Why Training Employees Is Always a High-Wire Act

Peter Drucker once described flying on a jetliner as the act of “moving that heavy, inert object, the human body, and inflicting upon it stupefying hours of vibration in stale air.” Last week, United Airlines pilots painted an even grimmer picture: Lack of adequate training, they claim, is compromising safety.

In a 101-page report issued by their union and sent to Capitol Hill, the pilots complained that the airline is using only Internet-based training—and not classroom sessions or practice in flight-simulators—to teach a “large volume of procedural changes” stemming from United’s merger with Continental Airlines to form United Continental Holdings (UAL). “United’s training regime is the equivalent of the Ringling Brothers Circus introducing a new trapeze routine and training the artists via computer,” the report by the Air Line Pilots Assn. asserts.

United has defended its training and safety procedures and dismissed the claims in the union document as a baseless attempt to influence contract negotiations. In any case, the clash raises a larger question, whether you run an airline or a more earthbound business: What are the characteristics of a good training program?


As Drucker saw it, one of the biggest triumphs of the industrial era was the high level of instruction afforded armies of blue-collar workers. Until World War I, Drucker wrote, “it was axiomatic that it took a long time (Adam Smith said several hundred years) for a country or region to develop … the expertise in manual or organizational skills needed to produce and market a given product, whether cotton textiles or violins.”

But not long after the turn of the 20th century, companies in the U.S. and U.K. began to apply mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor’s principles of “scientific management” to train manual workers on a mammoth scale. “They analyzed tasks and broke them down into individual, unskilled operations that could then be learned quite quickly,” Drucker explained, noting that these training techniques were refined during World War II and later picked up by the Japanese and Koreans, “who made it the basis for their countries’ phenomenal development.”

Unfortunately, training workers in the 21st century is much more complicated. To begin with, Drucker believed, companies have to do two things at once: provide people with highly specialized knowledge and ensure that they don’t lose sight of how their specialty fits with an array of other specialties to meet the overall mission and objectives of the business.

The combination is tough. “Managements are today busily working at creating departmentalization, specialization, and tunnel vision,” Drucker declared. “To be sure, there is a good deal of continuous training. … But in all too many cases, the emphasis in these programs is on a man’s becoming more specialized” and not learning to appreciate “the other knowledges, skills, and functions” that his colleagues focus on.

“As a result,” Drucker added, “he soon comes to consider the other areas as so much excess baggage,” making it more difficult to accept new ideas from outside his particular discipline.


Drucker wrote these words in 1971, but they are clearly applicable now. In its annual review of corporate learning and development departments, published earlier this year, Bersin & Associates pointed out that many have opted for a “go deep, not wide” approach to training so as to cultivate real know-how among employees.

Depth is certainly important (especially for technical positions such as pilot, nurse, or software engineer). Drucker, for one, taught that “knowledge is effective only if specialized.” The problem is when you sacrifice too much “width of knowledge” in the process; the key is balance. In fact, Drucker went so far as to suggest that an employee has grounds for quitting a job if it “does not offer the training one needs either in a specialty or in administration and the view of the whole.”

Another way in which training must be balanced, Drucker said, is in its mix of theory and practice—a concept that the United pilots capture in their call to spend more time in full-motion flight-simulators.

Indeed, Drucker greatly admired the German apprentice system, in which young people entering the labor force spend roughly half their time in school and half their time in the workplace for two years or so. “They thus simultaneously receive both practical experience and theoretical learning, becoming at the same time skilled workers and trained technicians,” Drucker wrote in The Frontiers of Management. “And they can apply what they have learned in school on Saturday morning back on the job on Monday and do practically on Wednesday what will be explained in school theoretically on Thursday.”

Finally, Drucker encouraged training systems that were flexible enough to “fit the person rather than the bureaucratic convenience or tradition.” The union at United, for its part, is urging the carrier to accept that “some individual pilots” feel they “should have additional training or different types of training to make them comfortable.”

The flip side is when someone is already proficient in an area and should be taught more advanced or altogether new skills. For instance, “the older people who have retired from their jobs and now go on to work full time or part time elsewhere know how to work,” Drucker wrote. “But their knowledge, maturity, and experience are not used in existing personnel policies. No one asks: ‘What can you do?’ Instead, they are put into a ‘training class,’ together with the 16-year-old high school dropout.”

Getting training right—by designing courses of sufficient depth and breadth, building in both theory and practice, and tailoring programs to individuals—is difficult and expensive (and often among the first casualties of corporate cost-cutting). But there’s no better way to make your business take off.

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