Organizations worry about training robbery. Companies spend loads of money on employee training and education—but they claim to never get a good return on their investment. For the most part, they complain that learning doesn’t lead to better organizational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things and that brings up this large looming, but almost, a mocking question – what is the effectiveness of training and how do we get a bang for the buck?
Consider an automotive company, which we’ll call Triton Motors, where we had this experience. Triton invested in a training program to improve leadership and organizational effectiveness. The service division was one of the first business units to implement it, and virtually every salaried employee in the division attended the program. Participants described the program as very powerful. For a whole week they engaged in numerous tasks that required teamwork, and they received real-time feedback on both individual and group behavior. The program ended with a plan for taking the learning back into the organization.
Pre-training and post-training surveys suggested that participants’ attitudes had changed. A year later, when a new General Manger came in to lead the division, he requested an assessment of the expensive behavioral program. As it turned out, managers thought little had changed as a result of the training, even though it had been inspiring at the time. They found it impossible to apply what they had learned about teamwork and collaboration, because of a number of managerial and organizational barriers: a lack of strategic clarity, the previous General manager’s top-down style, a politically charged environment, and cross-functional conflict. The training clearly had not worked.
It rarely does, as we have found in our research and teaching and in the advising we’ve done at dozens of companies. Participants in corporate education programs often tell us that the context in which they work, makes it difficult for them to put into practice what they had learnt in class. Only one in four senior managers reports that training was critical to business outcomes. Still, senior executives and their HR teams continue to put money into training, year after year, in an effort to trigger organizational change. But what they actually need is a new way of thinking about learning and development.
The context is really what sets the stage for success or failure, so it’s important to attend to organizational design and managerial processes first and then support them with individual development tools such as coaching and classroom or online education.
If we take a closer look at what goes wrong and have honest conversations about the effectiveness of their organizations, we hear about six common barriers. Companies consistently struggle with (1) unclear direction on strategy and values, which often leads to conflicting priorities; (2) senior executives who don’t work as a team, haven’t committed to a new direction, or acknowledged necessary changes in their own behavior; (3) a top-down or laissez-faire style by the leader, which prevents honest conversation about problems in the organization; (4) a lack of coordination across businesses, functions, or regions due to poor organizational design; (5) inadequate leadership time and attention given to talent issues; and (6) employees’ fear of telling the senior team about obstacles to the organization’s effectiveness. Because of that fear, we call these barriers “silent killers.” They almost always appear together, and they block the systemic changes needed to make training and education programs effective. Clearly, the company needs to tackle the context, which in this case are these systemic issues before it could implement a productive learning program for managers. And so some key context questions that organizations need a ‘yes’ on to begin with, are -
- Is the leadership team aligned around a clear, inspiring strategy and set of values?
- Has the team collected candid employee feedback about barriers to effectiveness and performance—including senior managers’ own behavior?
- Has the team redesigned its organization, management systems, and practices to address the problems revealed by that diagnostic?
- Is HR offering consulting and coaching to help employees learn on the job so that they can practice the new attitudes and behaviors required of them?
- Do corporate training programs adequately support the change agenda?
- Will each unit’s leadership and culture provide fertile ground for it?
If the organization’s answer to any of those questions is no, the organization is probably (with the best of intentions) over-investing in training and education and failing to put talent development in its proper strategic change context.
In addition, ongoing research highlights the eight elements that companies must address in order to create development programs that really work:
1. Encouraging Workplace Coaching
Historically, managers passed on knowledge, skills, and insights through coaching and mentoring. But in our more global, complex, and competitive world, the role of the manager has eroded. Managers are now overburdened with responsibilities. They claim to be able to barely handle what they’re directly measured on, let alone offer coaching and mentoring. Organizations and particularly Human resources need to equip, support and incentivize managers to perform this work.
2. A more continuous process to identify Training Needs
It used to be that what you learned was valuable for years, but now, knowledge and skills can become obsolete within months. This makes the need to learn rapidly and regularly more important than ever. This requires organizations to rethink how learning and development happens from a once-in-a-while activity, to a more continuous, ongoing campaign. Avoiding information overload is vital, so organizations must strike a balance between giving the right information versus giving too much.
