Strategic learning organizations have to find practical ways to create measurable organizational effectiveness — without any additional budget.
March 4, 2015
The pressure is on for Brendan Noonan.
His team must support 7,600 new staff recruited from more than 50 countries this year, said senior vice president of group learning and development for The Emirates Group. It’s a big challenge, but a necessary one to keep the company’s brand image and customer experience consistent in a rapidly expanding, multicultural organization.
This is not an isolated example. Many learning leaders are dealing with the same pressure to do more with less. Meeting Noonan’s challenge and other types of demands is not easy, but there are simple, workable approaches that can help.
All training initiatives will not contribute the same value to the bottom line. The first step is to prioritize programs based on their anticipated value to the organization.
Use the program selection tool to evaluate training programs by rating strategic and tactical criteria (Figure 1). To be considered, both strategic boxes should have a “yes” response. For all programs meeting the strategic criteria, total the number of tactical “yes” responses. Programs with the highest totals are ones you should consider focusing the most evaluation resources.
Is Training the Best Intervention?
Learning professionals often want to deny their responsibility to contribute to organizational results. In reality, the opposite approach is necessary for survival. For any incoming training request, discuss what effect it will create if successful. For example, Sydney Savion, the global learning officer of support services for Dell Inc., said, “It is our stretch goal to consistently define and examine the linkages between strategy, learning, behavioral outcomes and business performance for all major initiatives and requests.”
This conversation may not come naturally at first. Stakeholders may respond, “We need our staff trained.” Don’t accept that. Ask a series of questions to obtain the required information. If the training requester said staff needs to be trained, ask: What would be different if they were properly trained? The requester’s response may be something like, “They will perform better on the job.” Then ask what that performance improvement would look like. Hopefully, stakeholders canrespond with something specific, such as, “Written processes will be followed for all projects.” That’s progress.
Once there is some clarity, ask: “If processes were followed for all projects, what kinds of things may result?” The requester may list results such as, “The number of errors would decrease,” “Projects would get completed on time more often” or “Confusion would be reduced, so people would be happier on the job.” These outcomes could justify training time and resource expenditure.
Emma Nunez, the head of quality assurance for the National Health Service in northern England, said her team defines strategic outcomes first. Then they identify behaviors required for each outcome and a plan to support those behaviors on the job. Just as important, they identify behaviors that hinder efforts to accomplish strategic outcomes and devise a plan to mitigate them.
Assuming only initiatives that will yield organizational value have been identified and prioritized, there is more that can be done to maximize trainingresources. Even once a program is approved for development, great latitude remains available in its type and duration.
Savvy learning leaders know training can only help if the problem is a lack of knowledge or skill. During the needs assessment, thoroughly discuss the current situation with the training requester, the intended training audience or their supervisor. Discussion may reveal the issue is organizational misalignment or a lack of materials.
“It is often the classic question of skill vs. will when determining if poor performance can be resolved with training,” said Tyson Fehr, director of capabilities and learning development for the Beverage Distributors Co. in The Charmer Sunbelt Group.
Also, probe the degree to which processes and systems that support the desired on-the-job performance exist. This critical issue must be confirmed, or even the most effective training will not yield significant results.
Learning Is a Process, Not an Event
If training is not the best intervention, chief learning officers are not necessarily off the job. Learning departments can earn great respect and trust from the business if they get involved in major initiatives that produce big results. Instead of formal training, consider assisting with other activities such as process enhancements, job description revisions or on-the-job coaching.
The next consideration is the overall plan once the organizational value is clear. A training event alone typically results in about 15 percent of participants applying what they were taught when they return to their jobs. For more acceptable rates, plan what needs tooccur before, during and after training. Make sure that the instructional design framework specifically addresses these three phases, and that materials are developed to support each of them. Before training:
- Communicate with leaders in support of the initiative.
- Meet with supervisors throughout the initiative.
- Verify that processes and systems support what will be taught.
- Confirm the required tools and materials will be available after training.
