By Dr. Yasapala Ratnayake, former Senior Management Consultant of SLIDA.
This article has been composed with the view to critically examining the common perception prevailing among some academic circles and practicing managers in organizations that the inadequacy of training given to organizational employees is the main cause of poor performance by the employees as far as public sector institutions are concerned. This perception, perhaps a delusion, leads to the situation in which an enormous amount of funds and other scarce resources are annually allocated, mainly in the public sector organizations, for employee training with the expectation of achieving commensurate results in employee performance for the resources utilized. The main focus of the article is therfore directed towards the situation of the public sector human resource management in Sri Lanka that has shown gradual deterioration in terms of quality, efficiency and effectiveness in all multiple layers of the country’s administrative structure. Another negative aspect of training as a newspaper columnist highlighted states that “No doubt workshops, seminars, forums and other events are held but the audiences are observed to be participating for the sake of attendance and are not fully engaged. Trainings are carried out but the question remains as to how much is put into practice.” (Daily Mirror, Sat, 09 Jul 2022)
The rationale of the above postulates and their ramifying impacts on organizations and the society at large are viewed in this brief presentation on the basis of the author’s experience and the knowledge that has been amassed over a long period of time in the relevant field and the polemic discussions related to the subject specific literature.
Training has been considered a vital ingredient necessary for result oriented management in organizations since the beginning of organization-based production system came into prominence in the human society. The belief that training can produce substantial results in terms of quantity and quality has become one of the main criteria employed in the allocation of large amounts of fund for the purpose of employee training, particularly in the public sector. The administrators of the public sector organizations engaged in employee training emphasize with high degree of certainty based on their own arguments that the problem of poor performance of employees can be effectively arrested if they are given proper and adequate training. Accordingly, worker performance is construed as a dependent variable that is controlled by the level of skills, the independent variable, possessed by the worker in relation to the tasks assigned to the person under a given designation. At a glance, the hypothesized co relationship seems to represent a cause and effect relationship that is logical, plausible and straight. In keeping with this belief, almost all organizations in the public sector at central, provincial and local government levels have established their own training units within their respective organizations, in addition to the existing national level organizations, for handling the function of training which in certain situations leads to the proliferation of organizations in the public sector adding an another wasteful burden to the already worsened economic woes of the country.
In spite of large quantity of physical, human and financial resources mobilized for different breeds of employee training, one may be tempted to question, in view of the consequential results produced, whether or not training has contributed in a significant proportion to achieve the desirable impacts as anticipated by the government and the administrators of training organizations on the spectrum of the employees’ performance.
Supposing that the ailments of the organizations specially in the public sector have not shown any reseeding with the delivery of high intensity training over the bygone years , then a logical inquiry is a justifiable necessity to explore whether the declining employee performance is due to inadequacy of training or some other intrinsic limitations of training in its capacity to find solutions for different breeds of performance related problems. To make it more intellectually palatable, the question may be posed whether training can be construes as a panacea for all the illnesses that the public sector is congested with. This leads to an another logical conclusion that training is not the right recipe for many of the performance related issues cropping up in the public sector organizations and therefore the diagnosis of the problem is wrong footed and thereby the remedy, training, applied is a nonstarter as well as misnomer.
Training in general can be related to hard skill and soft skill development and as far as hard skill training is concerned such as machine operation, manual dexterity in production, technical training, computing etc. results are tangible and visible at the end of a particular program since a proportional stock of talents is transferred from the trainer to the trainee. Under the circumstances, the possibility of developing a counter argument against the fruitfulness of technical training is a redundant conclusion as the results derived from training is quantifiable and statistically provable. Therefore, the writer has no qualm at or intention of developing a polemic controversy to the effect that resources used for technical training tantamount to a gross wastage on one hand and incurring an unjustifiable opportunity cost on the other hand to the already squeezed national economy. The writer’s bone of contention refers to the degree of effectiveness in solving the types of problems prevailing in the public sector organizations in Sri Lanka through the efforts made by the authorities by allocation of increasing amounts of public funds for conducting general training of state sector employees supported by the myopic belief that the the root cause of problem is lack of training.
