A Tribute to Don Kirkpatrick

Saying goodbye to Don Kirkpatrick, a friend and colleague—and a true legend of the training profession.

As I was finishing my Trainer Talk column for this issue, I received word that Don Kirkpatrick had passed away on May 9 at age 90. Until just last year, he still was visiting local ASTD (now ATD) chapters on occasion, though his last presentation at ASTD ICE was three years ago—when he was only 87! He served as president of ASTD in the early 1980s (I was on his board); received ASTD’s highest individual award, The Gordon Bliss Award; and was one of the first inductees into Training magazine’s HRD Hall of Fame. And in 2007, Don received the Asia HRD Congress’ lifetime achievement award.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he already had formulated his seminal Four Levels of Evaluation:

Reaction: Did they like it? We often refer to this as end-of-course evaluations or smile sheets.
Learning: Did they learn it? We use testing to measure this. But if you don’t do a pre-test as a baseline, the post-test is invalid.
Behavior: Did they use it? We often look at this via follow-up interviews with supervisors.
Results: Did it make a difference to the organization?

For more than 60 years, Don consistently and persistently pressed trainers on the need to more effectively evaluate training. His son and daughter- in-law, Jim and Wendy Kirkpatrick, partnered with him to make his model even more rigorous and useful by introducing the change of evidence and return on expectations.

About 15 years ago, I wrote an article saying that we needed to turn Kirkpatrick (meaning the model, not the man) upside down. Don wrote me a letter after its publication jokingly telling me that he was too old to be turned upside down. What I wanted to emphasize is that too many organizations focus on Levels 1 and 2, but the real value in evaluation is in Levels 3 and 4.

Too many Training directors and above use the excuse that Levels 3 and 4 are too difficult, time consuming, or expensive to measure. I think that often is an excuse used out of fear that if we did measure it, we’d find that the training we delivered did not produce results or add value.

Don also recognized that, and as part of his lasting legacy, he partnered with Jim and Wendy to make the entire model more useful and implementable by organizations that really want to know what’s working and what’s not—organizations that know the time for smiles sheets or tests alone long has passed.

At ATD’s International Conference and Exposition this year, I was introduced as a luminary, along with others who played a major role in sections of the organization’s second edition of its “Training and Development Handbook.” While we were at the launch party, I had a conversation with some of the other authors, among them Ken Blanchard and Elliott Masie, about the state of the profession—especially concerning the age and legacy of “gurus.”

When people perennially present at Training magazine’s Conference & Expo or ATD ICE, they develop guru status among training practitioners. This was my 37th year presenting at ATD, and I’ve presented at every Training magazine Conference since its inception. Don was head and shoulders above that (others such as Ken Blanchard, Thiaggi, Beverly Kaye, and Jack Phillips are in that same arena).

But who will follow us? I think my daughter, Becky Pike Pluth, is one of those. I think Jim and Wendy Kirkpatrick are already gurus. But we need more.

What about your own organization? Do you have gurus in workplace learning and performance—or does much of the Training or Learning & Development function rotate through for a few years on the way to some other career spot in the organization? How are you capturing the legacy knowledge of those who have real experience and knowledge?

Why do I ask? Because each of us who has chosen training and development as a career shares the same passion and commitment Don demonstrated before all of us. For him, this was his profession. He had a lifelong commitment to furthering the profession and demonstrating to all stakeholders the value that training and development brings to the organization.

He was always about exactly how I sign off each of these columns—adding value and making a difference. He will be missed, but my life and those of thousands of others are richer because we knew him and were influenced by his work.

So here’s my challenge to you:
Drop me a note with the subject line, “training guru”; send it to BPike@BobPikeGroup.com; and tell me who in our profession has influenced you profoundly. Who is your training guru and why? I’ll summarize the list for those who respond, and maybe it will be part of a future column.

Until next time—add value and continue to make a difference.

Bob Pike, CSP, CPAE, CPLP Fellow, is known as the “trainer’s trainer.” He is the author of more than 30 books, including “Creative Training Techniques Handbook.” You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook using bobpikectt.