To paraphrase the immortal words of Sergeant Joe Friday (Google his name), “The story you are about to read is true; the names have been removed to protect the innocent.”

You can’t make this stuff up

A long, long time ago, at a large corporate training center far, far away, they had what they thought was a great idea. In order to generate additional revenue, they decided to sell personal digital assistants (PDAs) to employees. (For you youngsters out there, PDAs, these now almost-ancient devices—like Palm Pilots, Sharp Wizards, Apple Newtons, and Pocket PCs—were the precursors to today’s smartphones and tablets.) After all, there was a growing demand for these devices, and the training organization figured it would do the company a service by buying in bulk and reselling them to the staff. At the same time, the revenue received would help fund other training projects. The problem was that the training organization had no charter to stock and sell these devices, and employees had no authority or permission to buy them. Even when they asked for permission, it was usually denied. Besides, training organizations are supposed to sell courses, not electronic gadgets, right?

Plan B

Undaunted, the training organization came up with what seemed, at the time, a brilliant alternative. They created a new fee-based course, “Time Management,” which included, as part of the course materials—you guessed it—a “free” PDA. It was far easier for employees to get permission to attend training than buy PDAs. Enrollment skyrocketed; hundreds of employees signed up, and the waiting list was months long. Training managers high-fived themselves in the hallways. In the morning of this one-day course, you got your PDA, along with some instruction and practice on how to use it. In the afternoon, after more practice, you could use your corporate charge card to buy accessories.


This program lasted more than a year, until business circumstances cut training budgets to the bone. With no money available for internal tuition payments, the demand dried up. Besides saddling themselves with a large inventory of unsold PDAs, the training organization lost a primary source of revenue when permission to attend training plummeted. This training organization put itself in jeopardy and learned the hard way that those who pay for the training, not the training organization itself, define its worth.

Lessons learned

As silly as this story might be, the lesson is pretty clear: Training activity that doesn’t produce business value is primarily wasted. The training organization believed it was creating value, but saw it in terms of its own desires (generating tuition revenues), rather than servicing and supporting the key needs of the business, as defined by the business. The training folks never asked whether time management or the PDA was actually important to the business units. The business units and departments that paid for the course apparently saw no value. When the budget was cut, not a single business unit executive could be found to stand up and say, “don’t cut this, it’s too important.” From their perspective, the time management course was just (ironically enough) a waste of time, and the training organization earned a reputation as primarily interested selling “stuff,” or filling seats, rather than supporting the business, a reputation that took a long time to shed. (You might ask why, in the good times, so many of the leaders of these business units and departments so agreeably allowed their people to take this class, and why they didn’t say no in the first place. Assuming for the moment that they knew what they were signing off on [debatable], the fact that no one was paying attention until a budget crisis forced them to come to their senses is a management issue worth thinking about.)

The training organization, of course, couldn’t believe what was happening, but they should have seen it coming. Of course metrics like the volume of training delivered, the number of students registered, and the amount of tuition revenue received matter, especially in terms of the effective and efficient management of the training function. But when training organizations believe these data are the primary evidence of their contribution to the business, they are creating a false sense of security for themselves. Using increased training activity to justify new investment in staff and facilities only adds to the risk. Thus, focusing too much on inconsequential (at least for the business) internal measures and failing to respond to real business challenges and opportunities that truly need training will, sooner rather than later, bring it all tumbling down like a house of cards (or Palm Pilots).

Do you have any stories to tell like this to tell? Let me know below. Just don’t name names.