Dr Phil Rutherford
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After over 30 years in the business I like to think I've learned some stuff. Here's some of what I've learned . . .

That vocational training is only relevant to so-called blue collar workers is actually one of the biggest myths spread around by goodness knows who for goodness knows what reason. It first emerged in the mid 1990s when the Australian National Training Authority decided that the only way for academics and technical trainers to understand the National Training Framework was to give each level of competence its own qualification name. I argued long and hard against this because the UK were getting by very nicely calling them NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) but, no, some people (and you know who you are) just had to align themselves with TAFE and that was it. And because Certificate qualifications covered a more technical approach to certain functions it gradually became accepted that they must be only for so-called blue collar workers.

This is nonsense for two reasons:
a.  While competency standards are not written for training purposes, learning outcomes and objectives can be derived from such standards. (See also below.) Whenever competency standards are written they are developed around levels of work that are conducted within any organisation. This means that when it comes to operating, say, a computer the level of competence here is relatively low (in comparison to running a computer sales company). But the CEO of an organisation has to operate a computer equally as competently as the front desk receptionist, so are we saying the CEO is a blue collar worker if he/she has to gain training at certificate level? Of course not.

b.  Vocational training is for anybody working within a vocation or profession. A member of the clergy is following a vocation, so is a used car salesperson, a senior manager, a grave digger, and an airline pilot. The term vocational training is used to differentiate between a workplace perspective on education and training and an academic perspective.

Vocational training is for anybody and everybody in the workplace. And while the qualification they gain by undertaking it might be a certificate or an advanced diploma - or even if it is a business degree - this does not mean that there is only a certain perceived class of worker who can get one.

True! They're not. Competency standards are written as descriptions of the skills and knowledge required for the competent performance of certain functions within the workplace. The general acceptance (as wrong as this is) that they are written for training purposes has come about because in most countries trainers and academics have hijacked the whole competency development processes.

Back in the 1980s, when the world started to consider the training that workplace trainers required it was felt - quite rightly - that their job was to enhance individual and team abilities to achieve work related goals and objectives. In designing a training course these became training or learning objectives and the main problem was that they didn't always line up against what was required in the workplace. In fact it was quite often the case that regardless of how well someone was trained they were still not sufficiently competent at their job. Why? Because a training or learning objective is only one of many objectives that must be achieved if someone is to be competent. There are other, higher order objectives that must also be achieved, including workplace, environmental, client, business and strategic objectives. One of the main problems that trainers had then - and many still have today - is how to translate these objectives into outcomes that learners could achieve during their training.

The thing is that they can't. While not everyone accepts this, there are many skills and knowledge needed for the achievement of these higher order objectives that people just can not be trained in. These are the ones that can only be gained through experience or, as later Knowledge Management experts now understand, through interacting with other staff and thereby generating new skills and knowledge. And the only way these skills can be learned is by going out and doing them.

This is where the notion of learning how to learn comes in. Learning, on the job, how to learn what is needed, on the job, to enhance one's skills and knowledge on the job.

All of these together - the trainable and untrainable skills and knowledge - define what is meant by competence in the workplace, but unfortunately because the latter cannot be part of a formal training program (actually they can but not using traditional definitions - more on that later), and because the trainers took it on themselves to adopt the competency development processes, they were not included. In fact they still aren't included which is why so many countries are now suffering from what they call a skills shortage. There is no skills shortage - only competence (at all levels) shortage, but more on that later too.

A trainer - whether he/she is internal or from an external agency - has an important role in identifying and providing the skills and knowledge that individuals and teams require in order to be better able to achieve all of the objectives their organisations pursue. So, even though trainers are the de facto developers of competency standards they should be developing them for purposes that are far wider than just training - principally because competence describes what is needed in the workplace (for recruitment, succession planning, performance management, etc. issues), and there is only a limited part of competence that can be trained for.

Have you ever wondered why you could never work out a decent return on investment (ROI) on the money invested by others in your training programs? Have you ever wondered why, when times get tough, the first thing to be cut is the training budget? Have you ever wondered how you can 'recession-proof' your job? I'm sorry to say this but you will never will be able to do any of these if all you're doing is measuring your worth by the training courses that you run.

You see, the contribution that trainers make to an organisation's bottom line doesn't come only from the training that they run. In fact in some cases it doesn't come from the training at all. You can run training courses until the sky falls in but if people aren't capable of applying what they've learned, for whatever reason, then you may as well have been discussing macrame. And when this happens management has every right to question why the training function should be funded at all.

Consider this: Does your organisation measure its own worth by what individuals do or by what the organisation does? Sure, anything the organisation does is the sum total of what its people do, but this isn't how the world works. Think of any iconic organisation - McDonalds for example. What do you see when you think of the big Mac? The Golden Arches, Ronald McDonald, plastic swing sets, inexpensive food? Some may even see calories and over-worked, under-paid teenagers. But nobody sees Fred O'Bloggs or Freda Blingle sweating away over a hot stove or sweeping out the toilets. They don't see a young manager working 12-14 hours trying to make up for staff shortfalls or trying to keep the queues moving. We see organisation, we don't see individuals. So while you're training individuals the worth of the organisation is being measured by what it, as a whole, is and does. And this is where all ROIs - your's, the car park attendants, the front office receptionist's, the general manager's - are measured.

So, if you really want to find out the indicators against which your contribution to the organisation is going to be measured you have to consider how higher level objectives - workplace, organisational, business, strategic and community - are going to be measured because when it comes to the organisation's bottom line these are the ones that count. And if you can align your training (mentoring, coaching, guiding) activities towards them then you're on a winner. But if you maintain that what you're there to achieve is learning or training outcomes then, believe me, you will not be seen as a vital element of the productive side of the organisation.

Copyright P D Rutherford 2009. All rights reserved.