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The Myth of the Silver Bullet – And How to Improve the Effectiveness of Training

by AIMM MAITD

This article first appeared in Learning and Development in Australia, Vol 29 Issue 1, published by the Australian Institute of Training and Development.

Introduction

Australian companies spend five billion dollars on employee training annually. Research indicates that less than 20 percent of formal training actually results in benefits to organisations. With shrinking training budgets and the move to greater accountability of training departments, the spotlight is being placed increasingly on the organisational benefits of training. This article is aimed at HR and training managers who want to improve the organisational impact of their activities and consultants who want to advise clients as to how best to leverage their services for maximum organisational impact. I will say something about the myths surrounding the efficacy of training and will then go on to provide a practical guide for improving the effectiveness of training. Much of I what I will say here is specific to the rollout of large training and development programmes embedded in organisational change initiatives and consuming substantial resources. However, a large measure is also relevant to individual needs training and regularly repeated training.

Current research indicates that the extent to which training is transferred back in the workplace is dependent on individual student attributes, training design and delivery and workplace climate. As trainers we cannot do much about the first and we spend a lot of time and effort on the second through applying adult learning principles to training design and delivery. In the last few years, workplace environment factors are receiving more attention from researchers and account for a greater variation in training transfer than either of the other two factors. Training design and delivery are important for organisational outcomes, however, what happens before and after training is at least as important as what happens during the training event.

Organisational improvement and change arises from training only to the extent that the training participants change their behaviour once they return to the workplace. This is where the rubber hits the road. Underpinning knowledge and attitudinal changes are highly significant in that they underlie longer-term behaviour change. However, it is the resulting change in actual work practices that in the final analysis results in improved organisational effectiveness. The direction and extent of behaviour change is not only a function of the training event. It depends at least as much on the organisational history, structure and culture in which the trainers, managers and participants find themselves. The model below illustrates some of the most important of those workplace environment factors affecting training transfer.

Figure 1 – Workplace factors affecting employee behaviour following training

Workplace factors affecting employee behaviour

For training to be effective, organisations need to ensure that the above influences are working towards integrating the training with the workplace. Employee behaviour following training is a complex interplay of a variety of forces within an organisation. How often, though, is the training "event" seen divorced from the organisational setting in which it takes place? Systems thinking arose after the Second World War and became especially prominent in the 1970's, yet how many organisations are still thinking with one-dimensional linear models of causation? Some of the literature on measuring Return on Investment (ROI) of training programmes does not help here either. A number of published case studies give the impression that the training programme was the sole causal determinant of the organisational improvement.

It is this myth, that training is the "silver bullet" that will improve organisational outcomes without the need to attend to the workplace environment of trainees, that we need to dispel. The illusion here is that somehow once we get staff into a training room and they return to work that the organisation will change for the better – defect rates will fall, more product will be sold, managers will be more empathetic, discrimination will cease in the workplace, or whatever was the purpose behind the training will eventuate magically without further work required.

Even the term "training intervention" lulls us into a false sense of surety that all that is required to "fix" the problem or bring about change is a time boxed and isolated training "event". The upshot of this is that much of what goes by way of training in organisations today is akin to a fish cleaning exercise. We take the fish out of the bowl, very carefully clean each one and then put them back in the bowl from whence they came.

To move organisations forward, a greater emphasis now needs to be placed on linking training to workplace behaviour. Currently, advertising the effectiveness of training is mostly done through publishing the post-course recommendations of participants. This is seen in internal marketing and external vendor advertising blurbs recounting glowing testimonials from participants that sometimes border on religious fervour. My experience with surveys that I have conducted is that the initial enthusiasm quickly wanes once the trainees return to the reality of their workplace. In the future, internal trainers and external consultants will promote their programmes using hard data showing how the training improved the client organisation's outcomes. I suspect that this will not eventuate until organisations themselves take more of a systems approach to training.

This situation has not been helped by the training industry itself, with outlandish claims designed to attract clients. For example, an advertisement in a recent national computing magazine proclaimed boldly, "Learn to Repair and Upgrade Personal Computers – Plus full theory of operation". No prerequisites are required and all it takes is thirteen hours of tuition over four weeks. The learning of this complex practical skill is also available by correspondence, with the student being awarded an accredited certificate on passing one assignment!

