Learning Revives Training

January 1, 2000
One of the biggest challenges that organizations face is that while CEOs are sold on learning, they’re skeptical," explains John W. Humphrey, chairman of The Forum Corporation, an international learning company based in Boston. "They’re not seeing a link between training and business performance."

The training profession has done a remarkable job in recent years of educating businesspeople about the benefits of ongoing employee development. Today, we read with some regularity about the correlation between workforce education and innovation, recruitment, retention, job satisfaction, and even sales and gross profits.

Chuck Rabin, vice chairman of The Delta Consulting Group, based in San Francisco, agrees. "Most executives look at traditional training and assume that new skills and knowledge will be developed, that training will be aligned with business objectives and that employees will be able to transfer what they’ve learned to their jobs," he says. "Unfortunately, these assumptions don’t always prove true."

By all indicators, employee education has arrived and business leaders now understand that ongoing learning is a vital contributor to success. But although corporate executives seem to like learning, they’re not big fans of training.

If trainers and HRD professionals are to capitalize on the growing wave of support for learning, they have to understand why the training function has lost respect and what needs to be done about it. By necessity, the trainers of tomorrow will have to act very differently than they have in the past.

The problem defined.
To understand how the training function needs to reinvent itself going forward, you need to understand what’s currently wrong with it. Simply stated, training—on its own—doesn’t work enough of the time.

In 1992, Chicago-based consulting company A.T. Kearney estimated that 80 percent of all workplace training is lost and never used back on the job. "These numbers haven’t changed much since then," explains Ed Gordon, president of Imperial Consulting Co. based in Oaklawn, Illinois, and author of "Skill Wars: Winning the Battle for Productivity and Profit" (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000). The money wasted on training is due to several factors.

First, trainers have done a poor job showing the impact of training on the bottom line. This is because trainers tend to focus more on inputs, which are the types of training courses that are delivered, more than they do on outputs, which are the business results of training. According to the 1999 State of the Industry Report prepared by the American Society for Training and Development, a scant 15 percent of training courses are ever evaluated based on business results.

Instead, the most popular evaluation method remains the reaction of participants. But just because someone liked a training course doesn’t mean it enhanced that person’s performance back on the job. "Senior line managers are focused on business needs and outcomes, and they want trainers to be focused on the same things," Humphrey says.

The second problem with training as it currently exists is that many trainers and organizational development professionals tend to compartmentalize themselves by content area, be it sales training, leadership skills or time management. But complex organizational issues cannot be solved by singular content-based solutions. "We end up with a continual mismatch," Humphrey says. "We keep trying to put a round content peg into a square issue hole." This is not only true of in-house trainers, but also of external suppliers.

A third problem is that the training function often operates in isolation. "A lot of training organizations are sitting in the corner of the HR group offering individual skills courses out of a catalog and never getting involved with the company’s core mission," says Dan Tobin, dean of Getronics Virtual University in Billerica, Massachusetts, and author of "The Knowledge-Enabled Organization" (AMACOM, 1998). "If you don’t understand what the company is doing, how can you support it?" he asks.

To be fair, many trainers are grappling with these issues and trying to make significant changes in the way training is delivered. In the last few years, we’ve seen the rise of corporate universities, just-in-time training, distance learning, technology-based solutions and a shift in focus from skills to competency-based training. But these are all tactical solutions to training inefficiency. If corporate trainers are to capitalize on the growing receptivity to corporate learning, they have to seriously rethink the entire way training is structured and delivered.

Move to a new training model.
While there’s no single, best-practices model that exists for how to transform corporate training, training strategists agree on one overriding principle: Training must be run like a business.

"You must start by understanding the business issue, not the training need, then bring back a learning solution which may or may not involve training," explains Edward A. Trolley, senior vice president of The Forum Corporation, and co-author of the book, "Running Training Like A Business" (Berrett Koehler Publishers, 1999).

Everything training does has to become more effective and efficient, he adds. Being effective means delivering training services that tangibly help businesses to achieve their goals. Being efficient means making the true costs of training clearly evident and highly acceptable.

"When trainers operate like businesspeople, their mission becomes unashamedly economic," Trolley says. "Education is still what training does. But business education is a means to business results, not an end in itself. [Furthermore], training organizations that run like a business aren’t allocated a corporate budget. They in effect sell their services every day, as does any business enterprise. The survival of this training enterprise, therefore, rests on its ability to address strongly felt customer needs."

So how do trainers begin to make this strategic shift? How do they become trainers of tomorrow who lead their companies forward into a perpetually changing business landscape?

Here are a few guidelines:

1. Link training objectives to business strategy.
Several years ago, Dan Tobin was asked to help trainers at an international technology company develop an employee development guide for managers.

"They wanted my input on how to structure an efficient employee development process," he explains. "I asked them for a copy of the annual report, a listing of the three top objectives of each of the business units, and for copies of customer brochures. The training managers told me they didn’t have access to ‘that kind of stuff.’"

Recalling the situation, Tobin laughs incredulously. "There’s no way you can create effective training programs unless you understand the corporate strategy," he says.

