Centralized vs. Decentralized Training: Is One Model Better?

It’s time to stop arguing about decentralized vs. centralized training — and start training.

“We can’t let the field offices develop training. They’re not trainers!”

“Well, those trainers don’t know anything about what we do! How are they supposed to train us on our processes?”

If you’ve ever worked in training for a large organization, chances are pretty good that you’ve heard a conversation something like the one above. But the debate over centralized training vs. decentralized training is more than just a territorial dispute. With training becoming more important than ever for workforce retention, it’s a fundamental part of every organizational design model.

Who’s Right?

Do we need a centralized model with a group of professional instructional designers (IDs) learning all the organization’s processes and creating training for everyone? Or are we better off with a decentralized model where training is developed locally by subject matter experts (SMEs)?

While researching for this article, I came across a vast number of blogs, papers, and articles that claimed to have the answer to this all-important question. The problem is that your “answer” generally depends on your point of view; those who develop the processes want to see them reflected accurately in the training, and trainers want to ensure effective, engaging, and consistent training for the learners.

If you’re looking for a definitive answer to the centralized/decentralized debate, it’s time to click away to another blog. The fact is, both approaches can be effective depending on factors like company goals, deadlines, and even the specific processes being taught. StudyLib nicely sums up the advantages of both:

Centralized Training:

  • Consistency and Standardization
  • Transparency
  • Economies of Scale
  • Reduced Risk (Legally and Financially)

Decentralized Training:

  • Sensitivity to Local Business Needs
  • Autonomy and Creative Solutions
  • Motivation and Buy-In
  • Local Goal Orientation
  • Increased Responsiveness

It’s best to start this conversation by realizing that both sides are right. The most successful organizations figure out ways to integrate both models situationally. With that goal in mind, here are three “musts” for both training models.

Centralized Training

Centralized training is at its best when trainers are sensitive to local needs and requirements. No one can create training better than a professional ID who has learned the principles of the trade. But none of that matters if the field won’t buy into the training. With a centralized model, stick to the following guidelines:

#1: Respect Local Expertise

As an ID, always remember that the people who developed the processes know more about them than you do. It’s okay to assert yourself, but arrogance will be the death of your training. Make training development a collaborative process, giving local SMEs a voice. Advise, don’t dictate, unless you feel strongly that an SME idea will make the training ineffective.

#2: Specialize Within the Training Department

If you want to build trust and increase buy-in, there’s no better way than to keep a consistent team working with specialized areas in the company. We all like a familiar face, and when SMEs see a different ID for every project, they start to feel like they’re just customers at a fast-food joint. On the trainer side, maintaining a consistent team allows IDs to develop some local expertise.

#3: Keep Meticulous Records

In many cases, your training will be the first full documentation of a process. Keeping records is essential for future development. How cool will you be when you’re the one who can answer a process question that has even the SMEs’ heads spinning — and all just because you bothered to write it down? I’ve discovered a great method for record-keeping: Rather than sitting side by side with the SME to go over a process, I often set up a video teleconference and record it. I now have an iron-clad record of the process and—bonus!—for software or desk-level procedures, I have images of every screen to use in developing the training.

Decentralized Training

There’s no doubt that the people doing the job are the ones who really know how the job should be done. But expertise is meaningless if the information can’t be communicated properly and effectively through training. If you’re leaning toward a decentralized model, keep these ideas in mind:

#1: Develop TRAINING Expertise Locally

One of the biggest problems in decentralized training is that SMEs simply don’t know what IDs do. How hard can it be to train on a process you fully understand, right? The answer, of course, is: VERY hard. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had an SME stare in amazement at the level of detail in a training experience I’ve developed. Relying on SMEs who are unschooled in training principles often leads to skipped steps and ineffective training. For decentralized training, we must either hire trainers at the local level or instruct SMEs in training fundamentals.

#2: Provide Templates

Decentralized training doesn’t mean that consistency goes out the window. Training templates, developed by professional IDs, can:

  • Keep SMEs on track by integrating training principles.
  • Provide a consistent design across the company — very important for people who are changing jobs or cross-training.

In my work with one large organization, I created a simple Word document with all the proper headers and footers, headings, numbering systems, and even a consistent method for highlighting information on a page. This example only scratches the surface of the potential for templates, but it did keep a consistent design while helping non-IDs create more effective training.

#3: Have a Centralized Clearing House

Even if the actual work is being done in the field by non-trainers, it’s important to have the end result examined by professional IDs. A clearing house can help ensure pedagogical integrity and consistent design.

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Changing the Conversation

There is an answer to the centralized/decentralized debate: What’s best for your organization depends on what you’re doing. The most effective approach is to have the IDs and SMEs come together on a project-by-project basis to determine whether it’s better to create the training locally or centrally. Whatever you decide, it’s important that both trainers and SMEs have a generous amount of input on the final product. How does this conversation sound?

“Let’s work with the field office to develop their training since they’re not trainers.”

“The trainers aren’t familiar with what we do. Let’s help them understand our process so we can use their expertise.”

Civility. It’s a beautiful thing!

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About the Author:

Allan Dodson is so much more than a writer and instructional designer. He’s helped develop strategy in Fortune 500 boardrooms, and he’s taught acting skills to 4th graders.  He’s developed training programs for everything from hair highlighting to pest control to DSL lines, and he’s made presentations to C-level execs, teachers (tough crowd!) and all workforce levels. In short, he has the experience, versatility, creativity, and energy to move projects large and small, and he’s ready for any challenge.

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