Getting the Most Out of Training

istock_000001565941xsmallIn tough economic times, one of the first casualties in many organizations is often their training budgets. This is often the case because training is often seen as an expensive frill that can be tolerated in good economic times, and a tremendous financial burden that needs to be reduced or eliminated in more challenging times. Such an approach evaluates training solely based on its cost to the organization rather than on the value it generates. Though cost should not be completely ignored in any organization, it must not be the only basis on which training decisions should be made.

The question that ought to be asked of any program, and training is no exception, is whether or not it creates value in amounts that are significant and measurable to justify its existence. If the benefits do not exceed the cost, such programs should be considered for possible reduction and/or elimination.

The training department can and must play an integral role in helping the organization accurately assess the importance and benefits to be derived from a well designed and implemented training program. To do this, the training department must ensure that its existing and future programs incorporate the following ingredients in their design and implementation phases.

A Well Developed Strategy:

In my years of consulting I have had the opportunity to study the training programs of various organizations of all sizes in several industries. The one thing that I found consistent is that those organizations, regardless of size and industry, that had a clearly defined training strategy that was aligned with its organizational strategic objectives, had the most effective and successful training results. A clearly defined strategy does several things:

1.    It gives meaning and direction to what is being done. It prevents us from going astray or being distracted. Strategy serves as a guide that we can consistently consult to make sure that we are on the right path.
2.    It clearly communicates to others that there is a process in place and things are not being left to chance. Knowing that there is a process in place can serve as a confidence booster.

Identifying the Source of the Problem:

To make sure that our training efforts are successful we must accurately identify the source(s) of the problem(s).

There is often the tendency to allow training to become the organization’s scapegoat for all of its various woes. Not all problems in an organization can be successfully resolved through training. To believe so and act accordingly would be a mistake and result in dismal failure. To ascertain if training could be helpful in resolving a problem, the following assessment needs to be made.

Is the problem in question due to a lack of some skill or knowledge (“I don’t know and I am not doing”)? If this is the case then training can be helpful in providing the deficient skill or knowledge that can improve performance. However, if the lack of some skill or knowledge is not the issue (“I do know and I am not doing”), then training is not the issue and will not be helpful. In such cases we need to look for the answer(s) in other areas of the organization.

The Assurance of Learning:

The strength of any training program is the learning that takes place when it is taken.

If learning does not take place, regardless of how good a time was had, we have just wasted our employees’ time and other corporate resources. I happen to live in two worlds by being both an academician and a practitioner in my profession. I am often appalled when I compare the rigorous methods taken in the academic training world to ensure that learning occurs to those taken in the corporate training world to ensure the same.

Unfortunately, corporate training often pales in comparison to the academic world. I do see a difference between academic and corporate training and I am not recommending that we follow the exact procedures for both of them. Such an approach might not be appropriate or even beneficial.

I am, however, suggesting that we apply a greater degree of rigor in our corporate training methodology to ensure that learning does in fact take place. I am tired of seeing corporate training where no substantial mechanisms are in place to determine whether or not learning has occurred or that participants have acquired the identified competencies.

I have witnessed corporate training sessions where some participants arrive late, leave frequently to answer or make calls, don’t engage in note taking, and seem otherwise disengaged, because they know full well that they will not be held accountable in any measurable manner for the material presented. I am advocating that more stringent methods be adopted to ensure that all participants leave the training session on the same page.

If the assurance of learning is a desired objective we need to carefully examine the manner in which the material is presented to the learner. All too often in corporate training a pedagogical (the teaching of children) rather than an andragogical (the teaching of adults) approach is taken. A fact that should not be lost in corporate training is that we are dealing exclusively with adult learners. This being the case, it must be noted that adults learn differently and they bring more things to the table than younger learners. Therefore the method used to present material to adult learners must be age appropriate if it is to be viewed as meaningful and successfully assimilated by adults.

The Transfer of Learning:

This is the flip side of the assurance of learning.  If assurance of learning is focused on the learning that occurs during the training session, then the transfer of learning is focused on how this learning is effectively utilized in the workplace. Both aspects are important and are dependent on each other. If the learning derived during the training program does not positively impact performance in the workplace, then such training was a failure. Demonstrating a difference in workplace performance is the gold standard for the efficacy of training. There are several measures that can be added to a training program to ensure that a transfer of learning takes place.

1.    Involvement of other management staff – The training department should make every effort to involve the management staff of the function for which it is designing the training. The functional areas are the customers and they should be involved at every level of the design and implementation processes. The respective function should own the processes from beginning to end, with the training department serving as the facilitators of the processes. This way we can be assured that a program will be designed that meets the needs of the customers.

If the management teams from other departments are actively involved in the process, they are more likely to be supportive of the training that participants received and are trying to implement in their respective workplaces. This support can include giving encouragement and opportunities to trainees to use their newly acquired learning in ways that will benefit them, their departments and eventually their organizations. We can all recount with frustration, the times when we or others had received training and were not given the opportunity to use such training back on the job.

2.    Use of appropriate methodology – Again, we must remember that we are dealing with adult learners. Adult participants need to be involved in their own learning.  I will strongly suggest the use of relevant simulations, role play and other methods that will draw upon the adult’s life and work experiences. The best approach is to get participants actively involved and working on problems that are similar to those that they will encounter back in their work areas. If the training environment does not mirror/reflect the work environment then we should probably rethink our training approach.

3.    Use of feedback from previous participants – The training department needs to keep in touch with alumni of training programs to get their feedback on the value of the training they received. This feedback can be used to improve future editions of the training to ensure that they are meeting their objectives.

Evaluation of Impact of Training:

The training department job is not done when the required training has been delivered. There is always the question of the impact that the training is having on the organization. Without this information we will not be able to identify whether or not the training undertaken was a worthwhile exercise. To evaluate impact we must conduct carefully designed experiments with the appropriate controls to rule out random error.

For example, if we put in place a sales training program to increase the effectiveness of our sales team, we might want to evaluate the program’s impact in terms of a few key financial metrics. The results of this evaluation will help us in calculating the ROI (return on investment) for this program. Undisputedly proving the effectiveness of any program will not only enhance the credibility of the training department, but it will also demonstrate that training can affect the bottom line and enhance the profitability of a company.

Conclusion:

Training will continue, especially in tough economic times, to have its challenges. Perhaps the training department will have to adjust what it does, or the way it conducts it business in order to meet these daunting challenges. One thing is certain, the training department has to continually demonstrate its effectiveness and make a case for its existence. If training is not seen as a value adder to the organizational process or bottom line, it will be easily dismissed and made the target of future cuts. But if it can demonstrate that it can positively influence the profitability of a company, it will be embraced as a key strategic player.

H. Nathan Charles, Ph.D.
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