However, the majority of resources and rigor should be dedicated to what happens after the training event, during the critical time period when training participants return to the job and attempt to do what they were taught.
Diana Swihart, the CEO of the American Academy of Preceptor Advancement and co-author of “The Preceptor Program Builder,” said the preceptor role can meet stakeholder expectations not only as someone who teaches and reinforces knowledge and skill, but also someone who acts as a coach and mentor, assisting training graduates in acclimating to the organizational culture and climate in their new jobs.
Make training valuable by designing a support package for training graduates to assist them in implementing new knowledge on the job. The support package is a cooperative effort among trainers, supervisors, the training graduates themselves, and support departments in the organization (Figure 2).
Be Prepared to Measure and Adjust
In addition to supporting training graduates on the job, it is equally important to let them know their performance will be monitored and reported. With performance tracking, employees understand it is important to do what is asked, and that the initiative is important to the organization.
Let training participants know before or during training the good things that will happen if they perform well on the job. For example, they could earn a jeans day, receive recognition, get a gift certificate or be eligible for a merit increase during annual reviews.
Also, let training participants know what will occur if they choose not to implement critical new knowledge. The consequences of not following could be a verbal warning, getting written up, becoming ineligible for merit increases and, ultimately, termination.
A good system of accountability helps everyone by making expectations and outcomes clear from the beginning (Figure 3). For example, at Emirates Airline, an outside agency tracks performance consistency for the Global Contact Centre to maintain its high standard of 90 percent and above.
Implementing these ideas can be a big change. Every detail may not be perfect the first time, and that’s okay. As initiatives are implemented and performance monitored, results for outcomes identified in the beginning should emerge. If so, publicize and celebrate success.
If the results are not as expected, talk to training graduates, their supervisors, executives, clients or customers and top performers to gain some insight into why. Find out if performance has been consistent. If not, re-engage the systems of support andaccountability.
If performance has been consistent but the desired results are lackluster, consider if the correct performance need was identified. Determine if expectations around what would occur were reasonable. Perhaps the timeline or goals need to be adjusted.
Monitoring performance and results can drive outcomes instead of measuring what happened in the end. This is what makes a learning organization strategic.
How to Identify Resources
A common question at this point: “Where am I going to find the resources to perform the extra work before and after training?” The answer: Re-allocate existing resources.
First, do not implement every training request submitted. Only those with the highest potential impact should get sizable resources.
Second, instead of investing time developing a fabulous training event, use design and development resources to create the overall program plan. Most resources will be allocated to post-training support and accountability; just enough will be spent on pre-training activities and the training event itself.
Third, focus training evaluation resources on evaluating on-the-job performance and resulting outcomes. Resources are typically over invested in evaluating the training program itself. For example, Allwyn Dsilva, lead for functional and technical skills development for learning and development at Tata Communications Ltd., successfully streamlined low-level program evaluation by implementing a brief, online post-program evaluation with a limited number of learner-centered questions.
Finally, when the organization sees the learningdepartment focusing on what is most important to the business and partnering with line leaders to create business results, resources for future mission-critical projects may become available. Redefining the role as a learning and performance consultant instead of a learning and development professional will make all the difference.
“Using the Kirkpatrick Model to focus on Level 4 outcomes has been a game-changer in the way we manage our workload in the strategic learning environment,” said Charles Wilhelm of the U.S. ArmyManeuver Support Center of Excellence Quality Assurance Office. “We use a combination of surveys and interviews with soldiers around world to gather more data to adjust ongoing programs and outcomes appropriately. Face-to-face interviews with soldiers and leaders at all levels have been particularly instrumental in establishingimproved relationships with leadership who share a common goal of real world mission success.”
Pressure for learning and development to show organizational value will never subside. If the ideas presented here are too much to implement at once, consider starting with one pilot program.
Learning leaders who are not in a position to dictate organizational change could create some post-program support tools for the next learning program. Make a few informal phone calls to training graduates or their supervisors after training to see how things are going.
There is no excuse to do nothing. Find at least one small action to take and commit to doing it. The reputation of our industry depends on it.