Unfortunately, in most companies, the training process is not effectively managed. In most companies, the training function is conceived and structured so that it is doomed to provide only the most marginal of returns and to continue to be badgered by senior management to justify its very existence. But those who call for more value from training are absolutely right to expect high-quality training, since their companies cannot be competitive without a highly effective training operation. They are also right to demand that careful evaluation be pursued to ensure and improve that quality. Training should be cost-effective, it should clearly serve the vital needs of the business, and it should tolerate no waste.
As right as the driving concerns are, the evaluation of training impact as it is popularly conceived and practiced is just as decidedly wrong. In fact, continuing to pursue the current path toward isolated “impact” evaluations will lead only to less effective training and more waste. Training professionals need to revisit the fundamental purposes and processes of training and devise an evaluation strategy that will meet the real needs of their organizations.
What businesses need is good training: training that is aimed at the right needs, training that produces key learning cost-effectively and above all, training that is thoughtfully managed and supported by line management. Thinking that we can make training effective by simply measuring impact is like thinking that we can improve the quality of automobiles just by inspecting final production. Rather than spending resources on such defensive and low-leverage activities as “proof of impact” evaluation studies, training professionals need to first do everything they can to design and implement training that is most likely to help their organizations succeed.
The route to this sort of training and the key to gaining management support for training is through building strong and cooperative alliances with training customers and engaging them in thinking of training from the perspective of a new, “high impact” paradigm. This thinking can help training leaders clarify the complex and critical mediating process that must be defined and managed before and after new learning is introduced for it to be transformed into business value. This is the “learning-to-performance process.”
Managing the Learning-Performance Cycle -Not Training Events
The new paradigm for human resource development requires us to view training as an inseparable part of performance improvement and management. In this view, training is a process that involves dynamic interrelationships with the other functions of the organization, especially supervisors, managers and performance management systems. These functions must work in harmony to produce successful performance.
The success of this dynamic interrelationship depends on forming cooperative alliances among training leaders and the other key players, such as line managers, supervisors, trainees and other human resources professionals. All of these individuals are needed to define and manage training as a systemic process. Working closely together, they must focus attention on the critical business needs of the organization, then analyze performance systemically to identify barriers to and opportunities for improved effectiveness. When identified from a business-process-improvement perspective with input from all of the stakeholders, learning needs can be tightly focused and clearly linked to critical business objectives. This process works well at Canadian Tire Financial Services, where managers and employees at all levels of the organization routinely meet to discuss and clarify the linkage among individual learning plans, employee aspirations for career growth and managers’ business objectives. Learning plans are created that integrate these elements into a seamless performance improvement process where business impact is both ensured and obvious to all stakeholders.
In most corporations today, training is organized and managed by an old, nonsystemic paradigm of training. This old paradigm is based on the implicit belief that there is a direct cause-effect relationship between training and improved performance in the workplace. According to this belief, if trainees are given training at the right time, in the right amount, with the right learning objectives and with the right “transfer” characteristics designed in, their job performance should improve.
The old mental model that construes training as delivery of learning events is fatally flawed in that it tries to separate what a system’s view of performance tells us cannot be separated. In the “event” view, learning needs are not derived from and clearly tied to business needs. Business needs are not systematically analyzed into process, team and individual performance objectives. Learning activities are not infused with real-time performance practice and feedback. Learners are not clear about why they are receiving training and how their training is meant to benefit them and be used to drive business results. Their bosses are even less clear about these matters. Management “support” for training becomes defined as – and limited to – approving budgets for training and giving permission to participate.
When learners return from training activities that supervisors were indifferent about sending them to in the first place, their new learning is met with benign neglect at best, and sometimes even open derision and suspicion. Performance support actions, such as effective coaching, rewards and other reinforcement, are not provided at all or are not clearly and specifically linked to new learning. In short, there is no systematic and cooperative effort between trainers and mangers, using a jointly understood conceptual and procedural framework, to continually manage the learning-to-performance process cycle.
Under the old paradigm the training function has become a department whose job is to deliver training programs. Here, employees are sent for new learning and refresher courses in the hopes that when they return to work, they will work better and smarter. The old mental model that created the separate and independent training department has shaped virtually all aspects of the training process and profession. This old mental model underlies the training delivery system, where the training staff creates, or buys from vendors, training programs that are delivered as stand-alone events to group after group of employees. Finally, someone asks whether all this activity and expense is making a difference.
When these training programs don’t work, both they and often the staff who designed them are blamed. Training budgets, staff and structures are shuffled or cut back. Sometimes, decisions are made to get rid of internal human resource development staff and outsource training, or new vendors selling fancier and more elaborate programs are tried, in a vain attempt to get the performance that the organization now, more desperately than ever, needs. But underneath the shuffled staff and the new vendors and the trimmed budgets lies the old view of training as an event. As long as the old mental model prevails, all such efforts end in marginal improvements at best. Smile sheet reactions may improve for a while and attendance may temporarily surge, but nothing moves favorably on the bottom line. Until the root causes that disconnect training from business needs and separate learning from systemic performance improvement are dug out and replaced, the failure will continue.
