Employee Training Done Right (Part I)

Published November 2008

Unless it’s somehow associated with the production of biofuels, chances are your business has seen better days. Last month we discussed that the silver lining in a market downturn is the opportunity to take a (hopefully short) breather and ready your organization for the next uptick. By focusing on improving the capacity and flexibility of people and machines now, the next rise in demand can be handled with less incremental hiring, overtime, and stress.

Improving the effectiveness and productivity of employees almost always requires training of some sort. Unfortunately, company training programs are often poorly designed and implemented, resulting in minimal impact to business results, frustrated managers, and bewildered employees. I’d like to introduce some guidelines to increase the odds that your company sees a positive return on its future training investments.

The first, and perhaps most important, step is to determine where training should be applied. This is a key strategic decision that should be based on the identified area(s) of greatest potential improvement. Some questions to ask include:

  • What do the majority of our customers’ complaints concern?
  • What were the sources of greatest stress during the latest period of peak demand?
  • Where is the largest gap between our current performance and our desired performance?

Training is best utilized for addressing deficiencies in skills rather than shortcomings in motivation. That’s not to say that training to increase employees’ awareness of the realities of today’s competitive markets and ensuring that they clearly understand their role in satisfying customers is a waste of time. It does mean that you likely can’t take someone with a lousy general attitude towards life and train them to have a healthy attitude about their job.

Rather, motivation issues are best handled via the employee selection, rewards, and discipline processes. Those sound like management activities, don’t they? Thus, training for general motivation or morale issues should be targeted at developing leaders’ skills which are likely at the root of the poor morale issue.

Once the need for specific training has been determined, a list of desired outcomes should be established. What exactly do we want the training to accomplish? Do we want employees to simply be aware of or conversant on a topic, or do we want them to immediately begin applying a new skill or technique as part of their daily work? How that question is answered greatly impacts how training should be delivered.

Too often businesses expect employees’ behaviors to change immediately after blanketing the organization with training that provides little more than definitions of new skills and why they are important. This seems akin to a hospital addressing an onslaught of victims from an earthquake by giving everyone an aspirin and expecting them all to get better.

An across-the-board approach makes sense if the desired outcome is simply to create a common awareness and vocabulary among employees. Leaders should not expect any behavioral changes resulting in tangible results. The universal approach may be necessary, however, in laying the groundwork for future specific training which requires some common understanding.

On the other hand, if the intent is for employees to actually apply what they learn, resulting in changed behaviors and results, focusing on a small segment of the business is typically preferred. Realizing actual changed behaviors and improved performance almost always requires holding people accountable. This is more easily accomplished by focusing on a targeted fraction of the organization, one in which the area’s leaders clearly understand their role in ensuring the new skills are properly utilized. I recommend starting with the part of the organization with the most opportunity for improvement. This inch-wide, mile-deep approach also allows results to be monitored closely and lessons learned to be applied to subsequent efforts in other parts of the organization.

Next month we’ll discuss designing and delivering effective training modules for adults.

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