In support of protagonist of training, numerous examples and arguments are brought forward stating that training has contributed in a major way for the economic advancement of Japan and Asian Tigers in particular ; however the relationship between these two variables namely training and economic growth is difficult to be measured and stated in quantitative terms due to the fact that economic growth is generally stimulated by a large number of interactive variables that encompass economic, social and other factors including training in all the countries where near two digit growth rate is reported in the last decade. As Bunch has pointed out, the literature to date had not pinpointed a secure connection between training and outcomes such as increased organizational participation, improved total quality management, or effective leadership (Bunch, 2007).
Major Performance Related Problems in the Public Sector:
The administrative system in Sri Lanka has five strata of governance including national, provincial, district, divisional, and village, which function under overall administrative purview of the central government. The prevailing multi-level governance structures have resulted in complexities, disproportional size, proliferations, overlapping responsibilities that lead to mayhems of multiple dimension in governance and administration.
Managers in the public sector organizations even with a short spell of service may state without deep hesitation that the major festering ailments of the public sector are absenteeism, indiscipline, misuse of public property, consumption of alcohol while on duty, poor customer orientation, lack of initiation, involvement in bribery, nepotism, sinecure positions, proliferation of service providing institutes and negligence of or lukewarm attention to the duty which are common problems experienced right across a large number of public sector organizations.
A systematic study is highly warranted to find out solutions to the aforesaid problems with objectivity in mind rather than continuation with the same age-old solution, based on training strategy, expecting magical results with blissful ignorance of the result areas of effective training. The prevailing multi-level governance structures have further aggravated the existing complexities and crises in governance and administration. The reforms introduced in the 1970s and 1980s with the support of IMF and the World Bank with the view of improving public sector performance and efficiency were never realized in practice, and eventually, it became a source of corruption, nepotism, and rent-seeking (Samaratunga and Pillay, 2011, p. 5; de Alwis, 2013; Haque, 2001; Liyanage et al., 2018).
Results Areas of Training:
Authentic literature available on the subject of training contributed by eminent writers including Benjamin Bloom demarcates three major focus areas of training such as cognitive domain, psychomotor domain and affective domain in which training objectives can be established depending on the needs of the circumstance. In other words, training is a specialized tool for providing solutions to employees’ performance problems caused by the lack or inadequacy of knowledge, skills and attitude.
Under the circumstances, it is logical for an inquisitive mind to pose a question as to what general performance related problems referred to above are to be offered solutions through training in the Sri Lankan contest. Lack of subject specific knowledge, poor manual dexterity and inappropriate attitudinal orientation can be addressed through training according to the previous explanation if the performance deficiencies result from the lack of human talents. If a cross section of the public sector organizations is analyzed, then one may surmise, with a high degree of certainty, that the major performance related problems are related to the misuse of public assets, absenteeism, lack of commitment, questionable level of honesty etc. which are general performance related impediments irrespective of sectoral or geographical differences in which employees are affiliated to.
Are we going to state in this contest that the problem of punctuality or negligence of office duty occurs due the lack of awareness on the part of responsible parties, or else the adverse repercussions of such behavior on the productivity of the public sector can be arrested with the introduction of more training? Or else, are we going to state that the misuse of public property and consumption of alcohol during office hours are due to the lack of knowledge of the rules and regulations laid down in the Establishment Code? Even without conducting a comprehensive scientific study, one can arrive at a conclusion with a high safety margin that the culprits who are responsible for committing the offences referred to earlier in the text are fully aware of the grave consequences of their offensive behavior on organizational performance. Thus, the logical conclusion that can be reached is that the employees who commit the above offences engage in such activities with the full awareness of negative consequences in terms of legal, procedural and ethical implications on the organizational performance. This means that the awareness training is totally ineffective and rendered useless if the offenders are fully aware of the adverse consequences of their behaviour within the precinct of their respective organizations.
