How Training Works

Relying on a sophisticated view of how training contributes to positive organizational outcomes leads to better business results.


Why Training Matters

Many organizations do employee training on the cheap. These organizations give non-professionals, such as the administrative officer or the customer service representative, the job of organizing and running training sessions. The lack of importance given to training is often reflected in the fact that the training role is given to the hapless person in addition to their normal job.

These organizations also typically conduct training without first completing a proper training needs analysis. Usually, no follow up is made to see if the training actually achieved the organization's objectives. Most are content to run the usual "smiley sheets" to see if participants liked the program.

Training sessions in these organizations are usually "brain dumps", with seemingly never-ending decks of mind-numbing PowerPoint slides and little to no opportunity for participants to discuss and practice skills. It's no wonder then that for these organizations, the money and time spent on training is mostly wasted. And when times get tough, training is the first service to get cut in these companies.

Leaders in best-of-breed organizations, on the other hand, recognize the critical role that training plays in enabling the organization to achieve its strategic and operational goals. In the new economy, competition is fierce and the business landscape is changing continuously. When employee, team, business unit and organizational capability are not keeping pace with competitive pressures, short-sighted organizations fall behind.

A Sophisticated Model of How Training Works

Understanding how training works to build capability and implementing effective learning are cornerstones of successful companies. Grasping how training works to achieve lasting outcomes at all levels of an organization is not intuitive. Many novice managers believe that sending employees on an entertaining training program is enough to guarantee learning and benefits to the organization. Now contrast this "naïve" view of how training works with the more sophisticated model shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1 – The "sophisticated" view of how training works

How Training Works diagram

This model is based on Donald Kirkpatrick's four level schema for evaluating the effectiveness of training programs. Our view of how training works meshes neatly with Kirkpatrick's Four Levels as both models recognize the same causal connections between the four events. These four events in the causal chain are:

  • Step 1: Trainee attends the training program
  • Step 2: Trainee learns new knowledge and skills
  • Step 3: Trainee applies the new skills in their workplace
  • Step 4: Organization reaps the beneficial results of the program

Looking backwards in time, with this view we can see how the benefits from the training program eventuate. We can see clearly how the organizational benefits depend on a series of earlier events. So, for the organization to gain a benefit (Step 4), employees must change their behavior on the job (Step 3). For employees to positively change their behavior, they must learn the new skills (Step 2). For employees to learn the new skills, they must successfully attend the training program in the first place (Step 1).

Some critics of this view of how training works point out that the chain of causation from attendance to results is not singular and strictly linear. They point out that other factors influence whether a trainee learns, whether they apply the skills on the job and whether the benefits result. For example, for a machine operator to apply a new machine setup process (Step 3), engineers must keep the machine in proper working order. For factory turnaround time to reduce (Step 4), delivery trucks must remain well-maintained.

In this, these critics are entirely correct. If we were to draw the causal map from the initial attending to learning to the gaining of the benefits, what we would see would be more like a network diagram. We choose to illustrate the model of how training works on a linear plane for two reasons. Firstly, we want to make the model easier to understand. In our diagram, we depict these other causes as mediating factors. These mediating factors are represented by the yellow tags shown in Figure 1. We will say more about these shortly.

Secondly, as designers and deliverers of training programs, we are primarily interested in how, specifically, our training programs result in beneficial outcomes for the receiving organization. So, while it is true that a trainee can learn the same skills outside of a formal training program and that the same organizational benefits can result from causes independent of the training program, it is the contribution of the program itself that we want to focus on.

If we are planning to spend half a million dollars on a new leadership program, we want to know specifically how that spend will result in positive outcomes for our organization. Our model explicitly shows this causal chain of events while filtering out causes not directly related to the training program.

It is true that as we assess the efficacy of a particular training program, we need to isolate these other non-training causal factors. This is critically important if we want our evaluation to be accurate and credible to our stakeholders. For this purpose, our Training Evaluation Toolkit provides trainers with all of the tools they need to evaluate the impact of training and to isolate non-training factors from their measurements.

Mediating Factors

On this sophisticated view of how training works, we shun a simplistic causal model in which an earlier event is both necessary and sufficient for the later event to occur. We recognize that for training to work, many other factors come into play to both allow and promote the training to take effect on real organizational outcomes. We call these other influences mediating factors.

In this section, we list some real-life examples of these mediating factors and how they work to influence outcomes at each step. Each of these mediating factors is a pointer to where the training can either be turbo boosted or be derailed. Each factor directs us to where we need to devote our energies if our training program is to meet with success.

Some mediating factors are outside of our control. Nonetheless, it is important that we recognize these factors as they influence the success or failure of the program. When we go on to conduct a formal evaluation of the program, we need to take account of these uncontrollable factors in our measurements. Let us now look at these controllable and uncontrollable mediating factors for each of the four steps in the training to performance process.

