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Training and the ROI of Fun

Yes, playing with Tinkertoys can have a positive effect on the bottom line.

November 30, 2000
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Basic Skills Training
Several years ago, I was thrust into a training exercise designed to teachparticipants about group problem-solving. My assignment? To discuss the UnitedStates’ official position on U.S.-China relations while acting as thesecretary of state.

    There were two problems with this task. It assumed that,one, I knew something about U.S.-China relations and that, two, I had some cluewhat the secretary of state does.

    Deficient on both counts, I spent my time sucking up tothe guy next to me, who was acting as the director of the CIA and clearly had afirm grasp of both national intelligence and foreign policy.

Cooking classes for team-building. Scavenger hunts for problem-solving. What were these people thinking?

    By the time the session ended, I had learned nothing aboutproblem solving, and my public humiliation was so complete that for years Iavoided any and all experiential, participant-centered training efforts.Regardless of the course, I’d sit near an exit, and the second I heard thewords "turn to your neighbor," I bolted.

    When I started to notice the growing popularity ofexperiential training, I shuddered. Ropes courses to promote trust. Cookingclasses for team-building. Scavenger hunts for problem-solving. What were thesepeople thinking? To me, the courses looked too gimmicky to provide solidbusiness results.

    Then, several things happened. I enrolled in a master’sdegree program and began to study adult learning theory. I started to followdevelopments in the training industry. And, after a few tentative steps, I gotover my fear of participating in training exercises. What I began to realize isthat this stuff works. I liked playing in the name of learning, and researchproves that other adults do as well. Today, I stand before you as a convert, abeliever in fun, feel-good training efforts that get people out of their chairsand involved in their own learning. End of story? Not quite.

    Apparently, my epiphany came at a good time, because we’restarting to see an explosion in such training efforts. Name an activity andthere is probably a trainer somewhere who is turning it into a device foremployee education. Corporate employees can now be found building cars withTinkertoys, learning customer service from fishmongers, playing "SimonSays," and engaging in a host of other activities that may, on the surface,look like a huge waste of money. These tantalizing offerings come at a time whenhuman resources professionals are under enormous pressure to demonstrate thereturn on training investment.

    Caught between innovative training vendors and demandingline managers, what’s a beleaguered HR person to do? You want my opinion? Gofor it. Take a risk. Have a little fun. Why? Because when used appropriately --underscore that word -- fun, feel-good training efforts do work. They canimprove morale, increase customer satisfaction, boost retention, teach newskills and behaviors, and allow employees to have great fun in the process.

    I know you’re hesitant, so let me address any objectionsby explaining why these training efforts work, when they work best, and how tomake sure they are effective. (Hint: Don’t thrust anyone into the role ofsecretary of state.)

Where would you rather work: a place where laughter is heard or one where frowns are the norm?

Getting out of the classroom
    When it comes to making training expenditures, HR peoplehave gotten a little skittish, and for good reason. Tired of wasting money ontraining that doesn’t produce results, executives and line managers are nowtapping their feet and demanding that HR demonstrate the potential return oninvestment.

    Facing such demands, many HR folks choose to take theconservative, familiar, lecture-based approach to employee education. In fact,according to the 2000 "State of the Industry" report by the AmericanSociety of Training and Development, a whopping 78 percent of companies stillrely on instructor-led classroom training. Here’s why you shouldn’t:

  • Behavioral-change and skills training doesn’t work in a traditionalclassroom setting. Classroom instruction works well when you need to impartinformation, such as telling salespeople about the features of a newproduct. But thanks to the advent of performance-support systems such asonline databases, transferring information to employees is not sochallenging anymore.

        In today’s workplace, the bigger challenge lies in teaching employees newskills, behaviors, and attitudes such as teamwork, resiliency, self-empowerment,trust, creativity, communication, and initiative. These are not the kinds ofcapabilities that people learn best through lectures. "If you wantbehavioral change, you have to engage people emotionally," explains MicheleMcMahon, senior vice president of The Forum Corporation. "You have to bringthe learning alive."

    Make sure the culture supports and reinforces the skills and attitudes you're asking employees to take on

        Rob Jolles, president of Jolles Associates, Inc., and senior sales trainingconsultant for Xerox, agrees. "I’m a classic corporate trainer," hesays. "I work in the classroom. I’m here to inform you. But when you aretalking about such things as attitude change and morale shifts, classroomtraining is not the way to do it." Instead, if you want to change the wayemployees interact, you have to show them new ways of interacting. And that isnot done by merely sharing information with them.

        Given this, why do so many companies still rely on classroom-basedinstruction? "Because there is a tendency in our society to define learningnarrowly as having to do only with information transfer," explains JimDavis, author of Effective Training Strategies (Berrett-Koehler Publishers,Inc., 1998) and a professor of higher education and adult studies at theUniversity of Denver. "Anything else is viewed as gimmicky andsuperficial."

  • Employee expectations are higher. Another reason to consider more engagingtraining efforts is that in today’s labor market, employees are demandingmore from their jobs. Why? Because they can get it. The job must bechallenging, of course, and also well paid. But employees also want to havefun.

