“If All You Have Is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail”

The title of this article is a quote from Robert Mager. He’s actually talking about training. He’s using the hammer analogy to say:

If training is your only solution, everything looks like a learning problem.

Readers of America’s Training Magazine twice voted Mager the most respected leader in the training and development world. And yet he is highly critical of the over-reliance on training found in the commercial world. Irony or what?

(Actually Mager wasn’t the first to say something like this. He seems to have borrowed it from the author of so many pithy sayings, Mark Twain, who expressed it thus: “If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will be nails.” And it doesn’t just apply to trainers; any experts or professionals tend to view problems with a bias that favours the solutions they are equipped to provide. So surgeons want to solve problems with a scalpel, engineers by building something, economists by manipulating the economy, soldiers by military means, managers by managing, and so on. See déformation professionnelle.)

The same old “solution”

The most visible participants in the “at-work road-risk management” market—the driver training companies—are still selling the same old “solution,” and a limited model of it, at that. And this is despite all that has happened in the world of human factors, driver psychology and the like, and all the research that has been published. It may seem uncharitable to say so, but they’ve only got hammers and they’re seeing their market as a sea of nails.

Admittedly, things have moved on a bit from the time when the standard sale was an in-vehicle session with a driving instructor for every company driver. It’s now a common approach in driver training companies to segregate the customer’s driver population into low, medium and high risk (established by some form of profiling—which may be of dubious validity) and then to provide three levels of intervention. But this is nothing more than opening up the toolbox and pulling out a little hammer, a medium-sized hammer and a big hammer. These training companies are still seeing nothing but nails.

You need a whole set of tools

If everyone is trying to sell you hammers or rent you the services of guys who swing hammers, it’s difficult for you to recognise that you really need a whole set of different tools, used in various combinations. It’s even harder to see that some of the tools you need are already in your own toolbox (i.e. within your organisation). You can’t see them because they’re in the bottom of the toolbox, buried under all those hammers.

In order to tackle driver behaviour (or, indeed, any kind of behavioural issues within your business) you’ll need to use, or have outside suppliers use, a whole range of tools. Training is only one of those tools. It may be totally inappropriate with some drivers. And, where it is appropriate, it’s effectiveness can be greatly enhanced by combining it with other tools, many of which you already have but which you may have forgotten about or not considered applicable to this situation.

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