Step 1: Trainee Attendance

The extent to which trainees attend the program at all depends on these factors:

  • visible supervisor support for the program
  • clear communications about program timing and venue
  • on time transport to the venue (face to face training)
  • working computer equipment (online training)

Factors beyond the control of the organization at Step 1 include:

  • extended power failure
  • adverse weather conditions (face to face training)
  • computer infrastructure failure (online training)

Step 2: Trainee Learning

Even when trainees, by and large, attend the training, learning may not occur at a sufficient level. The degree to which trainees learn the new knowledge and skills taught depends on these factors:

  • clearly stated instructional objectives
  • comfortable and supportive learning environment
  • opportunity for skill practice
  • frequent social interaction
  • accurate and timely performance feedback

Factors beyond the control of the trainer at Step 2 include:

  • innate cognitive, emotional and physical abilities of the trainees
  • intrinsic motivation level of the trainees

Step 3: Workplace Behavior

Even when trainees learn the skills, a variety of workplace factors may impede their application on the job. The extent to which trainees apply the learning to their jobs depends on these variables:

  • time and resources available to apply the learning
  • learnings relevant to the employees' roles and jobs
  • active supervisor support to apply the learning
  • coaching and mentoring resources available
  • pre-course and post-course supervisor/employee briefings
  • learning goal setting and goal review activities
  • program attendance by supervisors and managers
  • accurate and timely performance feedback to the employees

Factors beyond the control of the trainer and at times the trainees' supervisor at Step 3 include:

  • employees laid off or made redundant
  • employees redeployed to another role or location
  • major system or equipment malfunction

Step 4: Organization Results

Even when employees apply the skills, the expected benefits to the organization may not happen. The degree to which benefits ensue for the organization depends on these internal causal factors:

  • volatility of management decision-making
  • changes in management direction
  • dedication of financial and material resources
  • changes to supporting staffs
  • stability of information and reporting systems

Every organization exists within an environmental, social and market context. These external factors that are beyond the control of the organization at Step 4 include:

  • economic downturns in the industry or the economy generally
  • changes in government regulations
  • extreme weather events, such as fire and flood
  • entrance of a new competitor to the market
  • aggressive marketing or price-cutting by a competitor
  • introduction of new technology to the market

The above list of mediating factors is not meant to be exhaustive. However, it does give a picture of the multitude of complex and interrelated factors that influence the outcomes of training. Our toolkit, From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance, provides trainers and managers with practical strategies for capitalizing on these mediating factors.

Case Studies

Let's illustrate the mediating factors at play at each of the four steps with a couple of case studies. The first case study illustrates what can go wrong with a poorly planned and supported program. This example concerns a machine operator course for new employees working on a production line at an electronics manufacturing plant. The key objective of the course was for new production line employees to become productive in a shorter period of time following employment.

Case Study 1 – Machine Operator Program

At Step 1 (Trainee Attendance), some employees did not attend the training as the production line supervisor was anxious to meet ever-demanding production targets. She forced employees on the afternoon shift to keep working to meet deadlines.

At Step 2 (Trainee Learning), the course was put together by a previous supervisor with little training in the principles of adult learning. As a consequence, the program focused on conveying information, such as the names of the various parts of the machine. The program offered very little time for the participants to ask questions, discuss and try out various operational tasks for themselves.

At Step 3 (Workplace Behavior), when the new employees returned to the job, they became even more discouraged as they tried to refer to the training guide for instructions. Each time they attempted to refresh their memory of the course contents, their supervisor yelled at them for wasting time.

At Step 4 (Organization Results), the learning from the course quickly became redundant. Six weeks after employees completed the course, all machines were upgraded with new controller software.

This case study illustrates how the flow of causation from participants attending the course to the delivery of benefits can get sidetracked at one or more of the four key steps in the process.

Case Study 2 – Sales Program

The second case study is about a sales training program for sales executives. The program was designed to raise sales volume and customer retention for a home cleaning product. This example shows how managers and trainers can work together to ensure that the mediating factors have a positive influence on the training program and the end results for the business.

At Step 1 (Trainee Attendance), sales executives were notified of the program prerequisites, venue and schedule well in advance. Their manager organized staffs from another division to fulfill pre-existing customer meeting commitments whilst the training participants were attending the course.

At Step 2 (Trainee Learning), during the training, participants were encouraged to discuss their current challenges with customers in an open and trusting environment. The trainer worked closely with each participant, helping them apply the techniques to conquer their identified challenges.

At Step 3 (Workplace Behavior), once back on the job, weekly coaching sessions were organized with each participant to help them overcome barriers to application. In addition, an achievement award was given each month to the sales executive showing most improvement.

At Step 4 (Organization Results), the management team decided to delay the major upgrade to the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system by six months. This delay gave the sales executives time to practice and bed in their new sales skills without the distraction of learning a new CRM system at the same time.

This case study illustrates well how trainers and participants' managers can work together to ensure the smooth flow of causation from course attendance to organizational results. When trainers and managers are on the same page and organizational systems are aligned to the training objectives, the training process can deliver real and lasting benefits.

What Now?

The above model of how training works maps a causal chain from participants attending a training program to learning the skills required to applying the new skills to their real work situation to the organization gaining performance benefits. According to this sophisticated view, the causal chain is not linear to the exclusion of other causal factors. Each antecedent step does not automatically guarantee that the next step will be reached. Just because attendees learn the skills does not mean that they will automatically apply the skills to their job. The strength of the model lies in shining a spotlight on the many intervening variables that must be tuned for training to deliver the wanted results.

Your job now is to pay attention to the most important mediating factors. Design your next training program taking all of these factors into account. Work with the prospective participants, their managers, senior executives and other stakeholders to ensure that the mediating factors are working in your favor. By paying attention to how training really works and the sophisticated model discussed here, you can build success into your program from the start.

Further Reading:

Expert View Author: AIMM MAITD

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From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance cover

This Expert View illustrates some of the mediating factors at play at each of the four steps. Discover other key mediating factors and learn powerful strategies and techniques for using them to your advantage. Our comprehensive guide and workbook provides all the tools you will need to get the most impact from your training programs.

From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance

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