Training: Not a “Tick Box” Activity

Recently my company was invited to submit a proposal for training in data protection and data privacy. The brief was that the training was to be practically focussed, addressing real scenarios that the audience would encounter back at the office, and developing some specific good practice behaviours. The training was to be to an audience of at least 30 people in leadership roles in their organisations, and ideally over a half-day.

We have done a lot of this kind of this “mass customised” training (not generic, but not 100% bespoke). Our standard model is essentially 50% theory and principles and 50% practical application with prepared scenarios that the audience will be familiar with. Clients like it, the learners we work with enjoy it, and we rarely get the glass-eyed “body in the room but brain on a beach somewhere” look that plagues “death by PowerPoint” sessions. Our model includes a coaching call post-training to help learners apply what they have learned in practice. It’s proven to be effective.

So we prepared a proposal. It recommended a full day session (after all, they were leaders), or two half-day sessions, or (at a pinch) one half-day session. The proposal set out in detail what would be delivered, with a strong emphasis on the “action learning” component of relevant scenarios, and post-training follow up.

This prospective client loved the proposal. It ticked all their boxes. Except one. Price. They had another proposal in that was significantly below our price (one fifth our price to be precise) and were wondering what we could do to match that. My answer was that we probably couldn’t do much, but I’d see.

W. Edwards Deming famously said that we should never award business on the basis of price tag alone but should consider the total cost of ownership. He was right.

This is particularly the case when it comes to training in often complex areas such as Data Protection compliance or Data Governance. If you get the wrong trainer or training, you can turn your teams off the topic instantly and forever. If you get the right trainer and training, you can get your teams engaged and thinking about how they can make this “stuff” work for themselves.

There is a big difference as well between training in a technology tool and training in principles, cultural issues, soft-skills issues, and the wider ‘thinking about data outcomes’ that needs to happen in a governance or data privacy context. In the former, it’s clear if the training worked by whether the learner can use the tool better. In the former, you may not know if the training has worked until a novel scenario arises that requires the learner to apply the principles they were taught in a different context, particularly if you have been trying to change a bad data management habit like sending personal data about customers in a spreadsheet over unencrypted email.

What Buyers of Training Should Consider

If you are buying training in Data Governance or another non-technology element of Data Management, you need to bear in mind that the training is likely to be addressing a need to change behaviours and perceptions of data, data governance, and data protection/privacy or information security that might exist in your organisation. So it needs to be relevant to the audience.

A low price for delivery of training to a large audience suggests a few issues worth considering:

  • The training will be completely generic with no targeted relevance for your learners. In a short course, this means that there will be very little time for specific Q&A activity and key topics of relevance may be glossed over. It might mean that the provider of the training is looking to hook you for more expensive training or other services later. Ask yourself if you are paying for an external provider to learn about your industry sector or generate leads for more expensive follow up rather than teach you about the thing you are paying for?
  • The trainer may have limited practical experience in the subject matter being delivered. “Those who can do, those who can’t teach” is an old saying. But in the training context you need someone who can both “do” and “teach”. An experienced practitioner can make a generic syllabus relevant to learners on the fly. But that means that the trainer must be experienced enough in the subject being trained to go “off-script”, and sufficiently skilled as a trainer to bring things back to the agenda so that the learning objectives of the course are met in the allotted time. Consider whether you will be getting value out of a trainer who handles any ‘left-field’ question with an “I’ll check that out and get back to you next week” response. That usually means you’ve got the apprentice in prequalifying leads for the Jedi expert that you were originally sold to do the training. Look for the hands-on real world experience of the trainers, not just whether they have passed the course you’re now paying them to teach.
  • Is the trainer someone who can drive PowerPoint or are they a competent and qualified trainer? How good is the trainer at actually training and presenting? Will they engage your audience or will you be spending money on “death by PowerPoint”? Does the proposal tell you who the trainer or trainers will be? Does it indicate their experience as presenters? Can you ask the training provider for testimonials for the trainers, or can you find details of presentations they have done elsewhere (check linkedin, google etc.)
  • The cost of production of the training is also a factor to consider. If you are getting a proposal for training to 30 plus people with printed and bound materials, consider how much the printing costs for that alone would be. Then consider the other costs that might be going towards delivering the training (e.g. the payroll cost of the trainer). That will indicate to you what level of wriggle room there might be for tailoring or tweaking the delivery. Also consider what the cost model of the trainer might mean for any change requests or requests for follow up requirements. Also bear in mind that if a trainer has a large stock of pre-printed materials, that may mean that the course that is delivered to your teams will be of limited relevance and could be out of date with regard to legal and Regulatory issues or accepted best practices. If the cost is low, there is unlikely to be investment in R&D to keep content up to date.
  • Does the training provider carry professional liability insurance? What happens if they teach your teams something that is wrong and which you then rely on in your day to day practices resulting in loss or damage to your business? Consider how you would cater for this in contracts with training providers. An
  • Think about how you will measure the effectiveness of the training. What will your teams need to be able to do differently? What will tell you that the training and trainer have been effective in meeting the learning goals? One client I work with has a simple metric: How many questions does Head Office get from branch offices about items that are not currently explicit in policies?” (a high number here is the sign of good training). Training is an investment and you should measure the return on that investment. There are established models for doing this. €800 on training for 30 people might be a lower cost, but it may not deliver the same return.

