Employee Training Done Right (Part II)

Published December 2008

Last month we began discussing guidelines for successfully training employees. These included

  • Ensuring that training is targeted for specific shortcomings or potential opportunities in the organization’s performance
  • Using training to address deficiencies in skills rather than motivation
  • Identifying the specific outcomes desired from the training

This month I’d like to explore the unique considerations to be made when designing and delivering training for adults.

During elementary school, we accepted most of what our teachers taught us as relevant, with only an occasional, “I’ll never use this!” These complaints likely increased in frequency throughout our middle school and high school years. By the time we’re adults, we’ve long concluded that the world contains much more knowledge than can be stuffed into our heads in the small amount of time left over in our busy days for education. Thus, adult learners have different needs and learn in different ways than their younger counterparts. Understanding these needs and differences is key if your organization is to optimize its training investment.

First, in order for adults to be motivated to learn, they must understand and clearly see the relevancy and practicality of the desired new knowledge, prior to attending. Thus, it is beneficial to share the reasoning and the desired outcomes with adult students before training begins. The more personalized this discussion, the better.

This explains why it is advantageous for leaders to train their own people. Nothing speaks more clearly to the importance of a lesson than a manager investing their own time to teach it. While outside resources can be extremely helpful in developing effective lesson plans for adults, actual delivery is best accomplished by an organization’s leaders. This is a situation where intent matters more than technique. In other words, the strong message sent by leaders’ involvement outweighs their lack of experience as professional trainers.

Adult learners want and need to participate in, and occasionally lead, their own self-discovery. Sensory exercises, offered in a safe, respectful environment are required to result in “Aha!” moments. Traditional learning techniques, such as reading and listening to a lecturer, should be discouraged in favor of creatively doing a lesson. This is especially important since, unlike their elementary counterparts, a significant portion of an adult student population may enter the training with negative experiences and perceptions regarding formal education. Some may struggle with basic reading skills. Others may be attending in their non-native language. In short, Death by PowerPoint should be strictly avoided.

After new knowledge is introduced to adults, retention techniques are critical to ensure that it is not lost. Reinforcement, both positive and negative, is required for the new knowledge to be transferred into action. Management almost always under-communicates its most important messages. As such, leaders should take advantage of all communication mechanisms available, both formal and informal to reiterate the importance of the new skills, the key fundamentals, and the expectations for application.

Finally, and most importantly, the ability to transfer and apply the new knowledge to real world settings outside the classroom must be present for true learning to occur. Thus, training should occur immediately prior to on-the-job application opportunities. Also, training should be scoped in terms of breadth so that employees can be reasonably monitored and held accountable for correctly applying their new-found knowledge.

Investing in employees via effectively conceived, implemented, and applied training is among the most strategic decisions a company can make. This is because a high-performing workforce represents one of the most difficult assets for your competitors to duplicate.

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