According to the Association of Talent Development’s (ATD) 2016 State of the IndustryReport, organizations spend on average $1,252 per employee on training and development efforts. This means billions upon billions of dollars globally every year; however, despite the size of these expenditures, many leaders struggle to determine if the investment expended achieves desired learning outcomes and improved organizational performance.
It is almost unimaginable that organizations struggle to determine if the financial investment and time expended in training initiatives achieve desired learning outcomes. However, the reality of the challenges to make connections between training efforts and business results is difficult as many variables play a potential role in influencing learning.
Consider two such examples…
- If a sales person attends a training program, how much of that investment is truly tied to closing the ‘big deal’ six months later? Was the big sale the result of applying what was learned in the course or merely the outcome of good preparation before the sales call, a superior product or service, or a stroke of good luck? Perhaps all of the above?
- What about a department that receives an award for customer service? Did that come from phone skills training they received? Or, was it the result of proper staffing, improved technology, or a leader who was doing all of the right things?
The reality is that these examples and countless others point to the fact that it isn’t just training that makes the difference. There are a limitless number of factors that can play into success. Everything from the economy, to the weather, to the marketplace, to the business processes, to the latest hire who joined the organization may play a role in causing or not causing the desired result. Nonetheless, I constantly come across leaders who experience what I call the Return on Investment (ROI) Conundrum.
The conversation usually involves a comment like this:
“I know that training is important, but I think we need to measure more than how many people attended a workshop. We need to determine the impact of the training to see if we made a wise investment.”
Do I applaud the thinking?
Absolutely – this is definitely the right conversation to have.
However, as is often the case, the right thing to do is one of the hardest things to accomplish. Measuring the ROI of a training initiative is difficult. Isolating the effects of the training and quantifying the value is near impossible. Most organizations eventually give up because they lose the will to complete a longitudinal study designed to measure results in a manner that is defendable in front of everyone from operations to finance.
In the end, they throw up their hands and give up completely or develop a poor answer to the original ROI question making some sweeping declaration about the training working or not working without the ability to truly defend their results. Then, two or three years later, they circle back around to the same ROI question and start all over again.
Why do they start all over again?
Is it because they didn’t learn the first time around?
No, it’s because it’s the right question to ask. The problem is that they rarely learn how to go from classroom feedback to application of learning. If you have ever experienced this situation, then you are all too familiar with the ROI Conundrum.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to this conundrum. It doesn’t replace the value of a full blown ROI study and if your organization has the resources and stamina to conduct such a study, by all means do it. However, many organizations lack the resources – financial, personnel, and otherwise – to accomplish such an undertaking.
This is merely one sure way to begin to maximize your training and development ROI.
Create a Process, Not an Event
Too many organizations look at training as an isolated event. An employee is sent to a workshop or seminar with little discussion before the event. No expectations are set; no pre-work is completed. Then, when training is finished, the employee returns to work with little discussion about the training beyond “How was the weather?” and “Did you get a chance to do anything other than sit in the workshop?”
Organizations should look at training and education not as an event, but as part of a learning process that begins prior to the learner’s arrival at a course and extends beyond the completion of the session. An increase in relevance can be achieved by engaging the trainer, the employee, the employee’s supervisor, and the entire organization in the process. Doing so ensures that the concepts outlined in the learning environment are directly connected to the workplace.
The following table highlights activities that all four players can employ prior to and upon completion of a course. These activities represent specific actions that each player can take to enhance learning outcomes and increase the ROI. These examples, serve as a point of embarkation for learning and development professionals as they work to enhance specific learning engagements.
As depicted in the table, a number of key actions can take place prior to the commencement of training. This list is not intended to be inclusive, but provides possibilities that organizations, teams, and individuals can explore to improve training ROI.
The credibility of the instructor is important and, because of this importance, a trainer should not wait until the commencement of training to begin the establishment of the one’s credibility. An instructor could send a personalized pre-workshop email explaining his or her credentials and convey the importance of the session to the employee. The instructor can also examine the list of workshop participants to see who will be in the room that day and identify ways to enhance relevance through stories or examples, while considering communication behaviors to better meet the needs of the audience. A session filled predominately with engineers might benefit from certain examples and illustrations compared to those that might resonate with an audience composed mainly of policy makers. Conversely, a session consisting of people from a certain geographic location or possessing a shared experience might react positively to certain communication behaviors.
