Tag Archives: American Society for Training & Development

Stop Wasting Your Training Budget


AMSKAccording 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.

Sound familiar?

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?

Other Resources

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

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Re-Thinking Learning and Development. Part 1: Thinking about the Numerator


Because of our place as a provider of education products, we interact with many clients on the design and delivery of corporate learning programs.  Based on our experience, it is time to think differently about how we think about corporate learning.

Everyone in the Learning and Development field is trying to determine how to measure Return on Educational Investment.   ROEI = (derived benefits from training and development) / (education and training cost.)  As you can see from this 15-year-old article from Jack Phillips, we’ve been at this for some time.

Or, you can check out the ASTD Handbook for Measuring and Evaluating Training, which also attempts to address the issue.

As another alternative, here is a brief video from a training expert (Lynn Johnson).  See if she makes a convincing business case from your perspective.  (I surely didn’t think so).

How to measure the benefit to the organization of its learning and development effort IS the right question, but most would agree that measuring the benefits is difficult at best.

I have three degrees in engineering and science, and consider myself to be pretty strong analytically.  I believe I can develop a way to measure learning benefits. I can suggest ways to produce data spreadsheets and metrics.   But, if I am completely honest, while I can produce a report measuring such benefits, I’m not sure even I would believe that report.

As the CEO of my own business, I can tell you we spent a lot of money on training that I didn’t think had any measurable impact on our bottom line.   So, as CEO I tolerated it, largely because I didn’t want to be seen as being opposed to learning (that’s like being against puppies and clean air).   However, I allowed money to be spent without a high expectation about the outcomes.   I don’t think I am alone among C-suite inhabitants.

To combat this feeling that training just isn’t “worth it,” in many companies the L&D people are under increasing pressure to manage the DENOMINATOR of that ROEI equation – something we at least have control of.   With this approach you end up offering classes for more people, in 3 days instead of 5, on-line vs. live etc.

However, and in spite of the incumbent problems in measuring educational benefits, it is way too soon to give up on ways of increasing the NUMERATOR.

I am surprised by how often we encounter L&D professionals who ask us to teach a topic, and when we ask “Why do you want to teach this?” or “What is it that you want your employees to think, feel or do differently as a consequence of the training?”  they often have no good answer.

So we may get asked to teach a class on, say Meyers Briggs.   It is perhaps a 1.5 – 2 hr module.  The participants fill out their MBTI survey and then in class we can explain the various dimensions and how to interpret their results.    Now you may be pretty confident you have a facilitator who can teach this and receive very high student evaluation scores.   BUT . . . I would challenge you to survey the participants 2 months after the module, and ask 4 questions:

1)      Can you recall your MB Type indicator classification (like INTJ)?

2)      Can you explain what the dimensions mean (what is I, or E, or T?)

3)      Can you GUESS the MB type of your closest co-workers, based on your observations of their behavior?, and

4)      Given a particular scenario, can you describe how your human interaction strategy could be tailored to match their MBTI classification?

When I did such an evaluation in my own company, we found that only about 30 % could answer question one successfully, and the success rates dropped from there on.   0% (out of 25 participants) could answer all 4 questions.  Hopefully your results would be better than these, (but I would be surprised).

So, if you permit me the luxury of cynicism for a moment, if that is the measure of success for this workshop…  why do it at all?

Here is another way you could approach it.

If we wanted to teach MBTI in an impactful way, this might be a possible approach:

  • For admission to the class the employee first must have a co-worker or 2 with whom they had difficulty interacting – or who challenges them interpersonally.  They should be asked to write a description of the kind of situations that are problematic.   Their REASON, then, to come to the class is to gain some new ideas about how to interact better with that person.
  • Then, in the first 2-3 hr module, we ask participants to describe their problem scenarios, and challenge the class to discuss why these interactions are problematic.  We ask the group how to approach such individuals differently – and see what the group can come up with on their own.
  • Then, in the next 2-3 hr module, we administer the MBTI survey and explain the concepts behind it.
  • In the next 2-3 hr module we invite the class to consider what MBTI profile their personal antagonist has, and then invite them to reconsider the scenarios discussed in session 1 to arrive at a better way to handle interpersonal communications.
  • In between module 3 and 4, we challenge participants to  go back and experiment with their new skills with their problem co-worker
  • In the final 2-3 hr session, participants report back on what they tried, and what happened.  Their fellow participants and the facilitator can offer coaching suggestions as needed.

The problem, of course, is that this approach is 12 hours, rather than 2, and therefore costs 6X as much to deliver. . . In an era of budget constraints, who is looking for a 6X budget increase?   So this latter approach is most likely to be rejected.

But perhaps we should change the structure of training overall to do Fewer trainings… while Going Deeper. Our next post covers just that.

What about you? What’s the most impactful training you’ve ever experienced–and why?

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