Under the circumstances, the training manager has to reexamine the expected role of awareness training and investigate into the possible deficiencies in the areas of skills and attitude of the employees that might lead to the aforesaid performance related issues in the public sector. Let the next focus area of general and skill-training be examined in an effort to ascertain whether there is a strong positive relationship between the poor performance of the employees and their skill levels. Skills per se are defined as talents or versatility of a person to perform specific functions in accordance with the standard or accepted norms which may have a bearing on the awareness of the subject matter as well. However, the common problems the Srilankan public sector is infested with in relation to employee performance as cited above range from absenteeism to indiscipline cannot possibly be correlated with the level of skills possessed by the employees since most of the public sector employees possess the minimum educational qualifications required for recruitment to the post plus the variety of training and experience received during the tenure of their respective career.
Supposing there is a positive co-relationship between high level of performance and above average level of skills possessed by the employees, then one can obviously hypothesize that the employees with higher skills always perform more satisfactorily and therefore are devoid of falling into the same category of poor performers. Expressed in different ways, this means that the high skilled people are always high performers; ceteris paribus. Contrary to the general perception, the writer’s experience and association with the large number of public sector organizations provides convincing evidence to prove the existence of an opposite co-relationship between highly skilled employees and their job performance.
The last straw of the protagonist of training to hang on is the argument that most of the deficiencies in the performance level of the employee, mainly in the public sector, is caused by attitudinal problems, the validity of which cannot be simply denied since there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that a close link exists between the two variables. Therefore, the convenient conclusion is that training aimed at changing attitudes is not only very effective but also capable of producing sufficient impacts on the positive side of behavior, commensurate with the financial investment and resources utilized in the task of training.
However, prior to the arrival at a hurried conclusion on the subject, one has to revisit the literature on attitude and their process of formation to understand the flawed logic in making such an assumption. Since this is not the proper occasion for the writer to enter into a comprehensive elaboration on attitude formation and its characteristics, a well researched topic in behavioural science, it may be sufficient for the time being to state that a greater part of attitude and fossilized values of individual human beings is transferred at birth genetically through molecular structure of chromosome and subsequently influenced by the nucleus family, social exposure and benefits presumed to be associated , during the growth cycle of individuals, with different tasks and behaviors. It is pertinent to mention in this context that one should not underestimate the power of influence exerted by rewards and punishment in changing the individual behavior which will finally home in changed attitudes of the individual that is hard to be achieved through infusion of training conducted in public sector organizations in the current context.
Niccolò Machiavelli, a great political philosopher of all the times, several centuries ago emphasized, in his famous book on statecraft “The Prince” that human beings are more responsive to fear than to love; therefore, the ruler, the king, should behave in such a way that creates the necessary atmosphere in the society to respect him and obey his orders. He goes on to say “……. it is much safe to be feared than to be loved, when you have to choose between the two. For it may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful and fickle, dissemblers, avoiders of danger, and greedy of gain……..Besides, man has less hesitation in offending one who makes himself beloved than one who makes himself feared” (Machiavelli P. 65).
The substance of what Machiavelli stated can lucidly be reinterpreted, in the in the context of organizational management and training, that fear and rewards associated with the performance of a job carries a greater weightage in producing desirable results than the impacts that can result from training as far as jobholder is concerned. Stated in different words, the expectation of extremely desirable outcomes through over emphasized training and development in the atmosphere of human resources within the precinct of the organization can be contrasted with a traffic control system maintained devoid of a regulator and punitive administration machinery. Further to elaborate on this point, reference is drawn to the basic management principles venerated as religion in Japanese management philosophy which elucidates that success of result oriented performance hinges upon the existence of two vital organizational paradigms namely;
The first principle refers to the allocation of tasks and responsibility or delegation of authority within a functional area with the pinning of responsibility to an identified jobholder who thereafter becomes the virtual owner of the tasks assigned. The moot point in this regard is whether tasks and responsibilities are distinctly pinioned on the incumbent employees in different departments from top to the bottom of organizational hierarchy in the context of public sector organizations in Sri Lanka. The second paradigm above refers to the well known practice of quantifiable or measurable target setting, a sine qua non for result oriented management, that propels the jobholder to make the best effort for reaching the assigned targets in measurable criteria within the temporal dimension allocated for each task..
