Why You Can't Really Train Anyone: The Trainee Hierarchy of Needs


You can’t really train anyone on anything. I’m quite serious. Learning requires the willingness and response of the audience—the trainees. Without them, no learning takes place, regardless of how good the so-called training is. It is essentially up to the learner.

In fact, at a basic level, training is really just a way of creating an environment for learning to occur. We who are involved in education would do well to remember this fact. We are but facilitators, making sure the trough is available from which the proverbial horse may drink. Or not, if they are cranky.

So how do you create this willingness to learn? How do you get an audience to respond?

The best way is by meeting their needs.

And to do that, you need to understand what their needs really are. You need to get inside their heads.

Here’s my framework for understanding the Trainee Hierarchy of Needs. Due respect to Maslow and his work on the subject of human needs, as well as the many authors who inspired some of the work on NLP.

The Great Pyramid of Learning Levels

Let’s start with the base level: Environment.


In traditional training, this applies to things like the lighting and room temperature, and where the bathrooms are.These things still apply, of course, but you have little control over them.

eLearning is viewed on a computer or mobile device, so it would seem that this level is automatically handled. Not so! If you think about it, eLearning uses all of the technological disciplines available on modern devices. It is both user interface and content combined. It’s a challenge.

And problems are not well tolerated by today’s learning audience. A single glitch in the technology, a missing link, poor sound—just one broken piece and you lose them. Especially with millennials and younger—these users have no patience for poor execution at the environmental level. And trust me, they will know what the limitations of their devices are and expect you to know them too.

The best way to assure a good environment is test, test test. Test under lots of different conditions.

The next level is Behavior.

We need to meet their behavioral needs. This is classic user interface stuff, and it’s even more important to prevent problems here. Your audience might forgive you if the program fails entirely because of a missing link. But If you can’t match how your audience interfaces with your training; if you can’t create an intuitive experience, then they think you are just plain incompetent.

Not a good meme for a training experience.

To assure a good UI experience, use a focus group. See how a typical trainee interfaces with it. And watch their reactions. You might be surprised.

Next, we need to match the learners’ Capabilities.

In other words, we can can’t talk over or under them. The training needs to be targeted at the right level. This is Training 101 stuff, but it’s often neglected. This is especially true for on-demand learning experiences which are often guilty of targeting the lowest common denominator. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard: “This needs to be at a third grade reading level.” Yikes.

There are some ways around this problem. One, create a logical flow for your trainees and give them different experiences based on who they are. Target your training messages.

Another key to good capability management is making sure you allow users who already know part of your training to be able to skip those. Provide a “test out” or pre-certification if necessary. This lets users know that you value their time and intelligence.

Finally, the highest level is in the realm of Values and Beliefs.

Here’s where the real training takes place.Transferring knowledge is easy, Wikipedia can do that. What eLearning is often really trying to do (and often failing) is create an environment for a change in values and beliefs.

Think about employee training. Maybe you are trying to teach new employees about the culture of your company. There’s lots of knowledge on the topic: the mission statement, the letter from the CEO and so forth. But much more important is convincing the trainees that this stuff is important, valuable, necessary. These are beliefs.

Beliefs are transmitted from person to person, usually through passionate and heartfelt communication. See your Sunday Pastor or other selected spiritual leader for more details. But of course the transmission of values and beliefs can be done through media as well—and thus we have great works of fiction, movies, paintings, etc.

To tap into that kind of power, you have to activate your creative and tap in to your trainees’ belief system. You need to know what they believe now, and what might trigger them to believe something different.

How do you do it? It’s an art. Start by thinking very carefully about who you are talking to, and then make sure you are engaging the very best of your talents in writing and media to get your point across—not the learning objective, but the value/belief objective. If you can overcome that hurdle, and convince your learners that the topic is important, then all you will need to do is get out of the way. They will learn it on their own.

photo credit: Scott Beale

If you're interested, check out ExpandShare's eLearning Services to see how your program can be an epic success.

Will Holland