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Did you say training?
An outsider’s perspective on the training paradigm in Romania

Before reading the comments in this article, it is important to keep in mind a few things.  First, the thoughts I am sharing here are far from conclusions about the state of training, consulting and coaching in Romania.  They are temporary thoughts and perceptions that I wish to share so as to initiate a dialogue and elicit some responses as to what we could be doing better or differently in future professional coaching and training programs in this country.

Second, my observations are obviously partial perceptions.  They are made by a person who is occasionally practicing on the local market, and who has only too few elements of comparison with other European environments, mostly in France and some neighboring countries.  I have a semi-external point of view, which can be considered both wrong and off target, and maybe interesting because complementary to different local perceptions.
Consequently, I am sharing thoughts here principally to start a conversation on future avenues for training, consulting and coaching in Romania and maybe elsewhere.  If some comments may be seen as openly critical of the current situation or of past strategies, their only purpose is to provoke room for renewal when necessary, and for re-affirmation when useful.

The Romanian historical imperative

The current training market in Romania opened with the recent revolution.  Prior to 1989, training was provided in state schools and assimilated with initial and higher education.  All training was state controlled.  After the revolution, a private training and consulting market independent from the formal educational system emerged and then boomed.   Most of these new providers massively imported Anglo Saxon products barely translating them and rarely adapting them for local consumption.

One could conclude that this training and consulting market was totally new and different.  Importing foreign programs for local use ensured that their frame of reference was westernized and "post revolution".  The content of most of the standardized training programs offered in Romania was identical to the ones proposed by the same organizations in most of Western Europe if not to the rest of the world.  So for years and with the Western stamp of approval, these training programs were successfully sold to local companies eager to acquire modern competencies.  This has worked up to today.

In the present situation, however, some analysis is useful to better understand the frame of reference within which these programs may have been delivered.  There are some indications that the local training paradigm still rests on a pre-revolution historical context.  The question to be considered and explored below is “what deeper lingering influence may the centralized state economy years still be having on today's consulting, coaching and training market?”

  • Example: In the state controlled economy prior to the revolution, there existed no competition between different education providers.  Each state-approved school had a national or more local exclusivity or monopoly to provide a given service or product either to the whole country or for a defined province or city. 

This monopoly allowed each state-controlled sole provider to be securely installed on its defined market.  These providers did not have to compete with other suppliers providing equivalent products or services. In today’s free economy, one naturally assumes that this state of affairs has completely disappeared.

It is however, extremely interesting to note that a very large number of training and consulting providers have based their strategy on acquiring nation-wide exclusive distribution rights for specific foreign products and services.  Furthermore, having exclusive rights to distribute these products is a central argument in their sales strategy.  

Today, each training company seems to claim that being an exclusive distributor for their specific western concept or package makes them very special.  This may indicate that the monopoly equation is still very present in today’s local training environment.  The notion of exclusivity conveys both the idea of scarcity and when accompanied with a high price, a stamp of elitist quality.  It consequently seems that the Romanian training market today still associates distributor exclusivity with quality. 

  • Paradoxically, acquiring exclusive rights to distribute a training product nationwide should reveal that one is attempting to control the market’s access to that product in order to achieve a monopoly position.   Instead, on the market today, it only means one is pretending to provide premium excellence, reserved for the elite.

Is training a product or a service?

Note that if monopoly strategies can be easily achieved when distributing standardized products, they are much more difficult to implement when providing personalized services.  In the Romanian training environment, acquired exclusive rights can only concern the distribution of standardized, packaged off-the-shelf programs.  These also just require specialized trainers who simply need to be programmed to deliver their standard packages, using pre-structured tools in the expected order.  Predictability is what creates their perceived value, so any local adaptation is to be avoided at all costs.   Delivering these programs consequently does not require creativity or adaptability. Preserving the specific structure and appearance of these packaged products is more important than letting each trainer customize them, improve them with experience or to meet the specific needs of a particular organization.  In short, this type of training is designed to cater to the supposed needs of the masses.

