Article: Why so much employee development fails and how to make it stick?

Learning & Development

Why so much employee development fails and how to make it stick?

World-over, there is possibly no other corporate activity which has lower 'evidence of success' as Investment on Employee Development
 

The employee needs to know the context in which his work relates to the larger strategy of the organisation

 

The motivation to invest time and effort, and energy on one's development only happens when people can clearly see the connection with payoffs

 

World-over, there is possibly no other corporate activity which has lower ‘evidence of success’ as Investment on Employee Development

While many well-studied measures of ROI remain valid - the investment is usually upfront - the benefits accrue over a period of time. This realization itself makes it necessary that, vis-à-vis post event analysis, prior planning may have more significant payoffs.

At PDI Ninth House, an organisation committed to research in the domain of talent engagement and development, this field of study is important for strategic reasons to ensure that our own corporate development solutions address the ‘means’ to ensure the ‘ends’ meet with predictable success.

Decades of research and validation of the hypothesis around client engagement across the globe, across industry sectors, across company levels - continue to throw up supporting evidence that likens ‘learning and development’ as a process along a continuum as opposed to isolated ‘events’.

The Development Pipeline®

In order for any real learning and related change to happen in an organizational context and most importantly sustain itself, the organisation must ask and provide answers for five essential conditions - insight, motivation, new knowledge and skills, practice at workplace and accountability for sustained growth.

1. Insight: Do people know what to develop? This critical enabler may sometimes get forgotten in many robust learning and development initiatives. Lofty team phrases and shared vision documents can very often obscure the fact that adults are ‘selfish’ in what they choose to learn - and they have and they do exercise the choices. A senior executive exercises the choice by making himself unavailable for a particular initiative for which he has been nominated. A relatively junior employee, not having this veto-power, may exercise his choice by attending every stage of the process – but not learning anything. For ensuring its success, employee development initiatives must clarify 3 key questions beforehand to give the employee very clear, unambiguous and correct insight.

What does the organisation expect from me? The employee needs to know the context in which his work relates to the larger strategy of the organisation. Most frustration of employees missing the ‘bigger picture’ stem from an oversight to clarify this component at the insight stage.

How do my fellow colleagues in the organisation view me? We do not work in a vacuum. In fact, most of our life-hours as employees are spent in the company of fellow colleagues. This stands to reason that this segment can provide one with the most meaningful insights regarding both strengths and development areas. This data point adds a very meaningful start to any serious learning plan.

Having incorporated the above into the ‘rationale’ for learning – no journey can start without a roadmap - and nothing beats the good old Individual Development Plan. An effective development plan makes sense to an employee only if it reduces hassle, saves time and positively impacts financial returns. At the advanced levels, the plans must address more evolved levels of needs. The fundamentals however cannot be bypassed. Too many individual development plans die premature deaths like ‘new year resolutions’ simply because they ignore basic mandatory aspects.

An effective development plan makes sense to an employee only if it reduces hassle, saves time and positively impacts financial returns.

2. Motivation: Many development initiatives erroneously assume that just by making employees aware of what they need to develop is good enough for starting the process - a killer of an assumption. Unlike children who (hopefully!) learn if exams are round the corner, professional corporate adults do not learn just because someone wants them to.
   The motivation to invest time and effort, and energy on one’s development only happens when people can clearly see the connection with payoffs. They need to understand how the acquisition of new skills, knowledge, competencies, helps in better and more meaningful achievement of their self, group and organisation goals. The challenge and the opportunity is to create an environment where the employees are doing the ‘chasing’ for their learning process activation rather than any boss/HR having to push.

There are ways to make this happen!

Invariably, the best method here is to link the motivation to individual insights – so if the first stage of the pipeline addresses the ‘what’, the motivation stage can address the ‘why’.

   Unlike children who (hopefully!) learn if the examinations are around the corner, professional corporate adults do not learn just because someone wants them to. The motivation to invest time and effort, and energy on one’s development only happens when people can clearly see the connection with payoffs.

3. Building capabilities: Do people know how they can acquire the required new pieces of learning, how do they know if they are on the right track, are they following the right processes? The situation is akin to someone who wants to lose weight, gets very excited about the prospect and enrolling in a very modern and complete gym-with no instructor! Even organisations that boast of evolved knowledge management and access systems err by believing that employees will find their own way.

Some might, but the larger purpose of such initiatives is left dangling unless there is a process that structures this stage. What needs to be kept in mind is every learner’s unique learning need and style, as well as the organisation’s larger ‘group learning’ goals.

Some organisations spend money and effort at getting the insight and motivation right and just when ‘the pump is primed’, they ignore this stage. Hence they have many employees – all dressed and nowhere to go - a guaranteed recipe for frustration and cynicism - not to talk about the sheer resistance when you want to make a fresh start later. In the related context of the earlier two steps in the Development Pipeline®, this stage represents the ‘How’ of the learning model.

4. Real world practice: Workplace application of any new learning has three extremely important sub-conditions–
(a) Immediacy - While the novelty of the idea remains and the initiative to ‘try’ is strong, the learner must get the opportunity to experiment at the workplace. The more this process gets delayed - and this starts spiralling once the initial momentum is lost the lesser the chances that anything serious will be attempted later. If it is not happening now, it is not going to happen later.

(b) Relevance - An employee can surely benefit immensely from participating in a high -impact corporate initiative structured around collaboration and handling conflicts by getting along better with his mother-in-law - is hardly what the investment plan had as a payoff. Yes, surely this can be a very sensible benefit to the employee at a personal level - but the workplace goals need to be paramount for any meaningful change to happen in the organisation.

(c) Encouragement - Like with most newly learnt skills, the first few attempts at its application are unlikely to create music - possibly more of noise. The last thing we want happening here is for someone, usually an impatient boss, playing spoilsport by failing to acknowledge and encourage the first attempts. Remember the real cheer-leaders support the players right through the game from the first whistle itself. They do not wait for the team to win so they can clap and dance.
Organisations that structure an employee development project without the enrolment and active involvement of the immediate boss run the risk of not being able to create this application-enabling stage of the Development Pipeline® and losing out on any meaningful change guidance opportunity.

    Organisations that structure an employee development project without the enrolment and active involvement of the immediate boss run the risk of losing out on any meaningful change guidance opportunity.

5. Accountability: Finally, who ‘owns the monkey’ for learning and development, behavior change, results and sustained impact? Is it the boss, or the HR, or the larger organisation, or is it the employee himself? While there is a shared responsibility here as all the various stakeholders have roles to play and also have specific gains accrued to them - the buck stops with the learner. At the end of the day, new capabilities and knowledge need to become a ‘way of life’ with the employee. This internalization accountability needs to be communicated, understood and agreed to rather ‘explicitly’- not when the learner is midstream but when the project is being conceptualized and scoped. Best-in-class organisations communicate expectations very clearly around employee development initiatives.

Visualizing employee development that leads to sustainable and desirable change in behaviors can be best compared to this image of the Development Pipeline®. As would happen with any real ‘pipeline’, if development were to flow through it, any clogged artery or constriction of one stage would slow down the process and impair growth. Organizations can save millions by simply evaluating their projects on the pipeline model - and getting a sense of what stages are blocking the progress.

Raj Bowen is the MD - PDI Ninth House, India

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Topics: Learning & Development

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