Slaying the “Elephant” in the Training Room

Stop Wasting Your Organization’s Money If You’re Not Delivering Learning

ElephantThe past few months have been a whirlwind for us speaking at one conference after another….and it’s starting again. It is truly a privilege to speak at these excellent learning and performance conferences. What is disappointing, however, is the lack of learning that actually takes place both from the participants and from the many conference speakers.

Yes, we want to address the “elephant in the training room”. We’re going to state what many Learning professionals and leaders are thinking (and afraid to say aloud). From our vantage point as conference speakers’ there are two significant concerns. First, participants look as if they are always seeking a “quick fix” rather than a sustainable solution. This is very disconcerting since workplace learning efforts are a process not a “fix”.

Second, and more worrisome, is the lack of innovative thinking or discovery from many of our speaker colleagues. This is general statement and we don’t necessarily want to lump in some very forward thinking speakers that seek to discover innovative and interesting ways to develop lasting learning solutions. Regretfully, these speakers, in our opinion are in the minority. Trust us that making this statement is not making us friends and will get us push back.

Second, and more worrisome, is the lack of innovative thinking or discovery from many of our speaker colleagues.

But resistance is good. You want to shake things up…if not, why are you in the learning profession in the first place? We are learning professionals and learning experts so it is incumbent upon us to seek out the unknown and build bridges to get to the new reality. Last we checked, learning was about discovery, not status quo. Fundamentally, this is it! This is also what people expect from a “professional”. And here lies the problem.

While we applaud the dedication conference organizers put forth to deliver an innovative learning experience the problem rests solely on participants and invited learning subject experts that share their knowledge.

The “Quick Fix” Mentality

It appears that the participants we meet, albeit anecdotal, come to sessions with a checklist. This is simply a shopping list of items that will either magically resolve their issues back at work or quell their bosses concerns about spending money to go to the conference in the first place. If you take offense then you are genuine about why you go or…you are guilty of one or both of these reasons.

You won’t (and shouldn’t) find a quick solution at a learning conference. It’s a learning event! If you come with a “quick fix” mentality then prepare for disappointment. These events are to stimulate discussion and critical thinking that will lead to new learning experiences and discovery. Ultimately, the experiences lead to lasting solutions requiring diligence and patience whereas quick fixes focus on the now.

Miracles at a learning conference are in very short supply.

Miracles at a learning conference are in very short supply. So, while most speakers, like us, hope you discover an elusive “ah-ha” moment please keep in mind that learning takes work. Every organization’s learning situation is unique and finding a solution requires your total focus. But to actually believe you will leave the conference with a solution that will immediately resolve a problem is foolish and irresponsible.

Lets be blunt. If you come to a conference to justify to your boss that it will help the business then either prove it or stop wasting your time. If you come to find a “quick fix” then you are not only cheating what you can gain from the conference you are also cheating your organization from the benefits of a learning solution.

Your learning moments will come only if you approach possible solutions from a holistic context rather than a narrow one. Discover the connections and the effect it will have addressing the issue in the short and long term.

Same Old…”Don’t Worry…They Won’t Notice”

Did you notice the real elephant in the room at these conferences? No? Well, we did and it’s not pretty. It is actually embarrassing and this is going to get us unwanted attention. But we’re ok with that.

EinRoom2Our responsibility as learning professionals and as thought leaders is to push people to challenge the status quo. But it is safe to say that many of the speakers we encounter at every conference simply rehash the ‘same old’ and well-worn thought process. At times we’re guilty of doing the same (stating this for the record before our colleagues accuse us of bias).

It’s really ok if some of our peers challenge our perception. This will accomplish a couple of things including, calling them out for their complacency, questioning their contempt towards participant learning expectations, and neglecting their responsibility to move the learning profession forward.

While participants may get away seeking a quick fix it’s unacceptable for thought-leaders to recycle the same topics year after year especially at a learning conference. There is no place for complacency. There may have been a time when these topics were leading edge but after several conferences the same topics become irrelevant. This is especially true in the current constantly evolving business environments.

These speakers…keep re-hashing the ‘same old’ topics hoping participants won’t notice that their work is, in reality, useless.

What’s more disturbing is the hubris these speakers have towards the conference and participants. They keep re-hashing the ‘same old’ topics hoping participants won’t notice that their work is, in reality, useless. It is even more impressive that they also continue to expect praise for the (irrelevant) contribution they’re making to the advancement of the learning profession.

The workplace learning and performance discipline often neglects is own “learning” and professional development. Those external to WLP expect us to provide innovative methods to acquire, transfer, and apply knowledge and skills that allow people to be more effective in their roles and produce tangible results.

This means we must be self-critical. It falls on the shoulders of both workplace learning professional (you) and workplace learning experts (us and our colleagues) to discover not only our own skills gaps but to push the boundaries of what we don’t know and to challenge the conceptions we do know.

If you’re a Learning professional we call upon you to stop seeking the “quick fix” for your organization’s workplace learning issues. Rather, it is incumbent upon you to apply sustainable learning solutions that deliver tangible results.