Indeed “exclusive” training programs are sold much in the same way as any other product designed for mass consumption.  Intensive and lavish marketing campaigns develop the visibility of a brand and product.  Teasing campaigns, expensive conferences in the biggest hotels, impressive parties and other lavish events keep the company and their star trainers in the limelight with enormous banners, flags, lights shows and music.  Once a program is sold and for each participant’s pleasure, great care is given to make beautifully decorative training materials, folders, books, slides, pens, etc.  and yes, don’t forget the diploma.  Indeed, upon return to their workplace, each participant must have all the props to continue marketing the product.

It would be a good area for research on the Romanian training market to study the real quality of exclusive products and their real adaptability to answer to each local organization's specific needs.  Indeed, after having massively consumed off-the-shelf programs, some questions seem to be painfully lingering on the market:

  • What are the measurable results these programs have helped achieve in the last fifteen years?
  • Where are the competent salespeople that have been trained? 
  • Who can boast being an excellent time manager? 
  • Where are the leaders who have trained to ensure higher employee satisfaction, better company results? 

Indeed, measurable effects of the millions spent sending people to attend off-the shelf programs are often hard to find.

Distributing packaged training products is the equivalent of distributing other standardized products such as cars and furniture.   In time, local distributors are trained to sell and apply foreign canned solutions to their clients.  They are not trained to elicit and answer local client needs to solve local client issues.   As a consequence for most local training companies, selling standard packaged solutions gradually takes the lead on understanding the specific needs of each local client, or on co-designing original solutions that will help everyone grow.
Being a local distributor for an international solution rests on a specific frame of reference that is not necessarily explicated.  Most exclusive training solutions are packages that are sold to be distributed in their original format, respecting a precisely defined delivery procedure and a very specific content. The underlying argument is that if any given product is perceived to be good for another western country, it is good for all companies in Romania, if not all over the world.  But what are the measurable results, achieved in which other countries? If there are results elsewhere, do we really have the same needs locally in Romania?

The Anglo Saxon influence

Note that most of the programs sold in Romania are generally of Anglo Saxon if not American origin.   If without modification, translated British or American training packages are well suited to the Romania workforce, one could conclude that American organizational issues are the same as those of Romanian companies.  One can assume that management and leadership needs in the US are equivalent to Romanian management and leadership needs. 

  • But isn’t it common perception that Romania is essentially a Latin if not a Levantine culture?
  • Are we not just buying what we think is fashionable in order to appear up to date and satisfy egos?

What is the latest fad, by the way?  Which company is going to be the first to massively roll it out for the benefit of all their personnel?  Unfortunately, the crisis came by and the money spent on training has been drastically cut.   This may indicate a growing awareness that when there are no measurable results, training is perceived as an expense, not as an investment.

Deliver diplomas or certificates of attendence?

Another thought about the pre-revolution influence on today's training environment concerns the effects of state-delivered or state-validated diplomas on an individual's career.  In a centralized and totalitarian economic environment, there existed a merit system by which a deserving and servile person could get both a general and a specialized education and corresponding diploma that would ensure a secure career path.  All this was well planned and carried out by the authorities. 

Prior to the revolution, for example, professional diplomas issued by the state often ensured that individuals would likewise be provided corresponding jobs also arranged by the state.  In some cases, the frame of reference linked to this equation could linger today and create confusion in private training environments and public educational systems.

  • Example: Numerous individuals harbor the idea that if a company provides someone with leadership training, and if they receive a corresponding leadership diploma, then he or she can rightfully expect to be given a leadership job.

This expectation rests on a number of confusions.   First, no matter the field, training workshops and seminars offered by training companies are not the equivalent of MBAs or other university degrees.

  • Offering beautifully designed diplomas for framing and hanging on walls at the end of short skills training and longer learning expeditions can only add to the confusion of genres.  Habitually, one who attends any kind of short-term and focused training program should just receive a standard administrative certificate of attendance.  These job-oriented skills trainings do not guarantee anything.  They are almost never concluded with a comprehensive test of acquired competencies.
  • Even when one does get a diploma from a higher education institution or university today, that recognition is totally independent of the job market.  One is not automatically provided with a job by central authorities, following attendance in a university, and even less after a training workshop or a seminar.
  • Training provided by consulting companies is not the equivalent of university degrees.  Training is designed to deliver very practical professional tools and skills in relatively limited areas.  Normally, professional training aims to develop competencies or know-how in fields that have been clearly measured as useful for the paying client organization.
  • Fancy diplomas delivered by training organizations are actually no more marketing posters that spread their image in managers’ offices, all over the country.   When other people see them, they are impressed, and want one too.  The race is on: how many training diplomas can each hang on their office wall?

