You've just put on a terrific training program. The evaluations are outstanding, participants' comments are supportive, and scores on the post-test prove that a lot of learning took place.
You feel great. You and your team believe you have scored a big win and your mission has been accomplished.
There was a time when that might have been true, when delivering a great training program was sufficient. But not anymore. Global competition, market pressures for performance, and the recent economic downturn have moved the finish line. There is a new criterion for training success: improved performance on the job.
Training's job isn't done, and training won't be rewarded with continued investment unless learning is transferred and applied in a way that improves performance. Anything that falls short of the new goal line is at risk. Fortunately, we now know what it takes to turn great learning into great results.
This article examines the new finish line and what it takes to reach it. We show that most organizations are falling significantly short of the goal. And we provide solutions: practical steps and the best practices of companies that are embracing this new and more challenging objective for learning and development.
Who moved the cheese?
Back in the "good old days," training was evaluated by activity - the number of programs delivered and the number of people trained - and learners' immediate (Level 1) reactions. Business managers accepted the proposition that positively rated training was good, and so more training was better. What happened?
The pressure on organizations to perform has increased dramatically over the past two decades, fueled by increasing global competition (for example, The World is Flat) and rising investor expectations. On top of these expectations, the current economic slowdown has affected virtually everyone and has further increased pressure on business managers everywhere. To balance their budgets, company leaders are being forced to make increasingly difficult decisions - to lay off employees, to close plants and facilities, and to cut back on training. Training is competing like never before with other departments and priorities for increasingly scarce resources.
In such an environment, organizations can only justify investing in training that is clearly essential to business success and that actually delivers results that enable the company to compete effectively, comply with laws and regulations, retain key employees, and survive in turbulent times. The specific results a business wants to see depend on the nature of the business, the training, and the environment. The results that really matter are always focused on improved performance (see sidebar). One thing is certain: training results that merit continued investment occur on the job, not in the classroom or on the computer.
Are we there yet?
If the finish line has moved, how much further do we have to go? To gauge where training and development is today, we asked 126 learning leaders at the 2008 ASTD International Conference and Exposition to answer this question: what percent of participants apply what they learned well enough and long enough to produce meaningful performance improvement?
The answers were mixed with good news and bad news. The bad news is that learning leaders overwhelmingly agree that much of the current training investment fails to produce results; they estimate that the performance of only one out of every five or six people trained actually improves. The good news is that training and development can double or triple the value it adds to the enterprise by redefining the finish line and adopting learning transfer strategies that have been proven to work.
The New Finish Line
To reach the new finish line, training professionals must treat training as a process; drive follow-through, transfer, and application; and better engage managers and participants.
1| Treat training as a process. The incredible surge in business productivity in the past 30 years has been due in large part to process thinking - total quality management, Six Sigma, lean manufacturing, process re-engineering, and so forth. Originally developed in manufacturing, process thinking has been successfully applied to a wide range of business processes.
Historically, training was treated as an isolated event. Viewed from a process perspective, however, it is apparent that instruction is only one link in the chain that leads to performance improvement (see diagram).
Like in any chain, instruction is only as strong as its weakest link. Therefore, even if the training is outstanding, weak managerial support can derail the value creation process so that it fails to produce the results management wanted and needed. As workplace learning professionals, we need to move from instructional designers and facilitators to value creation process owners.
When we studied highly effective learning programs, we found that they were managed as end-to-end processes by the application of six disciplines, beginning with clearly identifying the required business outcomes and ending with documenting the results. Like Six Sigma manufacturing plants, the most productive learning organizations continually monitor the process and look for opportunities to improve it - including steps they do not own.
2| Drive follow-through, transfer, and application. The second key to reaching the new finish line is to drive follow-through, transfer, and application. Moving the finish line means making the period we used to consider post-training - and not our problem - part of our purview. It means planning, tracking, and managing learning transfer as an integral part of the overall learning experience.
This is critical, because as Ken Blanchard aptly put it, "To change behavior and get the results you want, you need structure, support, and accountability." Structure, support, and accountability for follow-through are in marked contrast to the typical approach, in which we hope that a miracle will transform the course into results.
Driving follow-through can take a number of forms, from email reminders, to teleconferences, to reconvenes. In our experience, the most efficient and effective approach is to use a computer-based follow-through management system. Such systems allow a small training staff to monitor and support a large number of trainees by automating many of the administrative tasks.
Regardless of the specific approach used, the following elements are essential:
3| Engage managers and participants. When we asked learning leaders where the process of turning learning into results broke down, the most frequent answer was in the post-course period. And when we investigated what went wrong, the evidence most often centered on a lack of managerial engagement.
Two recent studies confirm this conclusion. At Pfizer, 360-degree assessments were repeated several months after a leadership development program and compared to preprogram results. The program produced definite improvement, provided the participants' managers were actively engaged in the process. Participants scored statistically significant gains if their managers were actively involved during the post-course period. In contrast, participants who attended the same program but whose managers were not actively involved showed no performance improvement or made much smaller gains.
A separate study at American Express also underscored the managers' impact on training effectiveness. Those participants who achieved significantly better results after the training were four times more likely to have had conversations with their managers about how to apply the learning than those who produced little or no improvement. Other measures of managerial support were all significantly correlated to increased performance improvement. The study authors concluded: "The true impact of a training program will best be predicted by the work environment participants return to after the event. More specifically, this refers to the type of leader they work with and report to after their respective training." In other words, whether or not managers and participants actively engage with one another regarding the training program can spell the difference between success and failure.
Since it is in their best interest to do so, why don't managers coach more frequently to ensure that the training sticks? Because managers are not sure what the course covered, they are not confident about how to coach or facilitate learning transfer, or they lack the time to do so.
The learning function can address the first two obstacles by making information about the course readily available to managers and by providing them with practical guides on how to get their money's worth from their direct reports' participation in training programs.
The third obstacle - not enough time - really means: not a high enough priority to spend time on. Convincing overworked managers to devote time to ensuring learning transfer requires helping them to understand the value of the new finish line and how much they influence whether or not performance improves. It also requires convincing senior management of the need to hold managers accountable for supporting learning transfer if they want to protect the investment of precious resources in training.
The world has changed. In the current economic climate, training and development must reach a new and more challenging finish line: reliably improving performance and demonstrating its contribution to business success.
Doing so requires expanding your thinking beyond instruction to embrace the whole process by which learning becomes results. Apply process thinking, such as the six disciplines, which have proven to be a helpful mnemonic for integrating a disciplined approach to the complete learning experience.
Find ways to better engage managers and participants in the transfer process, and make follow-through, support, and application part of the overall design.
Learning organizations that have focused on the new finish line for learning have found that they can dramatically increase the value they deliver and earn themselves a place at the table. Are you ready? T+D