The New York Times recently reported that Whirlpool, one of the world's largest makers of household appliances, has a new "reality-based" training program patterned after -- get this -- reality-based television. They take a group of new recruits and have them live together for two months. During that time they perform endless household tasks together -- dishwashing, laundry, cooking -- using the company's and competitors' appliances. The concept is based on MTV's series "The Real World," where seven people live together for five months; the Whirlpool version has been dubbed "The Real Whirled." The idea is, according to the published quote by the company's national training manager Jackie Seib: "We want them to have a better appreciation of what a consumer goes through." Other goals attributed to the program are, like most goofy training ideas, to build team spirit and trust in the company. And, oh yes, to make training FUN! I think with this, the world's training brain trusts have hit a new low. Aside from the obvious potshots we can take of life imitating television, there's a host of problems: It is an inappropriate invasion of employees' personal lives. It was bad enough when training usurped entire workdays with teambuilding workshops where employees divided into teams to build a pyramid out of Popsicle sticks and string. But forcing them to live together!? For two months? There's nothing that the recruits couldn't learn simply by attending seminars during the workday or at a more sane two- or three-day workshop -- retiring to their own private hotel room at night, thank you. These efforts to make training fun are ridiculously silly at best and insultingly disrespectful of the workers' intelligence at worst. Does anyone really believe that being away from one's home or family for two months, sharing close quarters with strangers, isn't silly? It's a silly concept for television for crying out loud, which means it's absurd in any other context -- and especially so in a corporate setting. Also, does anyone really think you have to have complete immersion in the art of dishwashing, laundering, etc. to understand the concepts? Insulting. What's the pay back? Virtually every other area of management expenditures requires an analysis of the return on investment. Has anyone ever truly measured the effectiveness of training programs featuring "fun" activities versus regular training programs? Is it possible? Trust in a company is engendered when the company trusts the employee. Sponsoring training programs that go to extremes to capture employees' attention screams out: "I don't trust you to pay attention unless we sugar-coat the information with goofy activities." But a conspiracy of silence surrounds and helps promote these training gimmicks. I believe executives and managers are desperate for new training ideas; they truly want to teach, inspire, and, yes, create a fun work and learning environment. In some cases, as the New York Times article noted, they feel under pressure to appear hip in order to attract the young, Internet savvy recruit. Stressed for time and not versed in training techniques, they put their trust in a consultant who, in an attempt to stay relevant -- and employed -- has come up with something NEW and DIFFERENT. Employees who attend are in the typical Catch-22: of course they'll participate then say the training worked. If they don't, they're not team players. So in the interests of breaking the silence, returning a measure of dignity to corporate training, and releasing corporate executives from their reliance on training consultants, here are some ideas: For new, interesting instructional techniques: Start with the elements of the Whirlpool program that seem sensible. That is, the experiential, hands-on approach. Certainly, it is logical to assume that having trainees use the product they sell will give them a better awareness of the consumers' experience and thus how to sell it. It'll also break up some of the lecture and slide-show fare that can be a bit dry. Also in the program, trainees tag along with repairmen on house calls, and visit manufacturing plants, showroom floors, and research and development labs -- all very interesting experiences during which an employee can learn and become inspired. For genuine team building and fun activities: Give a group of workers a challenging assignment. Give each of them a clear role. Give them the tools they need to complete the assignment and a deadline. Then turn them loose. You want great training? Hire some fresh recruits. Put them in positions where they'll work with your very best employees. Ask anyone in a position of success what training was most valuable. I'll bet dimes to dollars NOBODY will say, remember that corporate training session where each of us took turns falling backward into other people's arms, or playing "Truth or Lies"? No, they'll name names of people they've worked with. If all else fails: Find a more inspirational instructor, someone who truly cares about the topic being taught. Trainers who need to get people to play silly games to keep them awake are probably bored, uninspired instructors. These ideas are simple, inexpensive, effective programs, and they are all based in -- dare I say it? -- the real world.
Patricia Panchak is executive editor of IndustryWeek.