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“Corporate Training Is Broken”

“Corporate Training Is Broken”

Jim Knight explains why the current approach to training and development isn’t working—and details exactly what companies need to do differently

“Corporate Training Is Broken”
Photo by Rich Johnson

Corporate training is broken. 

That’s right, I said it. It’s broken. And I should know—I’m a training and development (T&D) guy. I spent two decades early on in my career running that function with a single hospitality brand, and for several years after that, I managed a T&D consultant consortium. 

I am absolutely pro-corporate training, but in my quest to amp it up, I constantly play devil’s advocate and am super critical of the function, including dolling out tough love for those in charge of its administration. And the corporate world needs tough love right now—we are at an inflection point in the way we teach and develop new employees. 

There are a few different reasons for that. First is the simple fact that most companies have not updated their approach to T&D in years, or even decades. To this day, most companies still rely on print manuals, videos, instructor-led classes, and manager-in-training programs. Those things are not particularly compelling, and none of them help companies compete for talent.

Second is the slow pace of technology adoption. Despite the availability of apps, mobile tablets, and augmented reality, trainers are not moving fast enough to provide information the way employees (particularly members of the younger generations) like to receive it—digitally, at lightning speed, and on their own timetable. Of course, it’s impossible to completely keep up with the breakneck pace of technological innovation, but to ignore the accessibility and possibilities of the smartphone will forever keep T&D leaders in the dark ages. 

The third reason why we need to change our approach to T&D has to do with the employees themselves. Because of a confluence of societal issues—broken homes, a hyperfocus on technology, a faulty public education system—the newest generation of workers is coming to the table with very few “life skills” compared to older generations. 

Once, parents and teachers taught children how to use a broom, how to count change, how to deal with conflict, and how to tackle a task with keen attention to detail. But these age-old skills are seemingly rare characteristics for many new entry-level hires, and companies that want to become (or remain) employers of choice will have to revolutionize both the content and delivery of their training programs to adapt to this new audience.

When you truly study these three phemonena, as I did when writing my first book, Culture That Rocks, you start to see that a training revolution is required if we are to have any hope of reaching and engaging today’s workforce. A complete reset must occur in both staff- and manager-level training. 

For those willing to disrupt the field, here are a few personal observations and proven best practices from companies that are overhauling their approach to training and development:

Best Practices for Resetting at the Staff Level

1. Shift Onboarding to Focus on Culture  

Instead of focusing on the traditional tactical and technical steps to doing the job, spend more time on your organization’s purpose, mission, vision, and story. No brand does this better than Chick-fil-A, which delivers a two-day orientation filled with compelling cultural content for every new hire before starting their job skills training.

2. Create a Visual Playground

Convert all printed materials into graphic-heavy collateral. Think comic books, airline safety cards, IKEA furniture instructions, or even LEGO toy instructions. Since I implemented this strategy at Hard Rock Cafe thirty years ago, the brand has continued this concept, as do Valve Software and Zingerman’s Community of Businesses.

3. Utilize Tech

Take advantage of effective technology tools like group texting, audience response surveys, and customized apps. Choice Hotels has created a fantastic internal app that managers can use at the start of every shift to quiz associates on position standards, company trivia, and discussion prompts based on the brand’s core values.

4. Implement Blended Training

Although they were considered ineffective prior to the pandemic, QR codes—bite-sized visual graphics that connect users to videos, weblinks, and podcasts—can complement written text, save space, and increase retention.

Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill are masters at utilizing QR codes throughout their training manuals, allowing new hires go back-and-forth between their smartphones and the printed pages—”edutainment” at its best!

5. Deploy Gamification

Seek out ways to replace verbal instruction and written tests with fun, retention-oriented exercises. You could play Jeopardy with new hires, or break out trivia flashcards, video contests, or digital badge collecting. 

Think of the Pokemon Go! app—it’s not just for recreation. Other disruptors in the T&D space have been plotting how to use the same concept to teach and reward employees for knowledge acquisition and retention. 

6. Make the First Job, the Right Job

Validate and teach basic life skills, which will set the stage for the rest of employees’ lives . . . and solidify your brand as an employer of choice.

I consider Suzy’s Swirl the leader in this movement: the Chicago-based frozen dessert brand’s leadership has made a conscious decision to spend the time, energy, money, and patience on filling in these foundational gaps, preparing the workforce’s newest generation for greater things.

Best Practices for Resetting at the Management Level

1. Beef Up Development

Preparing internal leadership talent to be ready to take on more responsibilities should be every company’s top development priority. K&N Management’s “Career Path,” Which Wich’s “Developmental Ladder,” and Hard Rock’s “Leadership Pathway” are all great examples of internal programs that clearly outline the specific steps, programs, projects, and competencies required to attain each level of leadership.

2. Focus on Soft Skills

Ditch the three-ring binders, tactical checklists, and visual observations—they do nothing to help managers develop soft skills. 

Instead, incorporate experiential projects, work groups, and simulations around leadership competencies (e.g., accepting feedback, strategic thinking, communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, and conflict resolution) into your management-level training programs. Golden Corral, for example, offers their managers access to DiscoverLink e-learning courses on these very topics.

3. Create Situational Experiences 

Replicate real-life scenarios as much as possible. This is especially critical for skill-building development, high-risk situations, and compliance issues (e.g., dealing with client complaints, handling discrimination and harassment, and coaching and terminating employees). 

Perkins Restaurant & Bakery has built something called the “I Say, You Say” program, which allows managers to role-play various business scenarios. Programs like this help managers validate their knowledge and predict employees’ behavior.

4. Increase Face-to-Face Time

As important as technology and self-driven checklists are, managers need quality face time with, and true mentorship from, their leaders. This “old school” approach will certainly require more time, commitment, and patience . . . but the rewards will be immense. Chipotle has a strong one-on-one mentorship program aimed at developing their employees into “restaurateurs”—no doubt the key reason why 90 percent of their restaurant managers are promoted from within. 

So yes, we are at an inflection point. As you can see from the examples I shared, some companies have already started disrupting the status quo. But if we’re going to secure the benefits of an engaged workforce, we’re going to have to actually engage the workforce. And that requires something different. 

We need change. We need disruption. We need a revolution. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Profile or Guerrero Media.


Renowned keynote speaker, podcaster, author, and training and development executive Jim Knight teaches organizations of all sizes how to attain their own “rock star” status. Jim cut his teeth in the hospitality training industry and eventually led global training for Hard Rock International for two decades. During his time with Hard Rock, Jim’s team won several coveted awards for their cutting-edge training concepts. Jim himself has been featured in Forbes MagazineInc. MagazineEntrepreneur Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Business News Daily, and Fox Business News.

Today, as the owner and CEO of Knight Speaker, Jim delivers programs on leadership, organizational culture, customer service, and the employee experience. He is also the host of a weekly leadership podcast called Thoughts That Rock as well as the best-selling author of Culture That Rocks: How to Revolutionize Your Company’s Culture and Leadership That Rocks: Take Your Brand’s Culture to Eleven and Amp Up Results. A portion of Jim’s book sales, podcast revenue, speaking fees, and training program proceeds goes to No Kid Hungry and Cannonball Kids’ Cancer.    

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