What they don't know is what, what they do does

InstituAndrew Steelete Executive Director, Andrew Steele, reflects on the challenges of identifying the impact of training.

A new year brings new challenges. Last year I thought I had completed a long-running research project which would, coincidentally, lead to a doctoral qualification. I happily submitted the thesis, breathed a sigh of relief and sat back.

Of course, examiners and advisers have other thoughts and I was, in due course, set off to do just “a little more work” in a couple of areas one of which took me to the writing of Michel Foucault. Foucault was a French philosopher who died in 1984. In his extensive work he explored ideas of social history and power relationships - among many other things and these have been the focus of my interest in his contributions.

Michel FoucaulyHowever, as I was working through one book I came across a quotation attributed to some personal correspondence.

People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does*

This short sentence captures much of our practice as trainers or in any other sphere of life. Mostly we can say what we do. We train journalists or adult educators. We heal sick people. And so forth.

When it comes to explaining why, that can present some challenges but with a moment or two we can generally say why we do what we do. The big challenge comes in explaining the impact. We confuse impact with activity. We may say we have trained 100 people but that isn't impact. We may say we have visited such and such remote locations, but that isn't impact.

Impact is what arises as a result of the training. It is the transfer of the knowledge and skills in such a way that it makes a difference in the work of those we have trained. As a result of this training, the participant's organisation is training farmers in new ways and as a result the farmers are growing more crops, making better profits and employing more staff.

My research journey has been interesting and rewarding. What has been most encouraging has been hearing the stories of the difference the projects we have been working in have made in the lives of not only the participants but in the work of colleagues and in the lives of listeners, viewers and readers.

Articulating that impact is the challenge I face. As trainers we need to be able to articulate real impact.
If challenged to demonstrate impact I become defensive. Fearful that my hard-work is being assessed and may be found wanting. The management world demands impact and that means we need to be able to honestly explain what has happened - who has benefited and how.

Of course having trained thirty people on a course sounds good. But how has that training changed their practice - their knowledge, skills and attitudes?

This article first appeared in Andrew’s blogwww.the-steeles.me.uk

* Foucault quoted in Dreyfus, H.L. and Rabinow, P. (1983) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. 2nd ed. p187 Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Last modified: Monday, 26 March 2018, 2:08 PM