Where is the added value?

One key difference between training and more general higher education may reside in when the added value is measured.  It is common knowledge that to get into the best universities in the world, the most difficult hurdle is to pass the very high level of individual selection and testing prior to entering the school.  One must be good to access the school.  In fact, if one manages to get in any one of these elite institutions, one will most probably get out with a corresponding diploma.  Consequently, the added value needs to be acquired before applying to the select university, in order to get in.  The added value is rarely measured after one gets in.  In some cases, it is even common knowledge that once one has managed to get into such an elitist school, the rest is a relatively easy ride.

In other institutions, the main attendance criterion is just to be able to pay the tuition.  These schools do not pre-select students who display real value prior to entering. If the teaching and curriculum of these schools is just average or poor, the results after attending are rather dismal.  In these cases, the delivered diploma is just worth the paper on which it is printed.  Many of these schools are often just a business, out to get student tuition.

Most corporate training offered to organizational employees rests on a completely opposite frame of reference.  Getting into the training program often requires no more prerequisite than to belong to the organization, to apply for the training, and to make oneself available to attend.  There is practically no prior measured added value.  Training is offered to almost everyone indifferently, and at no personal cost.  There, is no need to need to pass selective tests. 

Hopefully, people who go to organizational trainings earnestly want to improve their skills during and after their training, on the job.   The only possible added value in organizational training is the one each participant will ensure, when implementing their acquired skills to make a difference on their job, after the training sessions are over.

  • Unfortunately, one needs to have the correct frame of reference to understand that recognition for training is not automatically given by the institution that has arranged for a given participant's attendance. Added value from training must be displayed by each participant, after the programs have been completed.  Participants have to earn their promotion with on-the-job achievements.  In a lot of cases in Romania, these results can be long wanting.

This may put in a different perspective the usual leitmotiv or discussion concerning training results.  Immediately at the end of most practical training session, there cannot possibly be any measurable results.  These results will be measurable when and if each participant implements some of what he or she has learned, in their day-to-day work environment.  Consequently, if there are any results from training, these can only be measured at least a few weeks after the training program, and should be measured by each participant’s manager.

from consuling training programs to coaching and consulting

In Romania today, the general way to sell training today is to contact an HR and push-sell solutions or products that the training organization has generally bought, sometimes developed.  A corresponding HR initiative is to call different training organizations and ask them if they have a solution for a problem, such as time management, motivating employees, team building, leadership, etc.  No matter who initiates the sales relationship, the process is invariably product-oriented.  The product or solution will be evaluated and compared to other similar competitive solutions, testimonials from other companies that have bought it will be requested, and budgets will be evaluated to make a final choice.  The HR will be happy to have found a solution, and the training company will be happy to have made another sell.  Unfortunately, the real organizational issue may never be uncovered.

  • Example: When an organization wants to buy a training solution for better time management, what is the real issue?  Time management of course is the issue, will answer that organization’s HR.  All the managers are complaining about their time management problems. 

Generally, however, some thought needs to be given as to the real underlying problem and organizational need before applying a solution.  The HR needs to be questioned as to how she or others have come to the conclusion that time management training sessions are the answer to a company’s internal time management situation.  Often, packaged solutions will bring no change and training will have no results if it is not applied to solving the real underlying problem. 

To be sure in our example, time management issues in an organization are very often indirect symptoms of poor delegation or of other collective time-consuming processes such as too numerous very poorly run meetings.  Time management symptoms often rest on deeper characteristics and ingrained habits of highly controlling and excessively analytical organizations.  To simply propose a standard off-the-shelf time management course to attempt to solve such deeper organizational problems will often be a pure waste of money, and time. 

But of course, if nobody wants to, or knows how to reveal and then solve deeper organizational issues, looking busy with an ineffective training programs can display an appearance of competency.