        Dick Eaton, founder of Leapfrog Innovations, Inc., in Boston, calls this the"Cheers Factor," referring to the old television show. "Peoplewant to walk into work and feel comfortable and connected," he says. Whichmakes sense. All things being equal, where would you rather work: a place wherelaughter is heard or one where frowns are the norm?

        Corporate training is one way to introduce more fun into the workplace, notjust because the training itself can be enjoyable but also because sharedtraining experiences can break down barriers between employees and lay thefoundation for greater collaboration on the job.

        Eaton’s company recently created a training experience for a largescientific-products company that had just bought its primary competitor."The company was bringing two adversaries together into one sales team, andemployees were suspicious of each other," he explains. Leapfrog Innovationscreated a half-day exercise, which was part of a weeklong sales training effort,in which 96 teams of six people each were required to design and build a holefor a miniature golf course. Each hole had to connect to two others, include acertain number of 90-degree turns, and be built with available props within twohours.

        Because each team included a mix of salespeople from both companies, theemployees got to know each other, jointly solve problems, and collaborativelygenerate creative solutions. The result: "The energy in the room wasincredible," Eaton says. "People got so engaged, they forgot they werein training. This helped them open up and become more willing to see each otherin a new light." Simply put, the golf course exercise was a catalyst forgreater change. It made the subsequent week of training more enjoyable andhelped these former adversaries begin to trust each other.

Making it effective
While there may be a place for activities that are simply fun -- and nothingelse -- those activities should not be called training. As Jack Bowsher,education consultant and former chief training officer of IBM, explains:"There is no real problem with events done for fun as long as you have themoney and time to do them. But don’t call them learning events. Call themrecognition or motivational events, because that’s all they’re goodfor."

    However, if you want to incorporate fun into efforts designed to teachemployees something, there are ways to make sure the learning takes place:

  • Learn more about learning: HR executives not only propose and conducttheir own training sessions, but they also are often the ones approvingtraining budgets for line managers. Because the function plays a pivotalpart in employee development, HR professionals must become moreknowledgeable about the different types of training and when they work best:for example, classroom training for information transfer; two-hourteam-building exercises for increasing awareness; on-the-job mentoring andsupport for lasting change.

        "It is up to HR professionals to be able to understand, explain,interpret, and justify different training approaches," explains Davis fromthe University of Denver. "By learning more about learning, HR people willbe in a better position to choose -- and defend -- the most appropriate learningstrategy."

  • Be clear about your objectives: To design a learning intervention thatmeets your objectives, you first have to be clear about the objectives.Start with your vision. Where do you want your company or group to be 18months from now in terms of employee attitude or behavior? Do you want themto be more collaborative? More innovative? More adaptable? Then, relatethese behaviors to business drivers that will make the company successful.Will more collaboration lead to greater customer satisfaction? Willinnovation save the company money? Will adaptability get products to marketfaster?

        Once you know your desired outcomes, you can begin to work backward to designthe kinds of activities that can lead to the intended behavioral or attitudechange.

  • Provide debriefing and follow-up: Even HR people who understand the valueof training activities often neglect to provide the necessary follow-up."Eighty percent of the time, our clients request no debriefingactivity," says Eaton. While there may be some inherent value inallowing employees to have fun, if you also want them to learn, you have toat the very least follow up an experiential activity with a classroomdebriefing. This helps employees apply the lessons learned to their ownjobs. Without a debriefing, an exercise in designing a miniature golf coursebecomes just that and not a lesson devised to help salespeople trust oneanother. "I liken it to looking at a cartoon without a caption, versuslooking at one with a caption," Eaton explains.

        But beyond the debriefing, training exercises are even more powerful whenthere are longer-term follow-ups. Training consultants suggest following up atmonthly or quarterly intervals to reinforce the learning that has previouslyoccurred, as well as to identify new opportunities for learning. "Insteadof blowing your whole budget in one day, think about how you can make training aprocess, not an event," Eaton suggests.

  • Don’t provide training in isolation: Closely related to the idea ofmaking training a process is the notion that any significant changes inemployee behavior won’t happen through a fun training event on its own.These activities are generally most effective when used asawareness-building tools in the midst of a much larger employee-developmenteffort that includes cultural support for the changes you’re asking peopleto make. Don’t ask them to be more collaborative if managers still makeall the decisions. Make sure the culture supports and reinforces the skillsand attitudes you’re asking employees to take on.
  • Know your audience: One last basic point about feel-good training is to knowwhat your culture and employees will accept. An older workforce may notembrace Outward Bound. Blue-collar workers may not want to play Jeopardy! I’mstereotyping here, but you get the idea.

        The reason my first foray into experiential learning failed is that thefacilitators didn’t take into account the knowledge level of participants, orthe lack thereof. That made me, and several other people in my group, feelinadequate. But since then I’ve worked with many skillful trainers who knowhow to make learning fun. I’ve learned basic accounting while acting like akid selling lemonade. I’ve learned management skills by organizing apeanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich assembly line. The lessons learned from theseactivities have stayed with me because they are so vivid. Proper design andplanning will ensure that your employees can reap similar results.

Workforce, December 2000,Volume 79, Number 12, pp. 33-39 SubscribeNow!

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