I now want to introduce a practical model that will assist managers and trainers in integrating the training with the workplace for effective behaviour change. It is named the PRACTICE model in order to emphasise the central theme here of applying the learning to workplace practice for the benefit of the organisation.

Each element of the model captures an essential workplace factor for the effective transfer of learning. The elements are as follows.

  • Procedures
  • Roles and Responsibilities
  • Aids on the job
  • Coaching
  • Targets
  • Incentives
  • Communication
  • Engagement

I shall now explain each element in turn.

Procedures

Where the training is part of a change programme, the documented policies, procedures and work instructions need to be congruent with the new expected behaviours and require them in the workplace. These documents may need to be reviewed and revised, or they may need to be created if not already in existence.

Documented policies, procedures and work instructions serve three key purposes. Firstly, they are an important communication device, signaling the organisation's requirements to staff. Secondly, they document agreements reached about the way things are to be done and why. Thirdly, they set an agreed baseline from which future proposed improvements may be discussed, compared and measured. Documenting the way we do things here and why we do, and keeping the documentation up to date, sends a powerful reinforcing message to staff about what is expected from them following the training.

If a new system has been implemented, such an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or Customer Relationship Management (CRM), it is crucial that the new procedures are written and released before the trainees return from training. If the procedures require revision, such as with the replacement of a production machine with the latest model, once again, the procedures will need to been updated prior to the return of the trainees. Ideally, the new policies and procedures ought to be the subject of the training and used during the training itself. Staff who return to the workplace only to be confronted with outdated or non-existent procedures and work instructions will very quickly lapse back into the old way of doing things.

Roles and Responsibilities

For transfer to be maximised, staff will require a clear message that they are to be held accountable for their actions and performance following the training. Role descriptions will need to be updated with unambiguous statements on required behaviours and performance expectations. Role descriptions can be made into a powerful link between training and later workplace performance through transcribing the behaviourally and performance based learning outcomes of the training programme into the role descriptions.

For example, if one of the learning outcomes of the training programme is that trainees will be able to process five customer orders per hour with all fields completed correctly, then this is how the performance expectation needs to be stated in the role description. Doing this will also serve to provide a clear link between the training and the formal performance appraisal process. Of course, the role descriptions will require updating before or soon after the trainees return from training and with the appropriate consultation and agreement.

Aids on the Job

Training aids used during training are ideal for replication in the work environment for employee use on the job. These include models, guides, diagrams, manuals, templates and checklists. Other opportunities to enhance the benefits of training include the development of forms, macros, go-no go gauges and poke yoke devices. Such on-the-job aids will serve to increase training transfer and improve workplace productivity and product quality and service.

Coaching

The importance of on-the-job coaching once training participants return to the job is now well documented. Much training that is conducted in organisations today is short and intensive. The two drivers for this are the lost opportunity cost of having staff away from their workplace and the difficulty of releasing staff from operational environments. Given this intensive nature of programmes, it is just not possible to turn out staff that are able to apply their new skills expertly in the multitude of complex and varying environments that they will face back in the real world, except for the most simplest of motor skills and procedures.

Assistance on-the-job may be synchronous or asynchronous, in person or mediated by technology. Assistance includes on-the-job coaching for more immediate skill requirements and mentoring for more long-term development or career needs. Many e-learning vendor solutions now include on-line coaching and mentoring via email and chat rooms.

Planning for on-the-job coaching in the programme design and implementing such help conveys to participants that management is serious about inculcating the new behaviours. All too many participants report that on returning to the job they have had no or little opportunity to apply the skills learned. If learned skills are not applied within a short period, the learning will extinguish rapidly. On-the-job coaches may be of assistance here in identifying workplace opportunities for the application of skills.

Targets

Setting organisational objectives before training design begins is the cornerstone of successful improvement and training programmes. If the organisation doesn't know where it is going, all roads will take it there. So, firstly, identify the organisational outcomes that the improvement and training programmes will serve to achieve. What are not meant here are the course objectives or learning outcomes. Determining these will come later. The question here is, What is the end benefit to the organisation of this programme? This may be a reduced number of defects shipped, increased proportion of new products in range, reduced time to market, reduced waste, improved employee retention, and so on.