A heated debate may arise in this context among the managers of the public sector organizations as well as training specialists on the subject of whether the above two Japanese management principles are coming under the spectrum of training or they are under administrative domain as far as allocation of management functions are concerned within an organization. The writer’s contention is that both of the above adages are firmly and reasonably as well lodged in the periphery of administrative responsibility thereby negating a significant role to be performed by the training function since training is incapable of institutionalizing the above two vital paradigms of success within an organization. The role that can be assigned to the training function in the above circumstance is necessarily confined to ex post but nor ex ante at all.
The Myth About Training:
Managers in Sri Lanka, particularly in the public sector, seem to be in the perception that training is a viable substitute for management, a sort of panacea, and therefore is capable of finding solutions to the problems of employee performance in the public sector irrespective of the root causes of such problems; nevertheless, the crust of the relevant issue is, as stated earlier, the lack of proper management practices rather than inadequate training. In other words, poor performance by the employees of different levels in the public sector is the results of lack of management and absence of management systems rather than absence of adequacy and/or proper training made available to the employees. There is no doubt that impact of training would be substantial if the participants are highly motivated and learning oriented as far as a particular skill or area of knowledge is concerned. But the reality with regard to the situation in the public sector diametrically differs from the ideal conditions which are essential for effective learning. A well known English proverb “a man can take a horse to the water but even hundred men cannot make it drink” is highly relevant to the situation encountered in Sri Lanka in relation to the learning culture in the public sector.
This misconception has been prevalent unchallenged and unabated mainly in the public sector; however, this conclusion should not be interpreted any way as the private sector is totally devoid of the same problem, created by the identically parochial approach, although the magnitude of the problem may not be equally dominant within all private sector institutions.
Let us learn from what we see around in day-to-day activities. The writer once engaged in a brief conversation with a pastry shop operator who had brisk business in the evening hours with the home bound office crowd. The fellow, a young enthusiastic entrepreneur, was handling money and food items with the bare hands and the writer suggested that he could impress his customers better and thereby increase the business volume considerably if he used gloves for handling food items. In response to the author’s suggestion what he stated was that he knew in fact such practices would be very conducive for business growth and in fact some time ago he wore gloves when handling food items. He further told the author that it was very cumbersome for him to handle food items wearing gloves and remove them always before taking money. He went on to say that it was also not profitable to employ two persons, one to handle money and the other to serve the customers with food items. In this simple situation, one may wonder whether training has to play any role to educate the entrepreneur on adherence to better and more hygienic business practices. He confessed that he was aware of the benefits of the practice suggested by the writer. Then what can be done in order to motivate the pastry shop owner to apply hygienic methods in his business activities? If someone suggests him that two persons be employed, he says it is not practical in terms of cost and wearing gloves creates unnecessary delays as he has to wear and remove them so many times when handling money and food items simultaneously. The simple and most cost-effective solution in this particular circumstance is for someone to tell him that there is a low priced, simple tool, use of which will allow one person to attend to both functions, taking money and serving food, with ease, without touching food with the bare hand. This may be a mundane example for some critics but it is the lowest level consultancy that may produce desirable benefits that training cannot produce with so much of investment and effort. Julius Nyerere, a statesman of eminence, once stated that ““people cannot be developed or educated. They must develop and educate themselves through the process of thinking, learning, problem-solving and acting” which again emphasizes that training is a special purpose-tool of learning that can be used with greater success provided that certain conditions are already in existence for its successful application.
