Is Training Always The Solution?

In spite of a well planned training strategy do you find that you occasionally get corralled  putting out fires and dealing with last minute demands?  This can be very frustrating for the entire training team who are trying in vain to accomplish their goals as set out in their performance management plan. Last minute requests usually need to be dealt with in a rush which leaves little time for the requirements of assessment, design and delivery. Plus training is not always the best solution to the problem.

I can recall an example from my past, working for a large eastern Canadian health care institution.  I received a call from my boss telling me to drop everything and come down to his office for a meeting.  The CEO was there and was visibly upset because of a complaint he had just received from the wife of a dignitary who had cause to visit our Emergency Centre.  She personally complained to our CEO about the rude and unacceptable treatment she had received from some staff.

He directed me to create a comprehensive training program, not only for the Emergency Centre but for the entire organization on “Customer Service.”  And he wanted to see a draft plan on his desk by the end of the week.

We are talking about a staff of 3000 employees and our Training Department only consisted of myself, the manager, and two Training Specialists.  Where too start?

First I had to put all existing projects on hold.  I did a quick needs assessment with the Emergency Centre by interviewing both the leadership and 25% of the employee population. As the old saying goes “there is a reason for everything”, and I soon found out what was at the bottom of this unrest.

The staff of the Emergency Centre had just been provided with new uniforms and were mandated to wear them on shift.  They hated the uniforms and were angry that they were not involved in the selection process.  They felt that the uniforms were unattractive and made them look unprofessional.

As coincidence would have it, the day that the VIP came into the Emergency was the first day that staff were required to wear the uniform.  And the VIP made a few less than generous comments on the uniforms which led to some  less than flattering feedback about keeping her opinions to herself.

So this was the catalyst to suddenly drop everything and bring out a  corporate wide Customer Service program.  In my opinion this was sort of like “killing a fly with a sledge hammer!”  I reported back to my VP and suggested perhaps we address the uniform issue and conduct a Client Satisfaction Survey to confirm whether there was a significant customer service issue that could be remedied through training.  

In the end we did the Satisfaction Survey and received  very positive reviews from our clients which we shared with our CEO.  We explained the unhappiness with the staff uniforms that was at root cause and he agreed to let HR set up a Committee with staff representation to select outfits that everyone would be satisfied with.

Hence a training emergency averted and a problem solved!

Is Training Part of your Retention Strategy

As a newly appointed Training Director for a large organization I was asked to make a presentation of my training plan to senior management.

I presented  them with a three year plan with learning paths for different employee groups. To do this I had consulted with the company’s five year strategic plan, their service vision and the recently announced corporate values. 

I met with a sampling of senior managers, middle management, and different employee groups for their opinions and insights for a solid training program.  I felt this provided me with a picture of the organization”s preferred future. Since I was hired to head up a new training portfolio I made the assumption that a comprehensive program was expected.

I walked into the conference room, excited and optimistic to make my presentation knowing that I had a good plan that would support the future direction of the company.

The room was populated by the executive team who were eerily quiet as I made my presentation. I provided projected budget numbers for my proposed  three  year program and had barely finished when the CEO interrupted and said that this is a very altruistic plan but as soon as we have invested all these resources in our employees they will take their knowledge with them and get a better job somewhere else.  So in essence we are paying to educate our employees for the benefit of the competition.

I have to admit I was stymied. Being new to the organization I didn’t quite know how to respond. Thankfully the Human Resources VP, who had hired me came to my defence. I was told they would get back to me.  But not surprisingly, I didn’t get approval so the program did not go ahead and I was tasked with delivering the status quo with a modest budget. My HR sponsor debriefed with me and said the organization wasn’t ready for what I had prescribed.

Years later I still think about this.  Had this organization created a  training team  simply to create the optics of  being a progressive organization?  Or perhaps I hadn’t done my homework. Had I failed to provide a convincing ROI on my training plan?

I have since worked for other organizations that do not pay lip service to training.  They realize that having a solid training program  and professional development support is a strong incentive to attract new talent who are highly motivated and want to grow and contribute with the organization.  

With the changing demographics, retaining employees is one of the major challenges for many organizations.  A generous salary package might entice them into the company but the opportunity to learn, build their skills and grow their careers is often what keeps them there.  There is little evidence that employees simply take advantage of learning opportunities and then run to the competition. While high performing employees may eventually outgrow their company when they reach their career potential there, they will have provided exemplary service.

If I could go back to that meeting  that occurred years ago, I would have included the  cost of  turnover due to employees looking elsewhere to build their toolkits. 

It is gratifying that today there are so many new organizations that know that a training investment in an employee is an investment in the profitability of the company.  And if an employee leaves after a number of years of exemplary services, the organization will have not only received their money’s worth but helped build a career that will further benefit the  entire industry.

Do You Have A Training Strategy for your NonProfit?

Training is more than offering a bunch of courses.  I have worked with a number of organizations that develop a training budget in January and then in September are in a panic to get it spent by year’s end.  Results are usually mixed because there are no clear objectives as to how or what this training is going to do to further the interests of the organization. Employees may have appreciated attending the training sessions but no one is asking the bigger question: “what value has this training provided to your organization?”  

Before slipping a number into your budget that you think will meet the need, I suggest that you develop a strategy .  Then cost it out in terms of the training delivery cost and more importantly the cost of having your employees off work to attend the training.  Your executive team is more likely to support your strategy when they understand how it positively contributes to and impacts the organization.

