Nothing we learn in this world is ever wasted. Or is it…?

“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”

— Abraham Lincoln

I like this quote taken from a speech given to Congress by Abraham Lincoln. Although the time and context were naturally very different, I think his words could just as easily be applied to the world of work today – and indeed to any number of aspects of work life. It is not an exaggeration to say that we must look again at everything we do with a view to changing and improving on them where necessary and beneficial. The above quote came to mind last week as I was talking to a business owner on the issue of management development, and here is a synopsis of what the discussion entailed.

He had explained to me that, like most businesses, for the past few years he had invested little or nothing in management development. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of that decision, he said, the funds simply weren’t there to develop his management team, other than what he and other senior managers tried to do through an informal mentoring process. However, towards the end of last year, the company had secured a number of contracts which meant the future was looking a bit brighter, and as a consequence, he decided the time was right to offer a development programme for his management team. An outside company were contracted, a worthwhile training needs analysis was undertaken and a programme was agreed which contained modules applicable to all, as well as specific sessions relevant to different managers depending upon their level and role. In total, six days training were offered to all over a period of a six weeks or so. The feedback, he said, was good from those who attended: no complaints with either the content or delivery.

Yet, several months after the programme had taken place, he was very concerned that there was little practical change happening on the ground. His direct investment of €10,000 (not including the costs of taking managers away from work to attend the course) had certainly produced a largely positive reaction from his team, and that was welcome, but he couldn’t really see any lasting impact – or as he said himself ‘nothing dramatic” had happened as a result.

This chat got me thinking about a few issues in relation to not just management development but to training in general. The first point is that – and admittedly there is nothing new here – measuring the impact of training is inherently difficult. The second is that perhaps we need to completely overhaul how we view, and then deliver, training in the workplace, and especially so in relation to management development. Okay, I accept that this may not be the most exciting of subjects, or the most ‘trendy’ topic, but if you invest in any form of training and development, then you would like to make sure that you get the best return from it, right?

Measuring the impact of training

Let’s start with the Holy Grail of training – or, in other words, measuring its impact. In his seminal book, Evaluating Training Programs: The Four Levels, (1) Don Kirkpatrick has defined a four-level evaluation model which covers:

Level 1: Reaction

To what degree participants   react favourably to the training.

Level 2: Learning

To what degree participants   acquire the intended knowledge, skills, attitudes, confidence and commitment   based on their participation in a training event.

Level 3: Behaviour

To what degree participants   apply what they learned during training when they are back on the job.

Level 4: Results

To what degree targeted   outcomes occur as a result of the training event and subsequent reinforcement.(2)

This is a very useful model for helping you to consider how you can better evaluate the training you offer and there is no pretence that doing so is easy. It is not. Still, in my experience, few companies get beyond Level 2 evaluation. The key to attaining Level 4 evaluation for training is to try to link the outcomes from specific training activities to tangible business measures such as customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, sales, cost reductions and individual performance results. For example, a customer care training programme should make a defined impact on the quality of service and this could be tracked through your customer feedback results. Management development (depending upon what’s covered, of course) should make an impact on an individual manager’s performance which should show up in their Key Performance Results; or more generally, providing management development training should lead to higher engagement levels of employees which can be tracked through the employee engagement survey.

It sounds obvious to say that how you intend to ‘measure’ the impact of training should be discussed and agreed before the training is actually delivered, but despite this obvious logic, it rarely happens in my experience. Instead, the issue of how to gauge the benefits gained from a training programme is often only considered after the training has been delivered. In essence, the measurement issue should be an early consideration, not an afterthought and preparation questions should roughly appear in this order:

  • What gaps/opportunities have been identified for which training could be helpful?
  • Who needs this particular training, or would benefit from it?
  • What, specifically, do we want this training to achieve/deliver? How can that be quantified? How will we measure that impact?
  • To achieve those results, what must the training cover? What content is essential?
  • How should that content be structured?
  • Etc.

The important point to consider here is that if you want to better measure the outcomes from training offered, then you need to discuss the issue at an early stage.

