Greg Owen-Boger - Jul 7, 2015

Training Activities: A Waste of Time or Necessary Part of Learning?

I recently attended (and spoke at) the Association for Talent Development (ATD) International Conference in Orlando. I overheard this conversation, one trainer to another:

“I need better training activities. Every time Leadership sees me coming down the hall, they hide. I hear them say things like, ‘There comes Laura; [not her real name] she’s going to waste our time again with one of those stupid games.’”

The two individuals were deep into their conversation, and I didn’t want to interrupt, but I couldn’t help thinking about how backwards Laura’s thinking was. She doesn’t need more activities in her trainer toolbox, she needs to stop wasting her learners’ time.

If I Were Coaching Laura
If I were coaching Laura, I’d start by throwing out all of her training activities, then together we’d find relevant ways to design learning transfer. Finally, we’d work on her facilitation skills so that she doesn’t feel the need to fall back on those rusty tools in her toolbox.

Is There Another Approach?
A dear friend and colleague at the ATD Chicagoland Chapter, Matt Elwell, and I often spar over learning activities. Matt and I have a lot in common. We both have a theatre background, we’re both passionate about adult learning, and we both have a preoccupation with the need for better communication, but we’ve taken slightly different paths on this one issue.

I asked Matt to sum up his position on Learning Activities. His response was, “Blaming learning activities for bad delivery is like blaming the electric guitar for Nickelback. Learning activities are powerful tools, but they need to be chosen and modified with the learning outcome and needs of the participants in mind. Like any other element of talent development, it requires honest discovery, insightful design, and expert delivery.”

So where I’m skeptical of activities in general, Matt’s skeptical of the way trainers handle training activities. However, we both agree that activities:

  • Ought not waste peoples’ time.
  • Should show a return on investment (ROI).

The Unintended Damage of Poorly Executed Learning Activities
Poorly received activities don’t just fail to meet the needs of the business, they can actually cause harm in the form of wasted time (money) and squandered goodwill both for the trainer and for training itself.

So Now What?
Matt actually spoke at an ATD Chicagoland Chapter (ATDChi) event last February about this very thing, and I’ve been encouraging him to speak more about it. He makes a great case (and he has a calculator!) for ensuring each segment of training is worth the time, money, and effort and that training has a positive effect on the business.

What do you think? How do YOU feel about training activities? I’d love to hear from both learners and trainers, both pro and con.

Written by Greg Owen-Boger

Greg Owen-Boger has been with Turpin Communication since 1995, first as a cameraman, then instructor, account manager, and now vice president. Schooled in management and the performing arts, Greg brings a diverse set of skills and experiences to the organization. Greg is one of Turpin’s facilitators and coaches. When he’s not with clients, he manages the day-to-day operations of the company. Greg is an active member of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and was the 2015 President of ATD, Chicagoland Chapter. He is a popular speaker, frequent blogger, and the co-author of the book The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined. His latest book, also co-authored by Dale Ludwig, launched in 2017 and is entitled Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide for Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning.