The cons of top-down training

A training program’s effectiveness is determined by an organization’s chosen methodology for training new and existing employees. The most common and traditional approach to training management is also, on the surface, the most logical: In the traditional “Top-Down” approach, HR representatives, executives and other senior parties within an organization define the content, structure and objectives of training programs while managers and supervisors ensure new and existing employees complete requisite courses and fulfill training requirements.

This approach is, for many reasons, the most immediately appealing to senior management and human resources. Quite sensibly, it allows executive teams to structure the training regimens that, in principle, will endow employees with the skills and knowledge they need to perform their jobs to the best of their ability. In actuality, while this approach enables an organization to confidently meet regulatory, corporate, or standards-driven (e.g. ISO 9001) training requirements, it does not necessarily improve performance and cultivate employee competence.

While an appreciable measure of simplicity is inherent in the top-down approach, it is accompanied by a number of potential and business-critical weaknesses:

  • Lack of Cross-Team Communication: Just as quality management pioneer W. Edward Deming argued that thorough quality management is cultivated when all contributors have a sense of how their actions play into the bigger picture, organizations are best equipped to achieve high-level business goals when all individuals and teams have an understanding of how individual and team efforts contribute to the organization’s success. Isolated perspectives don’t give employees a sense of meaning in their jobs, and fail to motivate individuals to incorporate a sense of their organization’s mission into their day-to-day responsibilities. Cultivating a sense of purpose begins with training, and when training programs are dictated from the top, limited to narrowly defined tasks, and insensitive to how teams work together and how an operation functions as a whole, cross-team communication is inhibited and employees aren’t as motivated to work together to achieve organizational goals.
  • Protracted Management of Change: Any growing or established organization will have to handle change as departments expand or are restructured, as employees and senior staff come and go, and as improvements to existing structures are identified and implemented. Top-down training approaches ill-equip businesses to handle changes, especially in large organizations where a series of hierarchical tiers must be surmounted before essential training modifications are implemented.
  • Stagnation of Creativity: Employees directly exposed to the processes they execute day after day are the most likely to devise more creative ways to improve and streamline the systems they interact with, since they interact with those systems more closely than others in the organization. And in most cases, lessons learned and identified process improvements can be mapped directly back to training and leveraged to better prepare incoming personnel to do their jobs more effectively. Yet with top-down training approaches, new, useful ideas face an array of organizational hurdles that must be overcome before they can be institutionalized and rolled into new training. Not only does this inhibit the pace – or even existence – of continuous improvement in training management, it stifles the cultivation of creativity as employees are dissuaded from proposing new ideas because they expect they will be met with ‘business-as-usual’ resistance.

In addition to the above-mentioned disadvantages, a top-down training methodology also tends to stagnate the pool of talent an organization can draw on to improve training. And critically, top-down approaches often lack built-in mechanisms to ensure employees are both trained and competent in their job functions. In essence, it is the difference between employees being taught how to push a button and actually applying valuable lessons in their day-to-day responsibilities in order to fulfill an organizational goal.

With the right metrics, evaluation tools and feedback mechanisms, either approach can be used to positive effect. But in the 21st century’s economic climate of increasing innovation, creativity and competition, the top-down approach is beginning to show its age.

For more on how to adopt an effective training methodology, check out Cultivating Competence: Leveraging Training Tools for Measurable Results, an Intelex white paper.

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