Marc My Words: When Training Gets into Trouble

“Training is good. Give us money.” This is how the training director of a large bank characterized his department’s request for money from the company’s president. They didn’t get any.

The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield always complained about not getting any respect. Sometimes it seems that’s the epitome of the training function. In organizations facing difficult times, training is often the third thing that’s cut, right after travel and free coffee. It’s obvious to most of us that investment in quality training is a good bet. So why can’t we sell it? Here are three key “failures” to avoid.

Failure to meet new expectations for what training should do

Historically, training was seen as a way to give employees essential skills that would enable them to perform their jobs successfully. Almost all training was presumably rooted in identifiable tasks that could be replicated and measured. Computer programming, sales, manufacturing, repair and maintenance, customer service, and technical management are examples of functions that consumed much of the training resource.

All well and good, and still important, but companies today want training to go beyond task-based instruction. For example, companies are asking training to change attitudes about diversity, to shape organizational culture, and to develop leadership and innovation capabilities, all of which are harder to define or anticipate, much less train. The problem is that training’s ability to accomplish these more elusive objectives, and demonstrate verifiable results, has lagged way behind new expectations. As those expectations rise for what training should do, the risk exposure of the training function rises as well. When training is called upon to solve problems it is ill-prepared to solve, the results are often far less than what was expected.

Even when training is an appropriate solution to a problem, too often it takes too long to develop and deploy, costs too much, or both. Bad work settings, ineffective managers, or other priorities can undermine any benefits stemming from the acquisition of new skills. Companies that invest millions of dollars in training increasingly find that they may not be much better off than before they started, and therefore view the effort as wasted. Executive sponsors of high-profile business initiatives, who jump to training as the single or only way to solve a business performance problem, often point to training as the single or only culprit when the initiatives fail.

Failure to demonstrate business value

A poor track record for training, whether perceived or real, has not been addressed very well by many training groups themselves, who have for too long measured success by how well they are doing, rather than how well the business is doing. More tuition revenue, more student days (“butts in seats”), end-of-course test scores, and higher levels of student satisfaction are all examples of internal measures of training activity. Even as companies put more training online, some of the most popular measures of success are how many courses are on the server and how many times a particular course was “opened.”

There is value in these data, and they are easily collected (thanks to the LMS), but they are not nearly enough. Today, many training organizations are not adequately prepared to show how their work contributes value to individual and organizational productivity, and business success. When asked, “How has training benefited individual performance or the company as a whole” (i.e., “What have you done for me lately?”), many training organizations are, unfortunately, ill equipped to respond.

Failure to recognize the changing economics of the training function

The exposure many training organizations feel today is more intense because they are spending a great deal more of what is perceived to be “real” money than ever before. In the past, when training organizations were almost entirely classroom-based, they could charge tuition to cover their costs. This was predominately an internal transfer of budget money from one department (the participants’) to another (the training department). Thus training organizations appeared to need far less of a direct corporate investment. Certainly, business units were spending money on training, and training departments were collecting it, but because there was no real flow of cash into or out of the company, it was harder to spot and was mistakenly seen as less of a concern.

Today, with millions of dollars paid to outsource service providers, technology firms, and external courseware suppliers, along with the significant increase in infrastructure costs to deliver eLearning programs, senior leaders, especially business unit heads and CIOs, are taking notice, demanding more justification and rightly asking whether the investment might be better spent elsewhere.

Even when the expense is justified, increasing budget pressures, and what seems to be permanent uncertainty in the business cycle, is likely to continue well into the future. This puts constraints on every department, and training is no exception. Simply asking for money for training is no longer enough to ensure that you will get what you ask for, much less what you need.

Not the fun stuff perhaps, but necessary nonetheless

Managing expectations, demonstrating value, and justifying costs may not seem very training or instructional-design focused, or as exciting as a new technology, but these three activities may be more important for the ultimate success of any training effort than the individual learning programs themselves, however well designed. This may not be in our sweet spot, but if we ignore or diminish these fundamental areas, getting respect may be the least of our worries.

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