Despite the presumed positive effect of training on all levels of organizational outcomes: individual and team, organizational and social (Aguinis and Kraiger,2009), the empirical research focusing on the training-performance link does not always provide evidence to support such a relationship. Furthermore, the government, banking on the magical results anticipated from training, is also said to have done its part in allocating funds and diverting resources to the state enterprises to uplift their efficiency through training. In addition to the 2018 budget having extended over Rs.10 billion for vocational training, it is learnt that the Treasury has spent an average of Rs.12 billion to date on human resource development.
Experience of Japan and Asian Tigers:
The predominant view among some of the academic circles is that newly developed economic powers, particularly Japan, provide living examples and convincing evidence to uphold the fact that training has played a leading role in creating the momentum for development in Japan. Validity of this view must be reexamined in the light of what exactly happened in post war Japan before a decision is made on benchmarking on a training based economic models of development. Economic growth of post war Japan was propelled by the vast amount of financial resources mobilized towards Japan under Marshall Plan accompanied with consistent economic policies and productivity moment spearheaded by professor Juran and Deming who developed quality consciousness among nascent business organizations which spread like wildfire right across Japan. It has been very often misconceived that the productivity moment in Japan was mainly a training focused strategy where thousands of top, middle and supervisory level managers underwent rigorous training in order to enhance their capacity in relation to knowledge, skills and attitudes. Although one cannot outright deny this school of thinking, an in-depth examination of development activities predominantly in Japan, both at macro and micro levels, reveals a different scenario from the protagonist of training desire to portrait. What actually took place at ground level was system development, target setting, rigorous monitoring, setting benchmarks, preparation of quality manuals and right handling of human resources by the companies which were supported by the government to the hilt through right blend of monetary and fiscal policies at macro level. Managers were taken to the task and rigorous target setting and strict monitoring of performance at company level were practised with iron fist that no nonsense was tolerated at any stratum of the organization which as a whole was instrumental in producing miraculous results in the long run enabling Japan to achieve the present level of global positioning in the economic map of the world today. Obviously, the Japanese managers were managing, that means planning, organizing and controlling, which encompasses all the other minor organizational functions including training that has never been given undue recognition as the driving force behind the excellence of organizational performance.
The case of many other countries, encompassing Singapore, South Korea and the global companies like Motorola, Sony, Toyota have shown a similar pattern and the role of training played a minor or supplementary role in converting these countries and companies gradually into economic juggernauts of today’s world.
Confusion Between the Wood and the Forest:
It appears that, in Sri Lanka, training has been assigned with a disproportional weightage by the managers in the public sector in their desperation to find solutions for deteriorating performance of the employees which in turn leads to further aggravation of lackluster performance of the entire public sector in general. What is obviously lacking in these organizations is proper management, role of which cannot be relegated to an insignificant level or substituted by some other by-functions of organizations although some efforts have been made very often to find a scapegoat in the lack of training for the failure of management in the public sector organizations.
One may surmise to think of the type of remedies that can be offered by training for the major performance related problems ranging from indiscipline to insensitivity to the clients spreading in the public sector at epidemic proportion and at a lower level in the private sector. It may be an interesting analogy to compare the indiscipline in the public sector organizations in direct contrast to road discipline in Sri Lanka. What is more logical thinking whether the road discipline and accidents largely depends on degree of training given to drivers and pedestrians or it depends on the severity of punishment or penalty imposed on the errant drivers and the pedestrians who wantonly violate the road rules and regulations. The writer is of the view that the latter is more down to earth supposition since all of the vehicle drivers, including errant drivers, have undergone strict driver-training programs and their knowledge of road rules and procedures are tested by the Registrar of Motor Vehicles at the time of issuing their driving licenses. Nevertheless, common knowledge on the subject is that the loss of valuable lives and assets continues unabetted due to reckless driving resulting an increasing toll of death and injury to valuable human life year by year. The pertinent question is whether a plausible solution can be found in driver and pedestrian training for the increasing occurrence of road accidents that lead to mayhem in thoroughfare on an increasing frequency.