The key message for buyers of training is that, by and large, you will get what you pay for. Deming’s famous response to the question “what if we train our people and they leave?” was “what if you don’t and they stay?” A corollary of this for training purchasing is “What do we do if we spend lots of money and they are bad trainers?” The only answer is “If you don’t invest in training, they probably will be bad!”

What can organisations who are investing in training do to balance risk and reward?

  1. Establish clear measureable goals for the training.
  2. Engage your training provider on a staged payments basis, with a percentage being paid after delivery of training based on whether those goals have been met.
  3. Ensure the training providers are using trainers who are both experienced in the data management field they are teaching but are also experienced (and ideally qualified) trainers.
  4. Examine the “total cost of ownership” for the training and see if investing a higher amount up front will deliver higher value down the line.

It’s also worth remembering that the lowest cost provider will usually have no ‘fat’ to absorb changes in specification or requirement. A provider who initially quotes a higher amount will likely have capacity to adjust their offering to meet you some of the way on price expectations.

What Training Providers should consider

Data skills training is becoming a big business opportunity. Competition in this area will inevitably grow. Providers of training in this area need to learn the lessons of other markets. One key lesson we need to learn is that the ‘race to the bottom’ on price is ultimately unsustainable. Competing on price alone is not a way in which we as a profession can, or should, try to deliver value to our customers.

As providers of training in data governance and related disciplines we need to make sure that we help our learners become ambassadors and trusted colleagues in their organisations. This can only be achieved if they come out the end of the learning process with some tangible improvement in skills, competence, and insight. Anything less and we have done a disservice to our students, their employers, and the wider profession.

At the macro level, industries are beginning to mature in their thinking about Data Governance and Data Protection. This is good, but brings with it the risk of organisations looking to “tick the box” about training in these disciplines. That brings with it the risk of organisations looking for the cheapest possible training to tick that box.

The ‘race to the bottom’ on price in the telecommunications industry has led to underinvestment in networks, a degradation in customer service, and a host of other problems. In the airline industry, the pioneers of low cost flights have begun to step back from that model as a sustainable model, seeking to target customer service as a price differentiator instead. Ryanair, the 5th largest airline in the world by flown passenger numbers, has competed as an aggressive low cost carrier for over 20 years but has recently begun to develop a more “cuddly” customer-focussed model.

If we are providing data skills training to clients, we need to ensure that we price appropriately so that we can continue to support our clients in their learning journeys, while investing in our internal R&D activities to keep our own knowledge and materials up to date. Different methods and modes of delivery (classroom based, on-line instructor lead, on-line pre-recorded, public vs in-house) all carry with them different cost drivers and potential price points.

Striking the right balance is essential. The quality of our training and the ability of our learners to do the job will be one of the key metrics that will be used to judge our profession!

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Daragh O Brien

Daragh O Brien

Daragh O Brien is a data management consultant and educator based in Ireland. He’s the founder and managing director of Castlebridge. He also lectures on data protection and data governance at UCD Sutherland School of Law, the Smurfit Graduate School of Business, and at the Law Society of Ireland. He is a Fellow of the Irish Computer Society, a Fellow of Information Privacy with the IAPP, and has previously served on the boards of two international professional bodies. He also is a volunteer contributor to the Leaders’ Data Group ( and a member of the Strategic Advisory Council to the School of Business in NUI Maynooth. He is the co-author of Ethical Data & Information Management: Concepts, Tools, and Methods, published in 2018 by Kogan Page, as well as contributing to works such as the DAMA DMBOK and other books on various data management topics.

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