3. Pushing the Development Agenda to where it belongs
Highly-structured, one-size-fits-all learning programs don’t work anymore. Individuals must own, self-direct, and control their learning futures. Yet they can’t do it alone, nor must organizations want them to. The development and growth of talent is vital to ongoing success, ability to innovate, and overall productivity. It’s a delicate balance. There is a need to have ‘customized’ solutions for individuals, while simultaneously providing scale and cost efficiency across the organization.
4. Flex, Flex, Flex
Telling employees they need to engage in more learning and development activities with their already heavy workload often leaves them feeling overwhelmed and consumed by the question, “When and how will I find the time?” Companies must respond by adopting on-demand and mobile solutions that make learning opportunities more readily accessible for your people.
5. Innovative ways of addressing teams in a virtual environment
While most organizations have more people working remotely and virtually, it does require more thought and creativity in how to train this segment of your workforce. This includes formal types of learning through courses, but also the informal mentoring and coaching channels that could be virtual. Just because employees are out of sight doesn’t mean they get to be out-of-mind when it comes to learning and development.
6. Leadership to foster Candor and Trust
People crave transparency, openness, and honesty from their leaders. However, business leaders continue to face issues of trust. Unfortunately, one in four workers say they don’t trust their employer, and only about half believe their employer is open and upfront with them. If leaders disengage or refuse to share their own ongoing learning journeys, how can they expect their people to enthusiastically pursue theirs? It’s the old adage of “lead by example.” If managers want employees to engage in learning and development, then they need to actively pursue and share their own personal learning journeys and live the behavioral change that they expect from their people.
7. Styles and option matching
With five generations actively in the workforce, organizations must restructure the way employees learn and the tools and activities they use to correctly match the different styles, preferences, and expectations of employees. For example, Millennials came of age using cell phones, computers, and video game consoles, so they expect to use these technologies to support their learning activities. Traditional learning methods could continue/be phased out based on the context.
8. Viewing the organization as a system of interacting elements
A poor return on investment isn’t the only bad outcome of failed training initiatives. Employees below the top become cynical. Why don’t leaders get this? Because they implicitly view the organization as an aggregation of individuals. By that logic, people must be selected for and developed with the “right” knowledge, skills, and attitudes in order to improve the institution’s effectiveness and performance. So HR defines the requisite individual competencies according to the company’s strategy and then sells top management on training programs designed to develop those competencies, believing that organizational change will follow. This widely embraced development model doesn’t acknowledge that organizations are systems of interacting elements: Roles, responsibilities, and relationships are defined by organizational structure, processes, leadership styles, people’s professional and cultural backgrounds, and HR policies and practices. And it doesn’t recognize that all those elements together drive organizational behavior and performance. This system needs change, else it will not support and sustain individual behavior change.
Let us return to the example at the beginning of this article. After Triton Motors service division found that its initial training hadn’t changed ineffective patterns of behavior, it asked itself the six questions and handled the learning function with much better results. The new general manager asked organizational development specialists to interview key managers and professionals in every function and activity in the service profit/value chain. Their diagnosis revealed why and how inter-functional conflict, political behavior, and embedded managerial practices were undermining service processes and employee commitment.
The process exposed some barriers to effectiveness: unclear strategy and priorities, a senior team that was trying to manage new-product development initiatives from the top but lacked the necessary information, and a siloed organization that hindered coordination. They created a cross-functional team headed by business leaders in addition to HR —a major departure from the structure that had blocked teamwork in the past. Roles and responsibilities were changed accordingly. For instance, senior management held the teams accountable through quarterly reviews at which they had to describe their progress in blueprinting services and developing new service-products and also report on their own effectiveness and any problems in collaboration among functional departments. This ongoing assessment helped sustain behavioral change.
As leaders, we know the value our learning and development programs bring to our organizations. But we also want to ensure we’re receiving a high return on investment. By clearly understanding the trends emerging in our learning and development programs, we’ll better position our companies to select the right targeted solutions to drive results, increase employee engagement, and increase innovation and productivity.