Beginning with defining the organisational goals will enable the organisation to:

  1. measure objectively the success of the improvement programme
  2. focus employee efforts on what is important
  3. design an effective training programme

Considering the first purpose, measuring objectively the success of the improvement programme, the goals need to meaningful and useful. Recommended here is the adoption of the well-known SMART principle in which goals are Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic and Time specified. Specifying measurable and meaningful goals is no easy task and to do it well is time consuming but well worth the effort. Without specific and measurable goals, it will not be possible to determine objectively whether the programme was successful. For example, do not set a goal of improving product quality. Instead, set a target of reducing defect rates on Machine A by ten percent before end of financial year.

When helping your or your client's organisation articulate its goals, questions to ask are:

  • What is the organisation really trying to achieve?
  • What data is already available that may serve as indicators of goal achievement?
  • Who will be responsible for collecting and reporting the data?

It is advisable to keep the number of goals to a minimum, otherwise your organisation may suffer from paralysis by analysis. For large improvement programmes, use a mix of leading and lagging indicators, that is, in-process indicators and outcome indicators. An example of a leading indicator is machine downtime whilst a lagging indicator might be number of late deliveries. And remember that the responsibility for achieving the organisational outcomes is not solely that of the HR/training department. Far from it. Systems thinking shows us that achieving targets is a shared responsibility with line managers and supervisors.

Readers familiar with Kirkpatrick's model for evaluating the effectiveness of training programmes will recognise that assessing the extent of behaviour change is a Level 3 evaluation, whilst determining progress toward achieving organisational targets is a Level 4 evaluation. The point here is that evaluations at these two levels are not evaluations of the training programme per se, but evaluations of the organisational improvement programme in which the training programme is embedded as just one element.

For some programmes, there may appear to be no "bottom-line" goals applicable. What are the measurable organisational outcomes for team-building and leadership development programmes and legislative awareness programmes such as EEO and unfair dismissal? For professional/interpersonal skills programmes and the like, I suggest soft measures as can be gained from survey instruments, such as 360 degree questionnaires. For legislative compliance, OH&S training and the like, I would suggest avoidance goals, such as no or reduced EEO complaints, safety incidents and so on.

If we cannot say what we expect as the outcome of an improvement programme, in measurable terms, we ought to think twice about devoting resources to it. The funds may be better used elsewhere. This is another reason for ascertaining the measurable goals first. It provides a valuable reality check on the utility of the proposed programme.

Once we have agreed and set the measurable goals of the programme, this will then serve our second purpose of focussing employee efforts on what is important. The goals need to be communicated through all levels of management up to the frontline employee. Employees who know that there are goal posts, and know where the goal posts are, are much more likely to kick goals for the organisation. Of course, staff will want to know how the game is being played out. For optimal feedback, performance results are preferably displayed in a public place, such as the main corridor or team meeting room, and displayed in an easily understood form such as bar or line charts.

The third purpose of setting measurable organisational goals is to set the scene for effective training course design. If we know what the organisation wants from the training in terms of organisational outcomes, and we design the training around these outcomes, the training delivered will better serve the organisation.

So, beginning with the end in mind, we may, for example, determine that the organisation wants to increase the operational availability of its pressing machines by twenty percent. To achieve this, it proposes that machine operators take on the responsibility for preventative and simple maintenance operations and for identifying the more difficult repairs for escalation to engineers. From this specification, a list of new or modified workplace behaviours is compiled, stating as precisely as possible the technical and procedural activities required. Once the new and modified behaviours are known and agreed, the course objectives and learning outcomes may be constructed around the required behaviours. The learning outcomes, of course, are stated in behavioural terms, with any underpinning knowledge and required attitudes specified. The training intervention design and development may now proceed.

The sequence of training programme design may be presented as follows.

