I hadn't seen my business colleague for a year. We met again recently for the same annual review we had in 2010.
He had worked all weekend and looked worn down. I asked him if he had a lot of year-end deals closing. The good news is that business has picked up. But a different deadline kept him in the office. As he did last December, he had to complete a library of compliance modules by mid-month to be eligible for his annual bonus. So he did.
I asked him what he recalled from last year's courses. His quick, blunt answer: "Nothing."
I asked him how it went this time. The answer: "No different." However, this cycle he noted that the courses had recommended lengths and each one had a timer on the screen metering his progress from section to section. Someone could track how long he spent going through each course. If he raced through a program to finish fast, maybe his too-quick pace would stand out.
He realized he had three objectives: get through the curriculum, get his bonus, but not get in trouble. He and his friends figured out the solution: They started each module then minimized the screen. While the timer kept moving, they did a few other things, moved back to the course and then completed each section at their own pace while "honoring" the recommended time frame.
This may have helped him get his bonus and his employer, if needed, build part of a legal defense. As I've written elsewhere, this kind of learning design distorts the point of compliance programs which are intended to prevent, detect, and correct problems. Just this past year, we've seen the results of compliance breakdowns that failed to stop or uncover misdeeds or discoverable hazards.
In many instances, required tests, courses and forms proved as worthless as blank paper or, more currently, terabytes of unused storage capacity.
Within the past month or so, MF Global collapsed and billions of customer assets have disappeared. It's possible that their funds, supposedly immune from diversion to cover institutional losses, were applied for that purpose.
Ananda Radhakrishanan, director of the division of Clearing and Intermediary Oversight at the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, responsible for monitoring MF Global, commented: "We can't be at every firm overseeing every activity. We have to expect people to understand the rules and adhere to them."
My colleague is a person of character, integrity and values. He doesn't need to click through scores of screens to follow key standards he already knows and works by daily.
While he had motivation to complete his coursework, he lacked even a smoldering—much less a burning desire—to learn. Somewhere else, though, there are others who will get their bonuses after mindlessly but successfully clicking through module after module.
They'll learn nothing—though they will have needed to—and dismiss what had been delivered, complicit in the true spirit in which their "training" had been presented. But what we really should be concerned about are organizations that subvert the purpose of compliance even unwittingly from getting things right to getting things done.
As Hamlet said, "Aye, there's the rub," for we will pay the price.