Staff Training – Reduce The Theory, Improve The On Job Result


“The best theory is practical”. A Professor of Management told me that way back in 1975. He was really stating the obvious. We spend our lives operating machines successfully without the faintest idea of what “makes the machine tick”. When we train new staff, we insist on teaching theory so that they’ll “understand”. Is that necessary?

Upsetting Training Managers

This illustrates the point. I was speaking about staff training to some 50 Training Managers at a national Human Resource Conference. Some of the training professionals present were becoming upset at me. They believed that I was dismissing theory as unnecessary. I wasn’t. But their strong commitment to theory as a prerequisite for practice created that perception.

The Motor Car Reality

So I asked a question. “Please raise your hand if you currently drive a motor car?” All but two people raised their hands. “Now keep your hand up if you know how a reciprocating engine works.” Four people kept their hands up. Two of them laughed out loud. I asked them to tell the group why they were laughing. One said, “It’s simple. The car you’re driving is powered by a reciprocating engine.”

More examples

  • When you press a button to operate an elevator, you don’t need any knowledge of hydraulics and electrics.
  • To create all sorts of clever data on your PC, you don’t need to know  what’s going on “inside”.
  • You put something on U-Tube. How does it work?
  • And if you still doubt me, think of all the appliances you operate around your home that you’re perfectly competent to handle without the faintest idea of the theory that underpins their operation.

Does your ignorance of the theory involved prevent a successful result?

Theory Is Important

I’m not questioning the vital importance of sound theory in staff training. I am saying this: it’s not necessary to “know how” in order to “do how” for most jobs at work. We want our scientists, doctors and airline pilots, for instance, to understand what they’re doing and why. But that’s not always the case with workplace training.

What Works At Work

You need skilled employees. You don’t need boffins. You need employees who know what to do and how to do it … perfectly. The knowledge they require is determined by the skill level they need to demonstrate.

A Simple Technique

If you’re looking for the ideal combination of theory and practice try this:

  1. Determine precisely what the employee needs to be able to do – the on job skills – at the end of the training.
  2. Write down how you’ll measure their competence both before and at the end of the training
  3. Determine what knowledge the employee will need to be able to practice the required skills successfully.
  4. Write down how you’ll measure the knowledge.
  5. Prepare a training plan to cover items 1-4 inclusive.
  6. Test the plan to see if it works.
  7. Make any necessary improvements to enable your employees to develop the necessary skills.

Performance First

All training must start with a statement of what the employee will be able to do at the end of the training: what skills they’ll demonstrate without error. By specifying the performance first, the theory that’s required will become obvious.

The First Danger Sign

If you find yourself saying “but they need to know why“, that’s a danger signal that you’re putting theory before performance. You must be able to justify the “why” as absolutely essential to demonstrating on job competence. If you can’t, drop the “why”.

A Practical Thought

If you’re still a little uncomfortable with this approach, think of children. They develop all sorts of skills from all sorts of sources and mentors. And they do so with little theoretical support. It doesn’t bother them one little bit.

The Harsh Reality

Keep your staff training simple, relevant and skill driven. On job competence is the major priority. The moment you over emphasize theory your employees will follow your lead. They’ll treat theory as most important because that’s what you emphasize. If this happens, you’ll be the greatest loser.


Is your staff training working as well as you want? Is it producing staff who are really competent on the job? Is competence on the job, the primary focus? If not, perhaps you should review the balance between theory and practice.

6 Responses to Staff Training – Reduce The Theory, Improve The On Job Result
  1. Marcus Sheridan, The Sales LIon
    December 30, 2010 | 4:26 am

    This made me laugh Leon, but how true it is my friend. Well said….another phrase that came to mind upon reading this was “Paralysis by Analysis”.

    Keep up the great work mate. :-)

  2. Rajamani Krishnan
    December 30, 2010 | 4:41 pm

    I read your article with interest. It is always possible to give examples to suit your point. While I definitely agree that it is not necessary to know theory in details, i disagree with you in avoiding WHY. Why is necessary to understand what one is doing.For example a person operating a pump must know what factors affect the operation and why. he does not need to know the selection of Material. What I want to say is WHY is required but one must why he wants to know why.

  3. Leon
    January 4, 2011 | 10:22 am

    G’Day Marcus,
    “Paralysis by Analysis” indeed. I sometimes think that “just do it’ has a lot going for it. Good to hear from you.


  4. Leon
    January 4, 2011 | 10:32 am

    G’Day Rajamani,
    Thanks for your comment. It’s sometimes a fine line between necessary theory and practice. My major point is that the degree of “theory” we include in our training should be determined by a very clear and measurable definition of the skill results we’re trying to achieve. As individuals we operate all sorts of appliances and machinery in our day to day lives without the faintest idea of what makes them work.

    Perhaps we should reflect on that in our training design.



  5. ChrisD
    March 19, 2011 | 12:50 am

    Very true. When I was a first year undergrad studying biology, our microscopy course had us learn about every single knob on the microscope, including all those ones that you only need to adjust if someone else has twiddled them wrong without knowing what they were doing. I went on (years later) to do quite a bit of microscopy at PhD and postdoc level and I never had to remember what those original knobs did. Or if I did, I relearnt it when I needed to use it. Beginner microscopists should learn how to see cool stuff, not pointless theory.

  6. Leon
    March 19, 2011 | 4:51 am

    G’Day Chris,
    Thanks for your comment. Personally, I’ve always found that I became interested in theory after i’d developed competence. Glad to know that microscopy has its “reciprocating engine” too.
    Always feel free to comment


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