use that term so much in regard to everything that it stands to lose its meaning.

Everything from sewing a dress to making a fluffy omelette is deemed to be art. I wrote “the art of” on Amazon just now and there are over 1.000.000 results. I stopped browsing after the fifth page but even in that short time I found some bewildering titles.

Since this way of regarding all things is so popular, of course it eventually got applied to training and lately I have stumbled across a few posts about the art of this particular enterprise. I have been a corporate trainer for over a decade and in my personal experience, teaching adults is more science than anything else. Same goes for e-learning.

Adapting to an audience

The first rule of a successful training program is that it should take into consideration the participants. Running surveys, figuring out the learning gaps and finding the most appropriate tools to fill them are all very concrete actions. It’s not their job to get you, it’s your job as an instructional designer to reach and move them.

Corporate training will always have double stakes – for the participants and for the organization. First it will have to be engaging enough to get and hold attention, then it will have to be efficient enough to improve specific skills or competencies and last but not least, in needs to generate positive results for the business. To make things even more interesting, they have to be quantifiable ones.

And while creativity may come in handy during this entire process, the bottom line will always be statistics and numbers. I know they may be pleasing to accountants and mathematicians but they are far from being artistic.

Breaking it into little pieces

The modern workplace is very busy. People barely have the time to do everything on their calendars and even though learning is more important than ever, the time devoted to it is fractionated into very small intervals.

Hence micro learning has become very popular and instructional designers face the challenge of taking extensive materials and making them into bite-size meaningful episodes of e-learning – because using trainers to deliver three to five minute sessions is simply counterproductive. The introductions usually last more than that.

Granted that the lovely Japanese haiku is a very short poem that holds immense wisdom and beauty but still a brief e-learning module has a very clear purpose, summarizes the most important information and if it leaves room for multiple interpretations something is not right with it. Plus it is usually designed to speak to the mind, not the heart.

Evaluating the information retention

I think that if museums, theater halls, opera houses and cinemas would start giving quizzes their popularity would suffer a great deal. Unless it is from a glossy magazine, telling you what your superpower is or what celebrity you have most in common with, nobody likes taking a test. It is stressful and not in the least bit fun.

However, when we are talking about corporate learning, testing is necessary because anything that implies costs needs to be justified. If time and money are invested in the design and deployment of development programs there has to be something to show for them.

So whether it’s a short online module or an extensive classroom intervention all training ends in some form of evaluation – most often it is not only about how much the participants remember and are able to apply but also about the program itself. It’s desirable for every aspect to be quantifiable.

Now, on a scale from one to five, how mysterious is Mona Lisa’s smile?

Acknowledging the artsy bits

While I hold my ground in asserting that “the art of training” is in reality “the harsh and very complicated reality of teaching adults in a dynamic and demanding environment”, I know that any book with that title would not look so great in a marketing strategy. And in all fairness, there are some aspects of corporate training that not only allow for but require some degree of creativity.

With e-learning, designers have the task of selecting or creating the best imagery to support the information and in classroom training, facilitators can really benefit for some performing arts skills. Charisma is something one has or lacks but the ability to capture and hold attention, the knowledge of how to move in a room, when to make eye contact and for how long are pertaining to stage acting.

The art of training

I suppose that as long as there is ‘the art of living”, “the art of baking the perfect muffin” and even “the art of electronics’, there is room on the bookshelf for “the art of training”. As long as inside you find the hard cold facts of how to do it.