Getting more from your training programs

10 Jan 2012 Sandeep Mehta

The article Getting more from your training programs in McKinsey Quarterly has some interesting data:

  • Companies around the world spend up to $100 billion a year1 to train employees in the skills they need to improve corporate performance
  • Only one-quarter of the respondents to a recent McKinsey 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. 
  • Training is generally provided because employees often need new skills to deal with changes in an organization’s strategy or performance.

We have talked about the importance of evaluating and measuring training programs. We have discussed approaches to rigorously explore the value delivered by training programs. The overall message is that change through training is difficult and (as we have discussed in the past) managers need to be vigilant to get value out of training. This article provides a handy checklist:

1. Create a need or a desire in the staff to receive training.  This can be done by clearly delineating the problem that the training is trying to solve and involving at least some of the staff in generating the training. Here is a handy description of how people avoid training.

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”).

2. Uncover the mindset or culture that is underlying the behavior that requires change.  Ensure that the mindset is addressed explicitly – remembering that the training alone cannot change mindset.

For instance, a big-box retailer had been trying to increase its focus on customers for more than two years. It invested millions of dollars in teaching a five-step selling process, monitoring customer feedback, and rolling out e-learning programs to improve its employees’ knowledge of the products it sold. Salespeople passed every certification test they were given yet still didn’t use the new skills on the floor. Customer feedback and store performance remained lackluster.

An examination of the mindset showed that

salespeople clung to age, gender, and racial stereotypes about which customers would make purchases—and tended to ignore the others.

3. Ensure leaders and managers are on board with the new behavior that the training is supposed to implement.  This has been the biggest problem in many implementations I have been part of. More on it below.

A closer examination revealed that the new marketing skills hadn’t taken root, because the company hadn’t trained the department’s leaders, who lacked the necessary skills and could not be effective role models. Further, the leaders were not prepared to change the way they ran meetings, made decisions about branding or advertising programs, conducted performance dialogues, or coached others on marketing skills.

4. Managers and executives should reinforce the new skills as frequently as possible.  Unless leaders are completely sold on the new way of doing business, training will not be successful.

To show that things would be different this time, the executives insisted that the conversations take place and even shadowed the supervisors on the shop floor to help them. While this was uncomfortable for everyone involved, the supervisors soon gained confidence using the new skills and began to see results. Indeed, within just two months, productivity, reliability, and safety performance had all improved, and the plant was able to produce 25 percent more output than it had in the past.

5. Measure the impact of new training and ensure it is delivering value.

One more quick point:

“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.”

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