If you’re a workplace learning expert (yes, this includes us) it’s your responsibility to continually challenge the status quo and advance the workplace learning profession rather than regurgitating the same topics year after year.

This is what learning is about. Seeking what is not known, validating if it applies, and determining how to apply the new knowledge to effect lasting results. We share one philosophy that we try to follow; “If you’re not living life on the edge then you’re taking up too much space.” So, take a step of the edge and into the unknown…this is where your learning begins.

Ajay M. Pangarkar CTDP, CPA, CMA and Teresa Kirkwood CTDP are founders of and They are renowned employee performance management experts and 3-time authors most recently publishing the leading performance book, “The Trainer’s Balanced Scorecard: A Complete Resource for Linking Learning to Organizational Strategy” (Wiley 2009), award-wining assessment specialist with Training Magazine, and award-winning writer winning the 2014 prestigious Readership and Editors’ Awards for the Top 10 most read articles. Help them start a, “Workplace Revolution” at or contact:

August 9, 2014

4 thoughts on “Slaying the “Elephant” in the Training Room

Add yours

  1. Ajay – Couldn’t agree more with your post. Along with a certain amount of hubris that comes with certain L&D professionals who make the conference circuit, there is also an amazing amount of boredom that I get from some of the speakers. They are bored with their own subject matter, and that boredom becomes as clear as the “elephant in the room”. I want to be at a session with the excitement about the content is palatable. Not just the speaker trying to subconsciously trying to sell another book or a service.

    There were several people I spoke with who were unhappy with the quality and content of some of the sessions of the most recent conference we all attended, my response was always the same. Did you tell someone? Did you complete the survey honestly? We need to do our part and just say no to speakers who clearly have no interest in their audience and are only looking for their own ROI. Want to think outside of the box, outside of the status quo. Keep a live feedback feed up in the EXPO room. Open up PollEverywhere and ask 2 questions, “What are we doing well?” and “How can we improve?” Keep it up and live for however long the conference is – that will tell us a thing or two (or three).

    On the flip side, I also agree with the thought that there are quite a few people looking for the magic wand of training. But here is where we do our audience no favors…we tell them that “they too can do “this” – “this” is easy, just do it. No talks about strategy needed. No talking about the hard, committed work the solution took. I would like to see more session closings where people walk away knowing the hard work that will be needed. For a group of people who spend years trying to manage cognitive load, we do a poor job of it during conference. For new people expectations are high, they come with a list of issues that require “fixing”. Let’s give them more constructed ideas. I get frustrated when a session is poorly designed and offers little in the way of a path to follow after the they get home with a bizillion notes.

    I didn’t speak at the last conference which afforded me some extra time, and I must say I learned a lot about what not to do during my next session. We should all be less jaded about the people giving us feedback and take some notes and then act on them. Thanks Ajay for a great post. </endrant/

    1. Shannon,
      You make very valid points. I completely agree with you about the speaker “boredom” factor. I sometime fall into that trap but then remind myself that 1) I have been given a privilege to speak in front of others and peers, and 2) like a ‘rock star’ who sings the same songs for years on end they still make it exciting for their audience, I must learn from them.

      Thank you Shanon

  2. Great ideas, Shannon! I particularly love the Poll Everywhere one, although I fear at DevLearn it would fill up every day with “Where’s breakfast?”

    I also went to too many sessions this year where the emphasis was on the “what,” and not on the “how.” Not all of them were bad, but comparatively fewer were as good as in past years.

    To Ajay’s point (and yours), I think part of this lack of innovation comes from a lack of a formal education in the field. We have too many “accidental Instructional Designers” around us who are complacent to pick up what they can along the way, and eschew the possibility of earning a degree in the field. (Admittedly, it is a lot of work.) When you don’t know the full scope of a profession – it’s roots, and the progress it’s made along the way – it’s not surprising that innovation is lacking, because you can’t innovate if you can’t perform, and you can’t perform if you haven’t been properly educated. That is, after all, why we exist within our own organizations – to drive innovation via education.

    I’d like to see more emphasis in our profession on earning degrees (or at least certificates) in ID or LDT. I’m not suggesting you have to earn a Ph.D., but a Master’s degree is leaps and bounds above a DIY approach. It’s a tough pill to swallow for some people to think they can’t figure things out on their own, but this just might be the path from competence to expertise for our practitioners.

    1. Hi Chad
      Thank you for your post. While I agree with much of what you and Shannon say I agree to a certain extent to the formal education requirement for two reasons:

      1) Yes, it would be nice to have less “accidental trainers” but for better or worse, this is how many fall into this field. I did over 20 years ago. But to your point I went out and did a grad diploma in adult ed (although I didn’t see the relevance and still don’t). But what was more relevant to me is my continuous professional development.

      While we would expect anyone in any field to be appropriately educated in the space there is much to say about experience and effort. I have colleagues that I believe can do circles around me with less educational background .

      2) As for the “learning eduction” or certification that is offered it does either seem biased towards academia and/or lack breadth in topics relevant to being a successful workplace learning professional. To this day many programs still snub their noses to the “business” aspect of workplace learning. What they forget is that WLP is responding to a workplace and, ultimately, a business need.

      Please share your thoughts on my comments.

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