As a consultant, I’m often sitting across the desk from managers who are skeptical of the value of training and development activities. Many front-line managers view training as a sink-hole, a money pit to which they are loathe to commit their budgets. More often than not, this attitude is based on experience, when expensive training interventions failed to deliver advertised results.
One of the challenges that we in the training and competence development business face is countering this pervasive sense that training is a direct cost, an expense rather than an investment. Personally, I’ve made it a career goal to get workforce development activities off the Income Statement and get them on the balance sheet as capital investments. While the accountants and auditors mightn’t agree, if I can get managers thinking that way, I’ll retire happy! The question is: How?
Let’s face it: the training industry hasn’t done itself any favours in the past. As trainers, either intentionally or by chance, we’ve over-promised and under-delivered. But in my experience the failure of training and development initiatives is usually the result of poor up-front analysis: in short, trying to fix the wrong problems.
There really are only four reasons why an individual doesn’t perform adequately:
- Person doesn’t know what to do;
- Person doesn’t know how to do it;
- Person could do it but is otherwise constrained from doing it;
- Person doesn’t want to do it.
One of the keys to designing and delivering adequate training is through intelligent, rational use of front-end analysis techniques to nail down cause and effect relationships between the business problem and the underlying competency issue. Again, the major shortcoming of training programs, particularly in the soft skills, is determining the business impact of the training: exactly which business measurement are we attempting to improve through the training intervention? Is training the best lever to use to move that indicator?
Moving from traditional training to an overall business performance paradigm means moving from a “here’s the training program, who will attend” mindset to a “what’s the problem, what can we do to improve the situation” approach – which may or may not involve training.
One-size-fits-all programs are rarely appropriate for anything but ab initio training. The key to be effective and having impact is getting beyond these types of programs. The following exchange illustrates the dilemma that many internal training and development people face:
Manager: “I need a training program to get my people better project management skills. When can you do it?”
Trainer: “How did you determine that project management skills were the issue? What business problem are you trying to solve?”
Manager: “We’re over budget on Project XYZ, and its because the team doesn’t understand how to track and manage a project. I want two days of training that will give them the skills they need to bring the project back in line”.
Trainer: “OK. Do you have any hard data to support the notion that the problem is skills related? Are their other factors that could influence the budget for the project? Are you sure that training is the answer?
Manager: “I don’t have time for a debate. Are you going to do the training, or do I talk to your manager and get them to send me someone who will?”
This approach has high potential for a failed project – and the training department will wear the blame when that happens.
The key to getting to a business performance paradigm for looking at competency development is asking the right questions.
I always want to see the evidence (and verify it myself) that the business problem being experienced really related to a skills gap. Question job descriptions, reporting relationships, resources available for the worker, work flows, environmental factors, and especially the consequences of correct and incorrect behaviour. Finally, we need to find out how much the problem is costing the organization; what I call the “cost of incompetence”. If the fix costs more than the problem, then there isn’t much point in moving forward. This sounds obvious, yet I’m continually amazed to find that training projects with no chance of showing a return on investment are allowed to proceed.
Training needs to show an ROI, just like any other business activity. If you get the front end analysis right, you stand a far greater chance of making sure that a. training is in fact a viable solution to the business problem rather than a knee jerk reaction and b. that the training delivered will have impact and achieve real results. It takes a bit longer, and the initial cost may be a bit higher, but if getting the front-end work right prevents one costly and wasteful training project from going ahead, it has paid for itself.