Toward a New Training Management and Evaluation Paradigm
We realize that training leaders are under pressure to justify their existence and defend their budgets. This pressure will not go away and is likely to increase. It may even be necessary to conduct some emergency impact studies to try to keep the cost-cutting wolves at bay while training professionals reengineer their operations to reflect the new paradigm. But ROI and other after-the-fact evaluation methods are simply band-aid solutions, not a viable long-range strategy for building true organizational improvement capability. They are based on a flawed conceptualization of training and can lead only to further defensiveness and continued low impact.
Effective training is not an event, it is a process. This process must involve all of the key stakeholders and be driven by a clear view of their business needs. Along with a new process approach to training, a thoughtful and constructive evaluation strategy that closely integrates performance-improvement principles and methods is needed. Evaluation throughout the process, not just at the end, will ensure high-impact, low-cost and efficient training.
The best that training alone can do is improve employee capability. It is managers who must then pick up the ball and help build improved capability into sustained performance improvement and business results. Any and all learning solutions should weave learning and performance support together into a seamless whole. To accomplish this, a learning solution should have three key elements:
- A dialogue between employees and managers that creates a sharp focus and shared agreement on performance improvement objectives and that clearly links intended learning to these performance objectives and the business goals to which they are meant to contribute.
- Active learning interactions that include skill practice in job-like scenarios with measurement and feedback.
- Methods and tools for managers to nurture new learning and support performance improvement with encouragement, coaching and feedback.
Evaluation of training should not be limited to looking solely and artificially at the learning event alone as if it were somehow the “magic bullet” that can turn capability into business value. Instead, evaluation should monitor and assess how much and how well each of the three elements above are planned and implemented. Then, it should carefully gauge what is working and what is not, documenting performance and business results when they occur and troubleshooting causes of failure when such outcomes are not being achieved. Evaluation should ask:
- What learning, how much and how well is actually being applied?
- What improved job, performance and business results are being achieved?
- What are managers doing to support and reinforce the transformation of learning into improved performance?
- What systemic obstacles, impediments and facilitating factors interact with performance?
- What new needs are emerging?
Then, and very importantly, this information should be provided to all of the parties to the learning-performance process, not just the training staff. In a recent evaluation of technical training at the leading global provider of products, technologies, solutions and services to consumers and business, evaluators using this approach discovered the good news that a technical training program was helping achieve dramatic gains in customer satisfaction and was saving clients hundreds of thousands of dollars. But they also discovered that a field-managed process by which training was scheduled and administered was leading to nearly 40 percent of trainees who, despite their learning, were unable to apply their skills in customer applications. This high non-usage rate was creating massive waste and seriously undermining the ROI of the training. By bringing forth solid data and convincing business-impact results, they were able to engage senior service and field leadership in a problem-solving effort that eventually led to dramatic cost savings and far higher ROI for the training investment and more highly satisfied customers.
To get managers’ attention, the information can be provided creatively in presentations, newsletters, discussions at management meetings, memos, briefings, brown-bag seminars, recommendations for policy and procedure changes and, of course, inclusion in management training courses and seminars. This feedback, combined with training team evaluation of the training itself, creates a more actionable plan for the entire organization one that is not self-serving or defensive.
Consider developing case studies of employees who identify their recent training as making a significant difference to the business. Their stories not only serve as blueprints for future trainees but also highlight best practices for managers and business-unit leaders in the company. By also examining the environment of employees with the opposite experience, we can compare and contrast factors that seem to impede training application with those that seem to promote successful application and build an action plan to address the negative factors.
By building learning interventions that pay attention to the realities of how learning must work hand-in-glove with managers to improve performance, training can help achieve huge dividends in improved business results. By focusing on a systemic approach to evaluation, which actively involves managers as partners with the training department, organizations can build shared ownership for the learning-performance process. When it works, they can celebrate joint successes; when it does not, they can work together to understand why and make needed improvements. And finally, by building on the knowledge this inquiry creates, organizations can build capability to continuously leverage learning investments into improved business performance.
Robert Brinkerhoff, Ed.D., is a world-renowned expert in training effectiveness and evaluation. He is the co-developer with Dennis Dressler of High Impact Learning Systems. Glenn Jackson is the president and co-founder of Advantage Performance Group (APG), a human performance consulting network. APG clients include Bausch & Lomb, Charles Schwab, Dell Computer, Genentech, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Oracle. E-mail Robert at email@example.com. E-mail Glenn at firstname.lastname@example.org.