As the person in charge of the training portfolio you will have to do your research.  Carefully review the upcoming year’s strategic plan to suss out whether there are any major change initiatives being planned that will require skill development or change management.  The cost of a major change whether it be restructuring, retooling or new systems implementation will greatly overshadow the cost of effective training.  And a training strategy linked to this change initiative will be easier to sell to those who hold the company’s purse strings.

Your research should also include reviewing the 3rd quarter performance management results to search for common gaps and deficiencies in performance.  Come up with a training solution and add it to your training strategy.

And don’t forget to check out the climate (employee satisfaction) survey where you will often find useful data on the shortcomings of your organization’s collective leadership.  Identify training solutions to coach your supervisors, managers and directors to create a more hospitable work environment where employees become inspired to deliver higher levels of service.  These surveys can also identify common communication gaps that are causing unrest among the employees.

Finally determine what training you are equipped to deliver in-house and what will have to be farmed out to external vendors. Is there an opportunity to train internal champions and experts to become effective facilitators particularly for skill development?  Is it time to develop a formal mentorship program to share knowledge internally?

These days classroom training is being partnered with eLearning and online learning to create a blended approach to make learning more accessible and in many cases more affordable.  But initially, setting up a learning management system can be expensive and require new staffing resources.  Is this something that should become part of a multiyear strategic plan for you?  Online learning is a great way to provide policy and procedure training and does not need a sophisticated learning management system so it is often a good place to start.  Then you can add complexity each year as these new delivery systems prove themselves.  This is especially a great sell if your organization works from multiple locations.

Talk to your senior leaders. Set up a meeting with each of them individually and  share with them what your research has revealed.  Find out if they have needs unique to their Divisions. Ask for their support in getting the budget for your strategy.  If you’ve done your homework they will listen.

Ramblings About Managing Learning In Organizations

The training and development department is a very misunderstood beast.  In my early years, working in organizational training I was often told that employees go to school and get their education and then they go to work.  I still run into the occasional manager or executive that carries that sentiment.  Why should our organization pay for an employee’s learning?

Having set up and managed a number of training portfolios over my career, I can safely say that the training and development department is often the least understood and most heavily underrated department in an organization’s structure.  We uniquely stick out like a sore thumb in the Human Resources Division but that seems to be the most widely accepted place to park us.

But is it? I guess that depends on what training and development services you provide.  If you are mandated to focus on educating employees on corporate policies and procedures then maybe so.  I always called that  “compliance training”.  We did it less to change attitudes or behaviours but more to cover our collective butts.  For example, if an employee violated our Respectful Workplace policy, their first defence was, “well I didn’t know, no one told me that it was wrong.”  So we educated our employees to read each policy and then sign a paper saying that they had done so.  Then came the next excuse, “yeah, I read it but I didn’t understand it.” So arbitrators started to look for evidence of understanding and that’s when corporate training shifted formally on curriculum development for policies and procedures.  And in many cases, the training department (like mine) came out and said maybe we need to ensure that the training is designed to shift attitudes and change behaviours to create a more harmonious work environment.

That of course elevated the role of training because it required more sophisticated training techniques and also couldn’t be taught in two hours.  Suddenly we expected employees to attend a full day or (heaven forbid) a two-day workshop to develop a deeper understanding of their role in maintaining a respectful work environment.  Many an executive has upbraided me saying, “do you know what it costs to have 600 of our employees out for a two day workshop?  Who is going to  do the work?”  Those executives are probably still puzzling over why there is such a negative culture where they work.  Too bad they don’t measure the cost of that!

In the more innovative organizations I worked in, the t&d department eventually became  mandated to develop a global training initiative.  This included on-the-job training for new technology and new equipment.  It also included leadership development, various organizational interpersonal communications initiatives, customer service and the list goes on.  The largest training department I managed over 25 years had six Training Specialists.  Most had 2 or 3.  Each department became an internal customer and each had their unique concerns that they felt training could solve.  The only thing they lacked was budget.  And of course, the t&d budget was often an offshoot of a larger Human Resource budget so there was plenty of competition for resources. With this expanded role, human resources may no longer be the best place for training and development.  There is a need to be closer to our subject matter experts and more responsive to leadership needs that may not always be in total synch with HR.

As my career progressed Training Departments became “Learning Departments” because the latest thinking was that employees should be responsible for managing their own learning.  Which from an andragogical perspective is true.  “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  Learning is lifelong became a reality because change became the new standard.  The days of starting a career in one company and retiring there have largely disappeared.  Whatever you learned in formal schooling was becoming redundant after a few years on the job. How many mechanics would have dreamt that they would need to be IT Specialists to fix vehicles?  Suddenly every time we changed software systems, equipment, or tools we had to have specialists come in to retrain everyone.  So Training Managers often became Training Co-ordinators whose main challenge was to find expert vendors to deliver training.

Then there was the resistance to the new.  Employee attitudes went downhill very quickly when they found out that because of a technological  change they had been reduced to newbies on work for which  they were once considered masters. This also required  additional training.  How do we teach our employees to embrace change?  Change management programs became standard.  The ones that worked best were the ones that focused on the employee developing an understanding of how they typically react to a major unplanned shift in their life. Leave the past behind you where it belongs and develop yourself for the new!

Change causes stress.  This led to both physical and mental health problems for employees.  It cost organizations significantly in lost work time and benefits payouts.  Resiliency and stress management programs became part of our portfolio of offerings.

In my experience training has made a significant positive contribution to our workplaces.  Organizations that invest in learning reap the rewards.  Those that don’t pay the price in lower productivity, high turnover, legal costs  and poor morale. Technology is also making learning more accessible to all employees through online and eLearning.  It is also making it more affordable.

Learning today, truly is lifelong.  And your training or learning department knows it! Hug your Trainer!