Figure 2 – Phases of training programme design

Training Program Design Phases

This is neither new nor a complicated science, yet how often do we see the above flow proceed in reverse? The training department receives a request for a particular type of training, hurriedly cobbles something together for delivery at short notice and then, when it transpires that little has changed in the workplace, is criticised for delivering an ineffective programme. Many organisations continue to adopt this smorgasbord approach to training, saying they want a bit of this and a bit of that and choosing what someone else has used before or whatever happens to be around at the time. The performance consulting method advocated here turns this traditional approach on its head. You can ensure that training leads to real workplace behaviour change through starting the front-end analysis at the finish line, with a clear specification of the organisational goals.

Incentives

Some staff will apply the behaviours learned during the training for its own sake. These staff are highly motivated by internal drivers, such as pride or a strong personal interest in the new skills, and will seek to apply the skills even in the face of organisational barriers. Many staff will only apply the new skills if urged and some staff will positively react against the new expectations. For these latter two groups, transfer of training will remain minimal unless there are external incentives to change workplace behaviour.

This is where linking of skills training back into the performance management system is essential. This linkage may occur at one or more of four levels; appraisals and incentives at the organisational level, at the department level, at the team level and at the level of the individual. Rewards may include profit sharing or gain sharing, department and team performance bonuses, team dinners, gift vouchers and individual performance bonuses and salary reviews. The important point here is that to optimise training transfer, the criteria for awarding the incentive needs to match the improvement program objectives and targeted behaviours. At the organisation, department and team level, appraisal criteria would refer to the improvement program targets identified previously. At the individual level, appraisal criteria would include the actual behaviours taught during the training or their immediate results. Formal staff appraisals are also a strategic time for reviewing each staff member's progress on their Personal Action Plan developed after the training.

Organisations that leave individual performance feedback to the time of formal appraisals display another form of "silver bullet" thinking. Staff benefit from feedback given on a regular basis using a variety of methods; informal remarks, weekly team meeting reviews, project implementation debriefs and so on. Waiting till formal appraisal time to entrench behaviours taught is likely to get a poor result. Training transfer will be maximised when the supervisor catches staff on an on-going basis displaying the correct or incorrect behaviours. The feedback will need to be timely and specific, occurring as close as possible to the event in question and referring explicitly to the characteristics of the behaviour that were praiseworthy or in need of improvement.

Communication

A comprehensive communication plan is the backbone to successful improvement and training programmes. Information that will require dissemination includes:

  • changes in policies, processes and procedures and location of documents
  • new and modified staff roles and responsibilities and location of documents
  • training course objectives and schedule
  • purpose, instructions for use and location of on-the-job aids
  • availability and contact details of on-the-job coaches
  • expected organisational outcomes and performance targets
  • organisational performance results
  • formal and informal staff performance feedback
  • availability of staff incentives

Ensure that each piece of communication is sent to all appropriate levels in the organisation. Experience indicates that it is often overly optimistic to expect that information given to higher levels of management will be passed on to supervisors and frontline staff. Where this does happen, the filtering process in many cases leaves the original message unidentifiable. Where at all possible, I would suggest communicating directly to those affected, letting the higher levels of management know what you are doing. I would also recommend avoiding the use of email and written memos to send out important messages. These are poor media for gaining attention and commitment. Staff buy-in to the programme, with the attendant motivation to behave differently, will be enhanced by supervisors and higher level managers communicating the nature and objectives of the programme as much as possible.

Engagement

Employees need to be engaged in the learning process and later workplace application if training is to be effective. Professional trainers work hard to motivate training participants to learn through a variety of techniques. However, this process needs to start before participants even begin the training. Of vital importance here is the pre-course briefing between the supervisor and the staff member. This discussion serves to inform the participants of the nature and purpose of the training and to identify specific development opportunities it affords. This is also the place to introduce discussion about how the principles, techniques and skills learned will be applied practically once the participant returns from the training event. The supervisor is also in the best position to ensure that participants have completed any pre-requisite reading or exercises. Most important of all, the pre-course briefing sends a powerful message that the organisation cares about the employee's development and is serious about seeing the benefits of training.

