Tuesday, June 03, 2008

How do you make training useful?

One of the consistent problems that managers I have worked for have had with training is that they did not see how it was immediately useful to my job. Now that I'm helping set the product strategy for our new TrainingManager.NET application this bothers me more than it used to. After all it's nice to say we've got a tool to help you manage your staff or customer training, but many managers will see training as irrelevant to them.

By and large my managers saw training as either something hateful but legally necessary (such as Appropriate Workplace Behaviour), a junket/bonus (such as TechEd attendance) or, very occasionally, of limited usefulness, but worth doing if it was cheap enough (such as in a new management application). Now that many employees have multiple competing demands for their attention there is even seen to be an attention crisis amongst staff who may well spend their attention on things other than corporate training's reference and help material (often not to the benefit of the organisation).

Of course when the shoe was on the other foot and we were training clients in applications we had custom built for them (or more often, training the trainers), it was seen as a necessary and useful part of our service delivery.

Professional services guru (and business trainer) David Maister gives a great analysis of the problems managers can have with training in his article, Why (Most) Training Is Useless. He says that:

"I now believe that the majority of business training, by me and by everyone else, is a waste of money and time, because only a microscopic fraction of training is ever put into practice and the hoped-for benefits obtained."

Ouch! OK, if managers are really thinking that way then that explains training's bad name, but why is this so?

"The truth is that most firms go about training entirely the wrong way. They decide what they wished their people were good at, allocate a budget to a training director and ask that training director to come up with a good program."

Re-read that last sentence - doesn't that sound like the core of most managers' reasons to train their staff? What is wrong with that? His point is that training is usually intended to bring about organisational change, to deliver real business value, but that requires that four key areas are addressed; systems, attitude, knowledge and skills.

  • Systems: Does the organisation actually monitor, encourage, and reward this (new) behaviour?
  • Attitude: Do people want to do this? Do they buy in to its importance?
  • Knowledge: Do they know how to do it?
  • Skills: Are they any good at implementing and executing what they know?

Education addresses knowledge and training addresses skills, but these are the last two that should be looked at as systems and attitude trump them both when it comes to actually deciding people's behaviour.

At our TrainingManager.NET launch last week Dr Denise Myerson challenged attendees to track the positive effects of their staff training and make sure they could demonstrate business value to the executives. She made the point that too often training seems irrelevant to the trainees' daily work (her "Let's Learn Fijian" example demonstrated this nicely) and reminded us that managers are responsible for ensuring staff understand why they are being trained (which matches Maister's attitude key). She has a blog post dealing with this in more detail.

"Like any management professionals, we should ask ourselves if the results of our training are both value for money and properly aligned to the goals of the organization."

The point is that training is usually brought in as the first thing to do to ensure organisational change, when in reality it should come much later in the piece. So most managers problems with training are in reality borne out of their misuse of it - so how does Maister think it should be done?

"The summary is this: if the training has been in regular operating groups, in carefully chosen topics, right when the group can use the training, and with the group’s leader in the room, they can immediately begin a discussion of how they plan to integrate the training’s ideas into their practices. With the right preparation and follow-up, training can be immensely powerful."

In more detail Maister's training tips are:

  • Get the strategy right first (what do want people to do, and do we really know why they are not doing it now?).
  • What does top management behaviours and measurements need to change to reinforce the strategy?
  • What has to happen before training starts? What must be in place the day it finishes? (e.g. logins to the new system)
  • Train people in the groups they normally work with, rather than drawn from across the organisation.
  • Small training sessions are more effective (smaller in time and people).
  • Training should be scheduled on topics that can be applied immediately, not left to atrophy, or fade away.
  • The best training is done by your own staff. It's more credible and real.
  • Training must involve group leaders/managers if it is to be action-oriented and the commitment to change credible (i.e. place the group leader/manager in the course with their staff).
  • Courses need mandatory pre-reading and pre-testing to ensure all participants are equally prepared and committed. Don't waste people's time by allowing some to attend unprepared.

Larry Irons points out something similar in his blog post Leading the Business-Centered Learning Experience where he says:

"In other words, it is just not sufficient for leaders who manage the learning process in organizations to focus on measuring learning outcomes that remain course-centered. Meaningful learning outcomes are business-centered and require that level of measurement to remain relevant to the organization’s objectives."

Irons discusses an article by Forrester's Claire Schooley, Learning Director: Are You Ready for your New Role? The key quote Irons pulls out of the article is this:

“What are the critical areas of investment in people? Answering this question requires opening direct communication channels with top company executives to understand the business strategy and road map and then to align and create appropriate formal and informal employee learning experiences that support the road map.”

I'm a tools builder, so it's nice to think my tools are what is most important in making organisational change happen, but the reality is that while tools can enable change and make it cost-effective, like most things of real business value, the biggest factor is whether the organisation commits to the change from the top down. (I'm probably not a card-carrying Edupunk, but the principles are similar enough to ALT.NET for me to appreciate the viewpoint, and I think it is a reaction (mostly in education circles) to this same sort of problem, getting the trees confused with the forest, or more importantly, the way out of the forest!)

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