The communication skills course seemed like a good idea at the time. You told all your employees to attend, and now some months later your people are miscommunicating as badly as ever. What went wrong? It may be because you hold an outdated view of how training works. According to this oversimplified view, training works like a magic elixir. On this simple view, the act of attending the training course will automatically bring about the desired business benefits. If you enroll your people in an e-learning course, then sitting them in front of a computer will likewise result in automatic business improvement.
How training leads to good business outcomes on this view can be shown like this:
Trainee Attendance » Business Results
The arrows indicate this idea of how an employee attending a well-designed and executed training event causes the improved business results. The intended business outcome may be reduced time to market, fewer customer complaints or more repeat business, for example.
You favor this view if you see training as mostly about "telling" employees about what to do or how to do it. Managers that act on this view are primarily concerned about the "content" of the program. When deciding on a program, they only focus on the information that will be presented to the trainees.
I liken this approach to seeing trainees as automata or as pieces of hardware. On this approach, training employees works the same way as programming a machine: the employee is led into the programming area, the new instructions are "programmed" into the employee and the employee is then returned to the job.
You may think that you do not treat employees as machines, ready to be programmed. One way to determine if you see trainees as automata is to see how you respond when employees do not act on the instructions given in the training. When training fails to work, do you send the same employees back to the same training program, hoping that the instructions will "stick" the second time around? And when the second attempt at programming fails, do you then conclude that the employees are not "trainable" and ignore them from that point on.
I now want to bring to your attention a much more powerful view of how training works. Whereas the simple view is linear and one-dimensional, this more sophisticated view of training centers around the idea that there are a number of factors that interact with the training event to either bring about or prevent the intended business benefits. In a nutshell, this more sophisticated view can be summarized like this:
Trainee Attendance » Trainee Learning » Workplace Behavior » Business Results
Notice that on this view, there are more steps in the path starting from attending the training to achieving the desired business outcomes. With more steps, there is more opportunity for the training to fail over and above the trainee simply being "defective".
Let us look at these extra steps. The first step beyond the trainee simply attending the training event is their actual learning of the new knowledge and skills. For this step to occur, the training program needs to be well designed and conducted. The business and learning objectives need to be agreed and clearly stated. The program needs to include plenty of opportunities for trainees to practice, get constructive feedback, and so on. Appreciate here that the learning is not a given. If you want results, ensure that the people designing and delivering the program are true professionals.
Most importantly, note that in this step there are other mediating factors that help determine the extent to which your employees will learn. These factors include each trainee's innate ability and their motivation level. Your role here as the employees' manager is critical. You will need to ensure that only those with the necessary prerequisites attend the training. Secondly, there are things that you will need to do before and during the training to ensure that your employees are primed for learning and stay primed.
Moving now to the next step, here the trainee applies what they have learned to their job. The training program will fail if the trainees do not change their behavior in some desired way back in their workplaces. Once again, there are a number of factors that can either inhibit or enhance this transfer of learning. In this, your role as manager is paramount. First and foremost, you need to ensure that your employees have ample opportunity to apply their new skills back on the job. Where you have provided these opportunities, you will need to make sure that they have access to a coach that will help them over their initial difficulties and that you provide plenty of feedback on their performance.
Other things you will need to do include setting mutually agreed objectives, clarifying job responsibilities and rewarding employees when they do the right thing and achieve results. None of these important factors are a given, so work very closely with the trainer and your employees to ensure that the right workplace environment is set for trainees to use the new skills.
The last step involves translating the new behaviors into positive business outcomes. You may think that because your employees completed the training and applied it to their jobs, that this last step is guaranteed. It isn't. There may be other forces at play that will weaken or prevent the desired results. For example, the level of customer complaints may not reduce after training your operators in customer service because your product department recently released a new product full of defects. The wider context can also be important. The hoped for sales increase may not eventuate following the sales techniques training because the government reduced tariffs at the same time.
Worst of all is when the training program was not the right solution to begin with. You can spend a lot of money training quality inspectors on inspection techniques, but this will only increase the amount of rework if the defects introduced upstream are not prevented. So, work closely with the training program designers upfront to make sure that the training you devise will actually fix your problem.
As you can see, the more sophisticated view of training takes into account the factors that can either block or greatly diminish the positive business results you intended. This view focuses your eyes on each of the key steps in moving from mere attendance at a training program to seeing actual business results. A key learning from this view of how training works is that, as a manager, you will need to work in partnership with your employees and the people who design and roll out the training if your program is to have a chance at success.
There is a lot more to be said on how fostering this partnership can capitalize on the factors at play at each step to create more powerful training programs. I have done my job here if you go away with the realization that which high-level view of training you adopt will help determine your success as a manager.
Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, consultant and trainer for organizations large and small.
He is also the author of five books on training and change management and is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia. He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). Leslie may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Find out more about the two views of training and how you can improve the impact of your employee training programs. Check out Leslie Allan's practical resource kit packed with ideas, tools and templates for implementing effective learning. Visit the From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using Leslie's comprehensive training guide and toolkit today.