A plethora of evidence can be presented from both academic arena and empirical situations to prove the fact that the relationship between training and employee performance is not direct correlated to the degree that the protagonists of training are labouring to portrait. The function of training, according to the author’s understanding, appears to be assigned with an unrealistic responsibility which is beyond its designed capacity, due to misconception of the role of training, which results in not only disappointment of the trainers but also in the allocation of public resources for a purpose that cannot be achieved through the same means.
It is high time that the focus be shifted from training to management, a highly fertile ground, which is capable of providing more than satisfactory solutions for the performance related problems of organizations. For instance, problems in organizations, particularly in the public sector, are deep rooted and complex therefore a simple solution or a miracle that is expected to be produced trough training can be interpreted, without being biased, as sheer ignorance or a pipedream on the part of the believers of such results.
The public sector in Sri Lanka, may be the largest in the world as a ratio to the population, consists of, according to the Annual Report of the Central Bank, 2020, over 1.52 million employees of different strata in variety of organizations. The main causes of their performance deficiencies are engendered by the violation of fundamentals, wittingly or unwittingly, related to human resource management. To be specific, although the problems are numerous by number, the visible and salient issues are the problems of recruitment, lack of performance target setting, absence of result oriented performance management, inappropriate compensation, absence of performance related and transparent promotion system etc. which cannot be addressed through training because they are not responsive to training oriented solutions. Any effort made in this regard to apply training solutions is somewhat similar to the prescription of a specific drug for any ailment without diagnosing the causes of the ailment and its resultant symptoms. When looking at the structure of the cadre in many public sector organizations, it is mostly dominated by chauffeurs, clerks, office assistants, and other unskilled/menial workers who have been recruited not on the basis of institutional needs. Skilled jobs are very limited in the Government. As a result of high expenditure on the bottom-heavy structure of the Government, skilled job openings at the top cannot be offered competitive salaries compared to the practice of the private sector. The outcome of this is that top-level jobs in the state are occupied by poorly skilled officers with low intellectual capacity and managerial exposure. Furthermore, as a result of poor pay, top-level public officers have a significant incentive to engage in corrupt practices to remunerate themselves in organizationally unwarranted methods.
All the facts relating to this myopic approach related to the public sector employee performance boil down to one simple fact: that is our managers do not manage and instead look for solutions in the management disciplines where solutions are virtually nonexistent. However, the comical part of the whole episode is that managers of training institutions over glorify the significance of training provided by them to ensure the continuity of the benefits accrued to them and to subsist through this process while in the same time the other functional managers find a ready flogging-horse to camouflage their own incompetence in producing results under the guise of hypothesized poor training. The writer’s contention is that performance related problems of the organizational cadre cannot be redressed through training in majority of cases if such problems are cropped up due to poor recruitment practices, absence of effective target driven systems, nonexistence of result-oriented performance appraisal system, non-availability of performance-based compensation system etc. which in fact are the tools of HRM and absence of which cannot be replenished with the provision of employee training in an overdose proportion.
It would be appropriate for the author to conclude this article with a quotation from the famous management philosopher, Abraham Maslow, who stated that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” which elucidates well on the confusion between training and effective management.
If managers do not manage then they are like the Maslow’s imaginary individual who, having a hammer in his hand, believes that everything that is observed around him resembles nails. Although there is a general recognition in the literature that training improves a firm's performance, empirical research does not always provide conclusive evidence to support this paradoxical relationship. One possible explanation is that training does not have a direct effect on employee performance but an indirect effect by improving other organizational outcomes as a supplementary function. After all, contrary to the over emphasized role assigned to the employee training as a game changer in organizational performance, training is a very poor substitute for management due to its intrinsic limitation in capacity.