According the ASTD, we spend somewhere north of $150 billion per year training and developing our work force in the United States. The question is – to what end? What good is spending all this money if it doesn’t produce tangible outcomes that improve our organization or our business performance? It’s akin to letting your valuable resources get absorbed into some big black hole from which nothing of value can escape.
Here is an example. A highly respected global company engaged a group of senior executives in a leadership development program. They partnered with a leading business school, and these high potential execs were exposed to a wide array of topics, business cases, and workshop sessions. At the end, the feedback was stellar. Everyone thought the program was of high quality, was enjoyable and participants were emphatic about the many useful things they learned.
Six months later, that same group was asked to cite tangible examples of how their business performance was “better” as a consequence of what they had learned, and applied from the course. Not one could come up with anything specific.
Most CEO’s I speak to are cynical about whether training and development does anything useful. The HR community some years ago (probably as a defensive move) started to talk about measuring the ROI on training and development. (ASTD now even has a handbook on how to measure it – see below). We can measure the cost alright, but as in the example above, assessing the benefits in a convincing way is not so easy. So the logical action is to work on reducing the denominator of the ROI equation. So we try to do the training in fewer days, with more people per session, or use more on-line methods.
Let’s focus instead on the NUMERATOR of the ROI equation.
We all understand the need to manage costs, but let’s put some more thought into how to improve the effectiveness of our training and development investments. Here are some ideas I think will help.
Stop “check-the-box” training. So often, I see HR or learning professionals develop a thoughtful matrix of “leadership skills” that they feel every manager and employee should have. By the time you get done with communications, performance appraisal techniques, understanding strengths and personality styles, business acumen topics and so forth; the list ends up being pretty long. We put together a curriculum and begin signing up people and steering them to different courses based on their job duties. While the selected topics all seem reasonable (even important), success doesn’t come from measuring the percentage of your workforce who has taken the courses. Sitting in a class and having your attendance recorded does not necessarily equal learning. It surely does not equal transformation. We need to demand more of our instructors, and our participants.
Think about BEHAVIOR objectives, rather than on learning objectives. People in education typically start their course design process by thinking about the learning outcomes we have in mind (a list of things we want participants to know when the course is completed). Then we decide what content we might deliver and how. In some cases, we also think about how we would measure whether the participants actually learned what we taught. I believe this focus is wrong. Who cares what your people know? We should care about what they are capable of DOING differently as a consequence of our courses. If they can’t execute differently as a consequence of the learning, then our work isn’t done.
People don’t generally learn in a classroom. They learn when the actually struggle to apply it in their own world. That’s when the nuances, dichotomies and contradictions present themselves that force us to think more deeply. We might be persuaded during a class to try to act differently in some important way. We send you off after the workshop, you try to do it, and you run into some difficulty. If it is too hard or too messy, you are likely to abandon the new methodology, returning instead to what you have done in the past, no matter how imperfect.
Wouldn’t a better approach be to design the course in segments spanning several days or weeks. Give the participants time in between class sessions to experiment and learn by themselves. Teach – Apply – Debrief – Coach – Teach More – Reapply.
We tend not to think this way because our list of topics is too long, and our budget is limited. So we tend to favor breadth instead of deep learning. This leads me to the next point.
Choose fewer topics, and go deeper. I have often seen examples where companies will deliver a program spanning 13 or 20 topics over as many sessions, with none being more than a half-day or so. In this case, we are just skimming the surface. Imagine trying to teach a topic like strategy or persuasive communications in only three hours. You can introduce some basic concepts – but they are not likely to sink in. So think again about what things are really important to teach. Be disciplined. Offer the same 13 or 20 sessions, but only cover 2 or 3 topics. Teach-Apply-Debrief-Coach-Reapply. Shouldn’t we be aiming at deep understanding and behavior change, not superficial knowledge?
Apply, apply, apply. Think about a learning process as being about 75% doing, and 25% formal learning. I suggest to you that our conventional model is the reverse. To really absorb the content – they need to practice it. The most useful practice comes when they are doing it on a real work situation (not a theoretical in-class case example). Here is what I mean. We can teach the content behind persuasive communications in a half-day. All the right ideas will have been covered. As an alternative, you could ask participants to prepare a 5-minute persuasive argument before coming into the class. Have them present it live. Record it and invite the class members to give each other feedback. Then, teach some of the course content, and ask them to completely redo their presentations, incorporating what they were just taught. Ask them to re-present and get the same type of feedback. Now let’s take this idea one step further. Only allow people into the class who have an actual persuasive presentation they need to develop for their work. Maybe some need to design a customer sales presentation, and announcement about a new policy or procedure change, or a proposal for a new R&D project. In this case everyone in class has a vested interest in learning – because they want their presentations to be awesome. Allow only people into class who want to be there and who have a business need to fulfill. This leads me to the next point.
Design training around a live business problem. Let’s agree that when measuring the ROI from our learning dollars can be based on whether or not we made our business or organization better in some way. One way to do this is to begin with selecting some important business issue or problem that needs to be solved. Then choose a team whose assignment is to solve it. Next, ask what skills, knowledge or insight gaps this team might lack – based on the problem, and then design the curriculum around those. That is training with a real purpose.
For example, let’s resolve not to teach something like business strategy in strictly an academic setting. Let’s teach it to a group who NEED to develop a real strategy for their team, department or function. THEN, lets include some learning blocks on assessing the environment, building a sustainable advantage, planning execution initiatives, determining key success factors and metrics, mission alignment, and progress tracking. All the while, the team is applying these ideas to their own relevant business situation. Teach – Apply – Debrief – Coach – Teach – Reapply.
Using this philosophy, measuring the benefits of the learning becomes easier. Did we solve the business problem? Did we develop a killer strategy? Did we develop an effective sales presentation that won some new business?
Learning & Performance Support Best Practices Study: Summary Report, by HSA Learning & Performance Solutions LLC
Stop Wasting Money on Training, by Harold D. Stolovitch & Erica J. Keeps
Are You Wasting Money on Management Training?, by Ron Ashkenas, in Forbes Magazine
Handbook Of Measuring And Evaluating Training, by Patti Phillips and ASTD