We Don’t Need No Stinking Badges

With hundreds of thousands of employee training options to choose from, companies are struggling to figure out how to tell the worthwhile programs from those that are a waste of money. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Home Depot’s Lesley Leiserson, who manages their company-paid training programs, asked “Are there good courses outside the standard academic institutions?” Yes there are, but finding them is a real problem because half of all the non-university choices are opportunists peddling training programs that produce dandy badges, swell certificates, and handsome plaques, but little if any meaningful learning. Credential Engine, a nonprofit registry, says there are more than 700,000 training programs and very few standards.

LinkedIn, Udemy, and Coursera sell training-on-demand courses that cover thousands of topics. They are generally well-regarded as providers, but their programs are typically standardized so they can be used over and over again. Everything is prefabricated so presenters can mindlessly punch out one program after another like assembly line donut holes. Who among us hasn’t wasted hours sitting through HR-mandated training programs that were dull and of questionable value?

Contrast cookie-cutter lecturing with interactive coaching that custom-tailors everything to fit your situation. You benefit immediately when your coach translates every principle and process into your day-to-day language and connects everything to your real-world situation.

Research and insights is one area that has become a real problem for most businesses and organizations. Most of the billions of dollars spent on research last year were wasted because the gatekeepers tasked with evaluating, choosing, and hiring vendors didn’t have the training they need. Like Humphrey Bogart in the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, they can’t tell the difference between fool’s gold and real gold. Handicapped like this, companies unwittingly throw their money away on junk science because their designated emptors didn’t caveat. 

To find real-life examples of junk science we need to look no farther than the surveys all of us have taken that:

  • bored us so badly we answered mindlessly just to get it over with,
  • forced us to rate and rank things we don’t care about,
  • yelled at us go back and answer questions we left blank, and
  • annoyed us so badly we quit.

Focus group research is just as crappy. Listen to what this panel has to say:

  • Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, authors of The Experience Economy, call focus groups “the great lie.” They say focus groups should be dumped and real customers observed in real settings instead. 
  • Advertising genius David Ogilvy liked to say that “People don’t think what they feel, don’t say what they think, and don’t do what they say.”
  • Daniel Gross, author of Lies, Damn Lies, and Focus Groups, says “the widely documented mismatch between what people say and what they do costs companies millions.”
  • Analyst Kay Polit says focus groups are “a faulty process.” Mary Quinlan says they are “a dangerous way to get market intelligence.” Dev Patnaik calls focus groups “a customer terrarium,” with people taken out of their natural surroundings and put behind glass.
  • In his book How Customers Think, Gerald Zaltman says 80% of new products fail within six months of being vetted in focus groups.

How can we make our research better? 

Don’t get stuck in the one-off study rut – always be adding to your organization’s fact base.  The more you understand about peoples’ motivations, values, beliefs, wants, needs, expectations, and experiences, the more successful you will be. Maximize your return on research investment by understanding not just your customers, but your market and competitors, too. Analyses of how customers define the market and the competition allow you to see how you stack up – what areas people think are your strengths and weaknesses and what your competitors are doing right and wrong. Insist that all your research adheres to higher standards than you are using now. 

It seems like so much. How do I find someone to teach me all these things?

Ask who will be doing the actual teaching and examine their credentials. If you want someone to teach your gatekeepers how to tell good research from bad, look for people with advanced degrees in the behavioral sciences. Avoid poised, well-dressed, and smiling salespeople who rely on you not knowing enough to ask for the good stuff. 

If you were to ask me what I know about research, I’d tell you how I designed and led research projects around the corner and around the world for companies just starting and companies that have been around longer than I have. Look on my Amazon Author page and see, “In his 40 years as a behavioral scientist, David has conducted investigations into Bananas and Baseball, Laptops and Light Rail, Nurses and Nightclubs, Rodeos and Recycling, Tourism and Tractors, and hundreds more. His studies take from one week to one year to complete and cost from a few thousand to a few million dollars. In every one of them he found there is more to most things than meet the eye.”

Look me up on LinkedIn and you’ll find I’ve been a researcher since 1981, all of those years hands-on and most of them as the one who wore all the hats – designing the research, leading the teams, doing the fieldwork, writing the reports, and making the presentations. Insist on someone with experience as both client and vendor because they’e the only ones who know how to put everything together so it works. Those who work only as research providers don’t have in-depth knowledge of the needs of client organizations; those with client-only experience don’t know what it takes to actually get the research done on-target, on-time, and on-budget.

Ask me what I know about teaching and curriculum design and I’ll tell you how in addition to my career as a research professional, I built and taught my own courses at Indiana University, the University of Miami, and the University of the West Indies, specializing in teaching MBAs how to tell good research from bad.

Ask me what I enjoy doing and I’ll tell you it’s teaching gatekeepers exactly what they need to know to:

  • Scope research and allocate resources.
  • Select and manage  vendors.
  • Ensure process rigor and output quality.

You can read more at davidallanvan.com or call me at 800-652-7595.