Supervisors and managers attending the training along with the other participants will also assist entrenching the new behaviours. The presence of supervisors and managers will help later transfer of skills to the workplace through:

  • familiarising supervisors and managers with the content/relevance of the course
  • conveying the impression to participants that the training is important
  • helping participants relate the course content to their workplace situation

Engaging the participant at the conclusion of the training begins with the post-course briefing. Here, the supervisor reviews with the participant the content of the training and the participant's experiences. Many participants returning from training report the lack of opportunities to apply the skills learned once back in the workplace. The post-course briefing is an ideal juncture at which to identify, plan and agree with the staff member where the skills will be applied.

Research indicates that individual goal-setting activities are especially conducive to participants applying the skills. Goal-setting may take the form of the supervisor negotiating a Personal Action Plan with each participant. Ideally, the action plan will document proposed workplace applications of the requisite skills, resources required, when the skills are to be applied and how the results are to be reviewed and by whom. The plan will need to be reviewed regularly for completion of the action items.

Where the trainer or HR department alone performs these goal-setting activities, the results are seldom successful. This is one area illustrating the pivotal role of the supervisor position in organisations. Supervisors (or Leading Hands/Team Leaders/Frontline Managers) act as the intermediary between the frontline employee serving an internal or external customer and the higher levels of management. Supervisors set the primary role model for expected performance and behaviour and are most in a position to provide assistance and encouragement for the employee once they return from training. A supervisor overtly or covertly discouraging or even simply not encouraging the application of the new skills will lead not only to a waste of scarce training dollars but also to an increase in staff frustration and lowered morale.

Integrating the Elements

Just as the separate letters p, r, a, c, t, i, c, and e have no meaning until placed together in the word PRACTICE, without a unifying direction, the various actions outlined above will be simply a disparate set of activities. Staff working on the programme may add their own interpretations, follow hidden agendas or go off on well-meaning tangents.

The overall purpose of the programme is organisational improvement. Each element is a piece in the jigsaw puzzle, interlocking with the rest. Each piece has its role to play and one piece missing will rob the rest of significance. The procedures and policies say how to perform and why, the role descriptions say what level of performance is required, the incentives give a personal reason to perform and measurement of achievement towards the targets proves that people are performing.

Without a co-ordinator to wrap these elements together, procedures and role descriptions may be revised without specific linkage to the behaviours taught during the training. Without a co-ordinator, communication with managers, staff and stakeholders may be piecemeal and incomplete. Without a co-ordinator, devised performance targets and incentives may drive counterproductive behaviours.

The PRACTICE model sets the agenda for programme communication, with the co-ordinator ensuring that all communication takes place with the right people and at the right time. Timing is also critical in ensuring that the training, job aids, revised procedures and role descriptions, and so on, are all made available in the right sequence and when needed.

The improvement programme will most likely reach success if run as a project using standard project management principles. In this case, the programme co-ordinator will be the project manager. For maximum buy-in from the business, I recommend that the project manager be nominated from the business and not from the HR/training area. The HR/training department will be responsible for a number of tasks, depending on the organisation, and including, for example, revising role descriptions, identifying on-the-job coaches, revising performance incentives and, of course, designing and delivering the training programme. It may also provide a consulting service in the areas of procedure review, setting organisational goals and Personal Action Plans, and programme evaluation. The important point here is that the targets for success are business targets, with the business owning the overall improvement programme in which the training programme is embedded.

Conclusion

Organisations invest considerable sums of money in training employees. Much of that expenditure is wasted through ineffective planning and weak linkages between the training conducted and the workplace. The PRACTICE model outlined here in this article gives practical guidance for organisations and practitioners in leveraging the efficacy of training for improved organisational effectiveness.

Particularly significant is the need to identify explicitly the organisational benefits expected from the training, the creation of firm linkages between the training and the organisation's performance management system, and assistance back on the job with coaching, on-the-job aids and documented procedures. For transfer of training to take place, a communication plan and one centralised point for programme planning and implementation were also identified as important. It is only through managers, supervisors and training professionals working together in partnership to achieve these essentials that organisations will maximize their investments in training.

References

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© Copyright Leslie Allan

About the Author
Leslie Allan

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 office@businessperform.com

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Find out more about how to improve the impact of your 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.

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