Building Capabilities for Performance

To improve results from training programs, executives must focus on what happens in the workplace before and after employees go to class.

October 2015 | by David Delaney

Companies around the world spend up to $100 billion a year to train employees in the skills they need to improve corporate performance—topics like communication, sales techniques, performance management, or lean operations. But training typically doesn’t have much impact. Indeed, only one-quarter of the respondents to a recent Burk survey said their training programs measurably improved business performance, and most companies don’t even bother to track the returns they get on their investments in training. They keep at it because a highly skilled workforce is clearly more productive and because employees often need new skills to deal with changes in an organization’s performance.

Given how important skilled workers are, companies must do better at creating them. When senior leaders focus on making training work—and get personally involved—improvement can come rapidly. The content of the training itself is not the biggest issue, though many companies could certainly improve it.

Before Training Begins

Help people want to learn

Adults learn in predictable steps. Before employees can master a new skill effectively, for example, they must be convinced it will help improve their organization’s performance, recognize that their own performance is weak in that area, and then actually choose to learn. Yet most corporate training programs overlook these prerequisites and just assume that employees “get it.” This approach is a big mistake because it allows normal patterns of skepticism to become barriers to learning. The results are familiar to anyone who has attended a corporate training event. Instead of approaching training as active learners, many employees behave as if they were prisoners (“I’m here because I have to be”), vacationers (“I don’t mind being here—it’s a nice break from doing real work”), or professors (“Everybody else is here to learn; I can just share my wisdom”).

Getting Training Content Right

Companies can sharpen the content of their training programs by applying a little common sense and attention to well-known practices in areas such as adult learning. Yet we find that these practices are often so obvious that executives don’t bother to revisit them or measure performance, thus allowing training programs to drift away from best practice without anyone even realizing it. In our experience, five straightforward tips can help:

Many training programs frame their definition of success in terms of “things we want people to know” rather than “behavior we want to see.” Consciously focusing on the latter objective helps planners to choose more appropriate content and to measure success afterward. Focusing solely on functional skills (for instance, selling techniques, customer segmentation, or total-cost-of-ownership analyses) is a mistake. While vital, these “hard” skills often require “soft” ones (such as general leadership, change management, or communication) to make changes stick. Best-practice training programs interweave these soft skills seamlessly.

Adults learn best when applying newly acquired skills to solve real problems. Yet training programs rely heavily on lectures, role playing, and “war stories.” At best, these methods raise the participants’ awareness of important concepts, but they typically fail to transfer any actual skills. Active learning is the answer: great training programs encourage participants to practice new skills in the context of real-life situations or include projects that can noticeably improve an organization’s results as learners build their skills.

It’s difficult to create a meaningful learning experience for every trainee, given the frequent diversity of backgrounds, experience, and knowledge. Many companies deal with this problem by developing role- and tenure-specific programs, but even these can miss the mark because of individual strengths and weaknesses. What’s more, many programs use precious in-person training time to impart basic knowledge that is often far too rudimentary for many participants. “Mass customization,” which in this context often means using technology to help learners customize the focus and level of their lessons, but can also include tactics such as allowing individuals to choose different levels of training or giving them input into designing their training, allows employees to learn the basics online, ensures that groups have a level playing field for in-person training, and enables organizations to focus in-person training on the most important skills to drive business performance.

The most obvious skill gaps often occur in pockets of organizations, and companies rightly focus training energies on them. But don’t overlook how training will affect employees elsewhere in a company. For instance, consider one that wants to improve its ability to conduct total-cost-of-ownership analyses and so trains its purchasing department in those skills. After beginning to use them, the purchasers may very quickly face resistance from colleagues in other departments affected by their decisions (say, a switch from one supplier to another), if colleagues don’t understand why the purchasers are working differently or how to accommodate the changes.

To help ameliorate such problems, selected employees in the adjacent departments must be retrained in complementary skills. In a purchasing program, this might mean teaching product developers and people who find supplies for new products how to interpret total-cost-of-ownership analyses so they can set specifications that fit the new procurement strategy. Changes can go as far as altering the development of new products or launching processes to fit the new procurement system. Such a holistic approach helps to set the right expectations and to align employees collectively with the new behavior.

Uncover harmful mind-sets

Even when employees do learn what they’re taught, they very often don’t apply it. If this happens, the training will be wasted—no matter how good it is. Preexisting mind-sets are one frequent cause of this problem. Companies should therefore ferret out problematic mind-sets with the same rigor they put into diagnosing skill gaps.

Get the leaders on board

To ensure that the lessons stick when training ends, companies must have meaningful support from the relevant leaders beforehand. This point sounds obvious, but we’ve seen many training programs stall when leaders agree with program goals in principle yet fail to reflect them in their own behavior, thereby signaling to employees that change isn’t necessary.

Reinforce the new skills

Participants rarely leave any training program entirely prepared to put new skills into practice. Old habits die hard, after all, so reinforcing and supporting new kinds of behavior after they are learned is crucial. Furthermore, companies typically expect employees to go back to work and figure out for themselves how to incorporate what they’ve learned into their day-to-day activities, which often take up all of their time as is.

Measuring the impact

Measuring impact seems basic, but most companies simply don’t do it. Our research finds that only 50 percent of organizations even bother to keep track of participants’ feedback about training programs. Worse, only 30 percent use any other kind of metric. What this means, of course, is that many companies essentially measure the effectiveness of training by asking the participants if they liked it. Besides the risk of encouraging “edutainment” over substance, the problem with this approach is that it penalizes programs that push people outside their comfort zones. What’s more, it leaves HR departments and other developers of training programs flying blind about their impact.

Training can go wrong in all kinds of ways. But the most important failures occur outside the classroom. By focusing on creating a receptive mind-set for training before it happens—and ensuring a supportive environment afterward—companies can dramatically improve the business impact of their training programs.


Executive Editor

Ms Anna Sullivan

Ms Anna Sullivan