Not only will tomorrow’s trainers have to understand specific business objectives, but they’ll also be charged with making sure everyone else in a company is pointed in the same direction.

2. Address the corporate culture.
To create long-lasting organizational change trainers can’t ignore the influence of corporate culture.

According to William F. Brendler, president and founder of and Brendler Associates Inc. in Houston, Texas, one of the common mistakes companies make in trying to create learning organizations is to think that a few training programs and proclamations about empowerment, self-direction and risk taking are all that are necessary.

"All the training programs in the world will be ineffective unless you first address cultural barriers to learning, such as fear, blame, reluctance to take responsibility, self-justification and so on," he says. Why? Because corporate culture supports the emotional process of learning.

"If I’m going to teach you how to work in a team and teamwork isn’t the cultural norm, the training will be wasted. For any training to be effective, you have to confront the culture." Because of this, the ability to diagnose, understand and address cultural issues will become a key competency for trainers in the new millennium.

3. Focus on outcomes.
Prior to developing any learning initiative, trainers must focus on business results. Humphrey calls this "results contracting." "Let’s be clear about what we’re trying to accomplish and what outcomes we want," he says. Is it better customer service? Higher telephone sales? State-of-the-art technical knowledge? How will we know we’ve achieved these things? You can’t possibly develop successful learning activities until you know the outcomes you seek and the how those outcomes will be measured.

4. De-emphasize training.
One of the problems many trainers face in making the strategic shift to performance consultants is that they’re heavily invested in the learning methodologies they grew up with, which tend to be face-to-face classroom instruction. But traditional training is only one way of teaching. In reality, a lot of learning occurs very naturally on the job through team meetings, conversations with the boss, self-study, conference calls, reading of industry magazines, etc.

Prior to developing any learning initiative, trainers must focus on business results. You can’t develop successful learning activities until you know the outcomes you seek and how those outcomes will be measured.

"Trainers have to begin to take advantage of the naturally occurring predispositions to learning," Humphrey says. "If you can embed learning into the core business processes, you’ve gone a long way toward making the learning more appropriate, comfortable and memorable."

While embedded learning is happening to some extent—electronic performance support systems are a prime example—tomorrow’s trainers will simply have to learn to more about all the various ways people learn on the job and focus their learning activities to those natural proclivities. Instructor-led classroom training—which currently accounts for a whopping 78 percent of all learning methods—will have to be minimized.

5. Allow employees time to process what they’ve learned.
If you were to ask trainers in 10 companies what attributes their companies currently seek in employees, chances are at least eight of them would respond with words like innovation, creativity and critical thinking. This isn’t too surprising for a knowledge economy, because a company’s only sustainable competitive advantage comes from the knowledge and talents of workers. However, while you can teach the tools of creative problem solving and critical thinking, these higher-level thought processes require time to develop.

For this reason, part of every trainer’s future challenge will be to find a way to create more time for employees to process information, gain understanding and draw relevant and creative conclusions. "In the Information Age, information isn’t hard to come by," says Gordon. "It’s knowledge and wisdom that take time. Because of this, I predict that within the next decade, the world standard for workforce education will be one month per year per employee."

6. Demand the same strategic shift from your training suppliers.
When we talk about reinventing learning, we’re not just talking about changing the practices inside of companies. The entire learning industry—including external providers—must learn to focus on strategic business objectives. "Right now, the value chain in this industry is so sloppy that we could probably take 20 percent to 30 percent of the costs out of training and still improve quality," Humphrey says.

Granted, there are some suppliers that understand the importance of focusing on strategy, culture and outcomes. Educational Discoveries Inc., a Provant company based in Boulder, Colorado, uses an "accelerated learning" model that takes business context and objectives as the starting points for developing highly customized training programs. NETg, based in Naperville, Illinois, works with divisions of Drake Beam Morin to help clients articulate their business needs, set expectations, and design implementation plans.

But companies like this are in the minority. Vendors, like many trainers, still tend focus more heavily on selling their products—be it communication skills training or online learning programs—than selling solutions. Part of the internal trainers’ ongoing challenge will be putting pressure on vendors to also focus on results contracting.

Be active in dealing with ROI.
Though one of the most vexing issues facing the training industry is the problem of calculating return on investment, the whole issue can be minimized if trainers follow the above guidelines and become more strategic in their approach.

"I call this the fallacy of ROI," says Tobin. "If a training organization ties everything it does to specific business objectives, trainers will never be asked to do an ROI calculation because their programs will have built-in importance." Brendler adds, "The process of measuring ROI becomes clearer when everything is aligned around business objectives."

Because of this, a final mindshift that must occur for trainers is not to focus so much attention on calculating returns after the fact. Instead, worry about how to build in relevance up front. Let business strategy, culture and outcomes determine your learning needs, and then create learning opportunities that make sense for your particular group of employees.

Yes, business leaders want more employee education and learning. Will you be able to deliver?

Workforce, January 2000, Vol. 79, No. 1, pp. 34-37.