To many in the corporate world, the word “training” conjures up an image of sitting hunched over your desk, fervently advancing slides as the voice-over trails off from each page or sitting in a room all day, being lectured about an abstract topic without a footing in real life examples or applicability to your role. But learning how to maximize your company’s overall training investment for the future is important. According to Training magazine’s 2019 Training Industry Report, the total US training spend in 2019 was $83 billion. In the same report, we saw that on average, each employee spends 42.1 hours of training per year. So, how do the best-in-class organizations approach learning and development to ensure the optimal return on their investment?
Based on Clarkston’s experience, the top organizations not only invest in training, but also do the following well and consistently:
- Linking Training Goals and Business Outcomes: Establishing clear business goals that the learning initiative is intended to address.
- Transitioning from Learning to Behavior Change: Designing and implementing effective learning solutions to address those business goals, with a clear link among training objectives, methods, and business goals.
- Creating an Ecosystem of Support, Rewards, and Continuous Learning: Ensuring the right incentives and environment are in place to support skill application and mastery.
- Measuring the Value of Training: A dedication to the continuous tracking and monitoring of progress against those business goals and learning objectives.
Linking Training Goals with Business Outcomes for Returns on Your Training Investment
There are problems that training can solve and some that it cannot. Organizations must be realistic about whether they should be investing in training their staff, acquiring new staff, or subcontracting to fill the skill gaps. If the outcome of this decision is to build the skillsets of existing resources, the next step should be focused on determining the specific business goals or role responsibility that the training should solve for. “I am investing in an Analytics training for my category manager, Susan, to help her increase her category sales volume – by leveraging data more effectively to influence the outcome of her sales pursuits.”
Once the business outcome is identified, every topic, exercise and discussion in the training should be aligned to that “North Star”; training her to be a citizen data scientist to be able to run ad hoc reports, being able to perform the right level of data analysis and drawing out relevant insights. This addresses the first part of that objective – being able to leverage the data; next is the ability to influence: learning of tactics and practice through mock exercises to be able to use data to tell a compelling story and to move her audience toward the desired action.
It’s an exercise in dissecting the core of the targeted business outcome and then mapping each learning objective to that business outcome, followed by selection of the most effective learning methods. This helps to ensure that only the most relevant content is included and the most impactful instructional methods are leveraged to achieve those learning objectives, and thereby, business outcomes.
Training Investment: Transitioning from Learning to Behavior Change
Harvard Business School professor and expert in leadership development, Thomas DeLong shared in Flying Without a Net that to do something new well, you must first do it poorly. Learning to perform a new skill takes time, but there are several factors that impact the duration of that progression from doing something new poorly to doing something new well. The transition from learning to behavior change requires support across multiple dimensions. It starts with thinking of learning as a journey rather than an “event”.
Learners are customers on a journey that starts from the need to learn a new skill to the application and mastery of the skill. It begins with the learner understanding the value of the training and the direct positive impact it’s intended to have on their specific role responsibilities and their department’s or organization’s business goals. The learning program may begin with multimedia based pre-work to baseline the learners and provide the fundamentals, then diving into content-share and interactive dialogue; learners may be pushed to step out of their comfort zone via “flipped classrooms” where the learner becomes the instructor for a session or two. Opportunities to apply the skills range from small exercises to capstone projects.
Program design should combine the various learning modalities in a thoughtful and deliberate manner depending the topic complexity, desired learning outcomes, and background of the learner group. While any of the techniques might be successful, the optimal combination of them yields a sum greater than its individual parts. In our earlier example, Susan might first observe a mock dialogue of the instructor using storytelling techniques, and then assigned a real-life scenario to practice the techniques herself with a fellow participant. Susan is encouraged to use the learnings in her role and asked to share these practice opportunities in the next learning session to celebrate the successes and seek guidance, if needed. Susan’s learning journey progresses through ascending levels of complexity, gradually pushing her out of her comfort zone.
Creating an Ecosystem of Support, Rewards, and Continuous Learning
Just as “it takes a village to raise a child”, a learning journey is most successful when the learner is immersed in a supportive ecosystem – where one can confidently demonstrate a new skillset amongst colleagues who are motivated to lift the learner when needed. This requires a cocktail of rewards and recognition and a deliberate matching of “right place, right time”. Subject matter experts have to be available and interested in providing continuous guidance once the learner is ready to apply their new skills. Though some seasoned professionals may coach their less experienced colleagues out of the goodness of their hearts, it is advisable to have “employee development” as a performance metric to further the incentive. The training team can help remove the administrative burden by creating opportunities to connect learners and subject matter experts: one example is the use of study groups – comprised of learners and subject matter experts, who meet regularly to hold each other accountable, share learnings, and continue the dialogue in a safe environment. In turn this will help your company and internal teams maximize the training investment. Naturally, these group meetings become less frequent over time as the skill level becomes more homogenized.
It is important for leadership and direct supervisors of learners to demonstrate support through an acceptance of failure by creating a “psychological safety net”. Ensure there is an understanding that learners may perform a new skill poorly at first and it is an expected first step. Failing quickly is OK if you can identify learnings and improve in the next opportunity. And it goes without saying: success should be recognized.
Measuring the Value of Training
While many organizations consider return on investment (ROI) of learning endeavors as an afterthought, it is critical to have ROI tracking as an integral part of the learning solution design, execution, and follow-up. Consider pre-training assessments to provide a baseline snapshot for future ROI analysis.
In addition to the more traditional methods of tracking attendance and assessment evaluation, include sufficient application-based exercises that allow the participants to demonstrate the skills in a safe environment and opportunity to assess in a real-life scenario the participants’ competence level. Continuously evaluate the pulse of the learners through session discussions as well as potentially soliciting individual interim feedback in order to evaluate the engagement of the learner group. This agile approach allows one to pivot quickly toward more effective learning methods if certain approaches aren’t working as intended.
From a post-training perspective, at minimum, conduct a feedback/assessment survey immediately following the program, and then ideally incorporate several more touchpoints afterwards to gauge application of skillsets and the attainment of the business objectives targeted by the training. These individual data points can be linked to create a compelling narrative around the effectiveness of the training and its impact on the business goals the program was meant to address. For example, if Susan, our category manager from earlier, actively participates in the program, demonstrates the learned skills consistently, and experiences increased sales growth in her category, the data points can be connected to demonstrate clear value and return on the training investment.
Skills as the Most Valued Asset
The most valuable asset of any organization is its people. The people who must constantly demonstrate their knowledge and expertise as they navigate through the ever-evolving business world. At the end of the day, value is realized when an organization invests fully and wisely in their people and maintain laser focus on the impact of the training to the organization and to the individual.
Visit Clarkston’s Corporate Training offerings and let’s connect to see how we can help.