Cancel That Flight: How NGOs Can Stop “Training Tourism”

Blurred shot of people walking through Malaysia airport

For many NGOs, the standard training model is to fly people across continents and oceans to attend workshops, often with the hope that participants will pass the knowledge along to their colleagues back home.

Suggesting that organizations replace these meetings with online and/or local training sessions can elicit strong reactions: “People appreciate the human connection!”  “It’s easier to focus when we’re in the same room!” “Online doesn’t work in most countries!”  

Yet these responses ignore some inconvenient truths about the status quo, namely:

  • It’s not sustainable, operationally: Many NGOs struggle to sustain training initiatives beyond the initial rollout.  Workshops are often delivered by small teams of experts who have trouble keeping up with demand, and there’s rarely budget for follow-ups.  This risks a “brain drain” as workshop participants leave the organization and new hires go untrained.

  • It’s not sustainable, environmentally: Most international development organizations embrace a set of values that includes environmental sustainability.  Yet a single round trip from New York to Paris generates 3 tons of CO2 per traveler (the average American generates 19 tons of CO2 per year; the average European generates 10).

  • Learning is often secondary: For many, training-related travel is as much about socializing, expense-account dining and sightseeing as it is about learning.

    We once asked a group of government and NGO workers in Central Asia if they would be interested in attending a workshop in Baku, Azerbaijan then asked another group if they’d be interested in attending the same workshop in Paris, France.  Interest was about eight times higher for Paris versus Baku (especially among executives), despite increased cost and time commitment. A similar experiment in Southeast Asia showed a huge preference for Rome over Hanoi.

So what can organizations do to stop “training tourism”?

  • Make travel a reward, not a bribe: Using travel to incentivize participation sets a bad precedent.  Limiting workshop attendance to those who successfully complete an online course can reward active learners, confirm everyone’s sincerity and let you devote workshop time to case-based activities and advanced discussions instead of rote presentations on the basics.

  • If you fly anyone to workshops, concentrate on managers: Our experience across multiple sectors suggests manager involvement is the #1 determinant of long-term performance improvement after training.  How well learners perform in training is generally less important than how much their manager values the skills being taught and holds them accountable for application on the job.

    Hence, it’s often better to fly managers to workshops focused on generating buy-in and promoting accountability, while limiting frontliners to online training and short (15- 30 minute) weekly trainings facilitated by their manager.

  • Develop a strategy for online and local training:  Replacing workshops with online and local training requires a plan for building local and online capacity.  While there isn’t time to cover all the best practices here, this typically involves setting up a global tracking system for local training activity, creating bandwidth-friendly online training content and getting learners and trainers accustomed to delivering training via web conferencing.

If your organization is interested in developing strategies to maximize learning with minimal formal training, feel free to contact Sonata Learning for a consultation.


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