Rethinking training

Apart from the obvious need to overhaul how we measure the impact of training, I think a more fundamental change is needed in how training is managed and delivered. For most training programmes at present, the design and delivery model looks as follows:

Generally, this is the approach taken in most businesses to all forms of training and, when managed effectively, this model can produce decent results, even if they aren’t always fully measurable. But, there is a better way and it begins with a mindset shift away from thinking in terms of training ‘programmes’ to considering training ‘processes’. The easiest way to explain this transition is to highlight an example.

In the earlier example, the owner spent €10,000 for a six day programme for his managers, which in essence was about 48/50 hours training per person, concentrated over a six week period (1 day per week essentially). The difficulty with this model is that the learning comes within a very short timeframe and there is little opportunity for managers to absorb, or indeed to implement, that learning. Added to this problem, in my long experience in management development, I have found that most managers and indeed employees dislike spending a full-day on a training course and when they do, their concentration levels fluctuate wildly, no matter how good the content and delivery. Attention spans are definitely shortening.

As a result, I would propose an entirely different delivery model for most workplace training, based on viewing it as a process which lasts over a longer period, say a full year. Naturally, the ‘Needs Analysis’ phase would remain the same and it is of course vital to get this stage right – without it, then no model of delivery will achieve the right results because you will actually be addressing the wrong needs. Then, in terms of delivering the training, in this specific example, instead of  delivering 6 x 8 hour sessions over a six week period, there could be 12 x 4 hour sessions delivered over the period of a year. In other words, there would be a four hour session offered every month.

Naturally, it doesn’t have to follow exactly this model and depending upon the training involved the sessions could be delivered over 10 months, or other, also taking into account the nature of the business, but you get the picture. The training should be spread out over a longer period of time so that it becomes a process and not a programme. There are many advantages to this approach:

  • First and foremost, it provides learning in smaller ‘bites’ (in reality, you can do justice to most topics in four hours or ½ day) which in turn allows participants to better absorb the information provided.
  • It is easier to manage in the sense that taking people away from work for four hours a month is infinitely ‘do-able’.
  • It allows implementation targets to be set after each phase of the training which can be tracked at the next month’s session. For example, if one four hour session was focused on managing meetings, a target could be set that all attendees would apply the learning in a meeting over the coming weeks and discuss outcomes at the next session.
  • In light of the previous point, it makes the process of measuring impact much easier because you can gauge tangible developments over a longer period.
  • For most managers and employees, a move away from full day sessions delivered over a short period would be welcome and could increase the attractiveness of the training.
  • Although the same amount of money is invested in the training, this model will deliver a greater return.

On occasion, there may be a case to be made for front-loading training into a short period of time; for example, if you wanted to enhance the skills of your sales people to deliver an immediate impact, but as a rule this ‘training process’ model is far superior to what happens in most companies at present. None of this is rocket science of course, and you might wonder why this isn’t the norm already but again, in my experience, this is partially to do with the fact that training is still considered as a ‘box to be ticked’ in many companies as opposed to something that should make a real and lasting difference.

As I referred to at the outset, this article is hardly going to set your week alight but regardless of the size of your company, the costs of ineffective training are substantial and that alone should make it an area of interest to you – even if you are not directly involved in managing training. Apart from the direct cost of providing training, let’s imagine you offer 40 hours of training for 10 managers in your business. At an average salary of €30,000 per year, that translates roughly to €15 per hour per person, so the potential hidden cost of the training is €6000 (15 x 40 x10) on top of the direct cost. That’s not something to be sneezed at.

Finally, as the business owner from earlier said to me as he talked about the impact the training he provided had, “I know they say that nothing we learn in this world is ever wasted, but I have no way of knowing whether that’s true in this case.”

Think about the training provided in your company over the last year…did it make a difference? Can you really quantify its value?

Enjoy your day!

References

(1) Kirkpatrick, Evaluating Training Programs: The Four Levels, (Berrett-Koehler 2006).

(2) Source: www.kirkpatrickpartners.com.

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