This example illustrates that providing a solution to satisfy a stated organization’s need may prove totally counter-productive and uselessly expensive.  Offering a real service in the above situation would be to help the client make the distinction between an obvious symptom and the underlying context at the origin of the indicator.   Consider the following example:

  • If all the inhabitants of a particular village are abandoning their homes, this is not to be treated as a problem but as an indicator or a symptom.  Trying to keep them in their village by paying them to stay is a costly avoidance strategy that does not solve the real issue: the reasons why they want to leave. 
  • Likewise, a professional organization displaying a high turnover due to employee dissatisfaction is also an indicator or a symptom of something else.  Simply raising their pay to higher levels than benchmark companies to keep them from leaving does not solve the real underlying contextual issue. 

In effect the whole client organization/training purveyor relationship needs to change from being product oriented to becoming service focused.  Training organizations need to be much more involved with helping their clients clearly define their issue before gearing up to deliver a product.   In Romania, training organizations need to become challenging business partners to their client organizations rather than simple distributors of standard solutions. 

Romanian H.R.s also need to change and want to relate with partners and engage in deeper conversations to uncover their real organizational problems or needs, beyond surface symptoms and indicators.   Today, numerous HRs are not looking for this kind of dialogue so the change to work towards collaborative problem solving may be difficult.  To give a sorry example, several well-known HRs of important Romanian companies publicly boast that they never accept to see training purveyors unless they have called to ask for a meeting a minimum of five times.  What a great way to acquire a feeling of importance!  In cases like these, new perspectives for smart, constructive collaborative work between HRs and trainers may take some time to become reality, while organizations lose precious time.

In other situations, constructive meetings with HRs to:

  • First extensively challenge and help them remodel their perspectives,
  • Then explore their perception of their organization’s needs to
  • Finally engage in a creative conversation that explores possible solutions
seems to provoke curiosity

They are not used to free and open discussions with a partner who is not just trying to push a product.

Trapped training organizations<br>

A real difficulty today is that numerous training organizations have overstretched themselves by gearing up their teams to deliver massive programs to wide populations, earning huge sums of money.  In effect, delivering cookie-cutter programs for years has turned them into big training factories that have lavishly spent on marketing and gradually increased administrative personnel and other fixed costs.  Most of their trainers are not fit to be consultants, do not sell and cannot design programs. They can just repetitiously deliver the few products they know.  It will be difficult for them to grow their competencies to a consulting capacity in order to develop deeper partnerships with their clients, think with their clients, and then co-design specific solutions that may or may not include training.

If training companies are to help Romanian organizations transform to be dynamic and reactive systems that retain empowered and committed risk-taking employees, how do they model what they teach?  Indeed, when trainers manage a training program, organize exercises, lead debates, debrief experiences, tell stories to illustrate their message, etc. they remain central and in control of the training context for days on end.  To make sure that all the participants return to their workplace thoroughly pleased, many of these trainers have developed seductive behaviors to a fine art.  

Little do trainers realize that by displaying this ego-centric behavior in training, they are reinforcing a questionable top-down management model that leaders are expected to reproduce:  Like trainers, leaders should ego-centrically know everything, have planned their program to a tee, have detailed answers to all questions, and should be seductive, if not funny and entertaining.  Show-business training sessions delivered by one-man artists trains participants to a model.  After attending these training shows, everyone today expects show-business leaders who act accordingly, as knowledgeable know-it-all one-man crowd pleasers.  One must not forget that “the medium is the message”.

Enter Coaching and Consulting

In such a context, it is no wonder that coaching is widely misunderstood.  What do you mean when you say that a coach doesn’t give answers?  What is this nonsense about helping people think to find their own solutions?  HRs know what solutions they need, training companies sell solutions, trainers teach solutions, managers have solutions, and imposing charismatic leaders are solutions. Now we have a problem.

Everybody pretends they know what to do, and spends their time convincing and selling.  That has been the dominant model in Romania for the past few years.  What if we raised questions to dig deeper together, to engage in exploratory dialogue, to expand our shared awareness of more fundamental issues, to collectively design a discovery process and build a common perspective of a different future?   Could that be a more sustainable option?

To read an article on the French training, consulting and coaching market.
To consult a program for management development in a systemic perspective

Copyright 2008.  www.metasysteme.eu  Alain Cardon