Organizations can contribute greatly to training ROI by establishing a development framework for their employees. Attending a training course is an investment and should be made based on the needs of the organization and the individual both today and into future.
One of the best ways to do this for an organization to establish a career development framework that identifies what training an individual should receive throughout his or her career and make investment decision based on the expectations outlined in the framework. As organizations send people to training, they should also research available training programs to identify both the best training courses and training institutions to deliver the learning. Decisions should not be made based on anecdotal evidence (the guy down the hall went to the course and loved it) or simply on where the course is held or the date it is delivered. For training dollars to be best invested, organizations need to research courses to find the best fit.
Lastly, senior leaders should reach out to those going to training to emphasize the organization’s support of the employee’s learning and reinforce that an investment is being made and the organization is looking forward to the individual returning and applying what is learned within the organization.
If the training program has pre-work, an employee’s supervisor should review the work to ensure it is complete and to discuss the employee’s expectations for the program. Additionally, the supervisor should talk about the benefits of the program with the employee. There should be no doubt in the employee’s mind that the supervisor supports the training and expects that the employee will share what he or she learns in the course upon returning to work. Where appropriate, the supervisor can draw from personal experience if he or she attended past sessions of a given course or ask others to provide insight to the learner.
Employees must play an active role in preparing for training and this is not limited to simply clearing one’s calendar and turning on the out-of-office notice in the email system. An employee should complete all course pre-work, invest time to document program expectations, and meet with his or her supervisor to discuss the upcoming training. Additionally, employees should consider how to best share the learning after returning to work. It is often a good idea for the employee to identify a colleague or a group of people to teach what is learned in the course and making a firm commitment to do so prior to departure will go a long way to improving ROI.
After completion of the session, the instructor should continue to provide support to the learner. Instructors could provide additional job aids that reinforce the learning. Instructors can augment their efforts by assigning specific homeworkassignments, sending out follow-up notes that encourage learners to keep their commitments, and soliciting success stories to share with others. If feasible, the instructor or training institution should establish an alumni group that remains connected after the course through an on-line presence that the institution provides or by using various forms of social media.
Organizations that send employees to training can perform a number of post-session roles to increase application and drive ROI. At a minimum, organizations can require employees who attend training to share what they learn in a written format. Many organizations require some kind of trip report. These can be a good idea, but often lose their value when an employee simply provides the training location and dates and then copies the learning objectives from the training materials. What would be more valuable is if the organization expected the individual to identify the three most important things learned in the course and two specific behaviors the employee will do differently because of the experience. This concept can be enhanced if the organization deploys a lessons learned system to capture and share knowledge acquisition so that others looking to attend future training events, or simply tackling daily work issues, can benefit from those who attended previous courses. Additionally, organizations should look at the reward and compensation systems they have in place. Employee behaviors are often the result of the systems, structures, and processes the organization has put in place. If the organization feels that employees are not using what they learn in training, they should examine what the organization is doing to drive, or not drive, the right behaviors. A system of awards, recognition, and expectations, if properly implemented and evaluated, can positively influence training ROI.
The employee and his or her supervisor can conduct post-session actions to reinforce the learning. Learners might choose to write up their key workshop insights and share them with colleagues. They can also teach what they learned in the workshop to their co-workers and complete a method to track implementation of what they learned. Meanwhile, the learner’s supervisor could briefly review weekly progress, host sharing sessions if multiple ‘graduates’ exist in the organization, and set a firm date on the calendar six months after completion of the session for the learner to formerly report out how the program has influenced work performance and any lessons learned through the application of what was taught.
Each of these actions and others like them will take additional time and effort from all parties, but they will also have the potential to positively influence the learning. While pre-session actions work to build trainer credibility, enhance content relevance, and serve as a motivation catalyst, the post-workshop activities keep the content in front of the learner and raise expectations for all team members.
Patrick Leddin, PhD is a speaker, global leadership consultant, and The Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Five-Week Leadership Challenge. Patrick is an Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University with a thriving leadership blog and podcast, and 25-years of leadership experience. He offers an unparalleled mix of academic rigor and real-world experience.