Imagine that you have a great car that suits your lifestyle. Only it has one teeny problem. It breaks down at 11 a.m. every day. Like clockwork. Although it works in general, its lapses, understandably, leave you dissatisfied.

Now, imagine you have not a car, but a technology training program. The content is great and it suits your audience but it, too, has a predictable problem. Each time the lectures stop and the small group activities begin, it breaks down. Although it works, in general, both you and your attendees are dissatisfied.

So often, this is the problem my clients want solved. In general, their programs are valuable, but when it comes to group exercises, their training days fall apart. Carefully designed activities are ignored; participation is embraced by only a few. Instead of completing their assignments, attendees escape to the phones or, worse, disappear. To compound the problem, these "scheduled" lapses can prove embarrassing. If an executive drops in when clusters of people are idly chatting, you know what the reaction is likely to be. You are not a happy camper.

Role Playing!? I Have to Make a Call . . . Although frustrating, there are valid reasons for the trainees' behavior. On top of the everyday pressures of work and life, suddenly they have to get used to a strange work environment, interact with colleagues in new ways, and learn new skills. Few people honestly look forward to situations where they are faced, in public, with strange or challenging activities. In fact, they will escape given the slightest opportunity.

Next, consider the composition of your groups. Groups of strangers are difficult to manage, and building camaraderie takes time. Although people like to impress others with their knowledge and experience,they may think being busy on their cell phone is more impressive then stumbling through an awkward role-play exercise. They could embarrass themselves, or their company. On the surface, there is no inherent benefit.

It gets even more complex with coworkers, or managers with subordinates. As with strangers, there is risk but the penalty for error is even greater. Attendees' jobs and working relationships could be adversely affected. With coworkers, there may be camaraderie but that often encourages them to drift into conversation. Since the penalty for risk is high, coworkers tend to ask fewer questions, take fewer learning chances, and often defer to the highest ranking or most popular person.

Preventive Strategies What to do? A lot depends on the specifics of the situation. But here are a few things you can try before your training even starts:

* Revisit how your groups are assigned. Depending on the event, it may be possible to pre-assign attendees by management level, distribute coworkers from a single department, or ensure that each group represents a variety of functions or companies.

* Devise ways to rotate the role of group spokes-person before the groups are established. This will avoid having one person take control of the group, which gives the rest of the group unspoken permission to coast.

* Never assume that because an exercise immediately follows or precedes a related lecture, that attendees will understand that connection. Make sure that your training scripts clearly relate the activity to whatever "big idea" it is meant to reinforce.

Putting together lectures and exercises into an effective curriculum is a complicated puzzle. But one thing is certain. Unless you take deliberate steps to engage the trainees, these sessions will predictably break down, and your company will not get the full value of its training investment.