Permanent impact in learning and development begins and ends with organizational leadership. Paying attention to assessments and follow-through can help make learning indelible.
Many organizations find out too late that they have spent enormous amounts of money on learning and development without realizing a return on this investment. Who’s to blame? Leadership is ultimately responsible for the quality of learning programs and for the success or failure of the people who are being developed. Leaving this responsibility entirely up to learning and development departments is particularly problematic if L&D has not been given a clear understanding of the real needs of the organization and how those needs fit into the larger, long-term strategic plan for the company’s future growth. In many companies, L&D still lacks executive-level influence and access to the data it really needs to prioritize learning programs. If leadership wants L&D to take on greater responsibility and develop learning programs that stick, it has to treat L&D as a true strategic partner in all aspects of the business and assist L&D in ensuring that the workforce is trained to take the company into the future.
No company can survive without investing in the development of its people. In the face of uncertain economic times, coupled with increasing global competition, it’s essential to make certain that employees’ skill levels are not only current but primed for the future. Yet too many companies approach development from a tactical rather than a strategic perspective. In other words, they do it more out of habit rather than to meet specific organizational needs, both current and future. This becomes a numbers game where quantity becomes more important than quality — professional development is just a check-the-box exercise rather than something meaningful and of high quality with strong ROI.
Learning programs are most effective when they include:
- Content that is relevant to the target audience: This can be accomplished by assessing how a workforce wants to develop and what’s resonated in the past.
- A blended approach of formats, such as classroom- and Web-based learning, as well as practical experience: This ensures the learning process, and the learner, doesn’t get bogged down in one pattern of learning.
- Follow-up to improve retention of learning: This can be accomplished by offering a half-day seminar on the learning topic several weeks after the training or sending relevant articles and e-mails to keep employees connected to the learning experience.
- An opportunity to apply the learning: Provided the learning was relevant to the organization’s needs, this real-life practice will further strengthen retention.
Take, for example, programs intended to crank out future leaders. These programs tend to neglect to account for the evolution of the organization’s workforce in terms of actual organizational needs, generational differences and unique learning styles. Such out-of-sync programs are a drain on a company’s time and financial resources and yield little in the way of actual results. Moreover, the employees who are trained this way often become frustrated when there is little or no opportunity to practice what they learned. What is really needed are high-quality, targeted developmental programs executed purposefully, thoughtfully and strategically throughout the organization.
Professional development programs often focus on generic skills and may not provide the content needed for emerging leaders. These programs may impart information on popular philosophies and business practices rather than true management and leadership competencies. As a result, participants never learn how to be effective managers before they move on to become leaders. In many instances, no immediate or even near-future opportunities exist for these trainees to practice their new skills, and so they quickly forget what they learned.
One solution is to couple effective professional development programs with actual cross-training and field experience to drive home the learning in a real-world setting. This approach allows current leaders to observe how different leadership candidates apply, or fail to apply, classroom learning in tackling actual business challenges. Meanwhile, leaders can assess the relevance of the training program.
How can leadership determine which learning programs are the best fit for its workforce, both now and in the future? Conducting accurate assessments of current and future organizational needs allows leaders and their HR departments to identify the workforce’s developmental needs and opportunities and to design the most effective types of learning programs.
Assessment centers, although costly, can be highly effective. A team of consultants conducts interviews and observations in the organization and then constructs a model that takes employees through scripted scenarios and live role-playing to see how they respond to specific events. Typical scenarios include crisis management, personnel problems, and team, productivity and resource issues. Assessment centers have a wide range of applications, allowing observers to evaluate how each potential future manager handles each situation. This provides senior management and HR specialists with information on the workforce’s strengths and areas that need further development. It also allows managers to see how high-potential employees, who may not have been in crisis situations previously, will react when exposed to these scenarios.
Additionally, external consultants with assessment expertise can probe deeply into an organization using a combination of anonymous surveys and face-to-face interviews. Using a third party helps ensure objectivity and allow the organization to gain access to new assessment and learning tools. The consultant can create an executive summary showing clearly and concisely where the company and its workforce excel and where they fall short, both within the organization and compared to other companies in the market. This helps corporate leadership and HR develop best practices and build a foundation for learning programs that render a strong ROI.
Of course, such processes are not without an element of cost. “Even the simplest assessment center can be an expensive endeavor,” said Kelly L. Fairbairn, president of business performance improvement consultancy PPS International Ltd. and CEO of learning and development consultancy SyNet Americas. “The value our clients have seen from them will probably surprise most talent development professionals. The very act of going through the design process for the assessment center creates clear priorities for learning, as well as alignment around what it takes to succeed in the organization.”
According to Fairbairn, such a level of clarity of understanding among an organization’s stakeholders, senior leaders and high potentials is difficult to obtain. “That clarity alone is enough to justify the design of the process,” she said. “If you couple those benefits with the message sent to leaders about the importance of assessment and learning, you have a recipe for influence in the organization.”
Another option for learning and development professionals looking to ensure the permanence of learning in the workplace is to basically make learning a full-time job for employees. This strategy has long been used by Japanese companies in times of economic uncertainty. Last year, while Ford, Chrysler and GM were closing dealerships and factories with massive layoffs, Toyota took some employees in its American manufacturing plants off the assembly line as production slowed. However, it kept them on the payroll rather than letting them collect unemployment. These employees were enrolled in learning programs, which took the place of their daily jobs. Instead of working on production lines they reported to classrooms every day to learn new skills.
The theory here is that when a company provides opportunities for employees to learn and grow, it reaps many benefits when production increases. It now has a ready workforce armed with skills it did not previously have; its employees also are qualified to work in other areas of the company where their skills might be needed. Furthermore, this drives forward learning and development at a time when it’s most convenient to do so; the company does not lose production capacity at a future date when training these employees would have required taking them off the line. Finally, the organization has demonstrated its commitment to these employees by showing its loyalty to them, a potential boost to retention.
This approach isn’t limited to employees who need to be taken off the line for economic reasons. All employees can be engaged in continuous learning, regardless of individual jobs or positions. At any level, there is always more to learn and skills to be improved.
Don’t Stop With Training
Without managerial feedback and encouragement, even the best-trained employee may fail at a new challenge. Therefore, ongoing coaching and support from supervisors are essential follow-up with any learning model. Unfortunately, many managers and leaders hesitate to, or don’t know how to, provide direct, corrective and actionable feedback to their employees. Feedback is avoided on both sides because it is associated with feelings of embarrassment or even shame at being less than perfect. Supervisors don’t want to embarrass their direct reports, and direct reports don’t ask for feedback for fear of what they might hear. Actually, when feedback is delivered sensitively, it:
- Increases motivation and success.
- Supports effective and efficient behavior.
- Fills in knowledge gaps.
- Aligns expectations and priorities.
- Recognizes progress.
- Offers encouragement.
- Gives credit for achievement.
Managers, in turn, should not be afraid to ask for feedback from their employees. “The more senior an employee is in the organization, the less likely this employee is to receive any kind of support, mainly because it’s perceived as unnecessary,” said Mindie Pruss, a Los Angeles-based assessment specialist and executive coach. “Everyone needs coaching and support.”
Sharon Doyle, a former director of learning at Motorola, agreed, adding that managers can gain a perspective from employees that is unavailable anywhere else. “It’s most valuable for people in management roles to receive feedback from their managers, direct reports, peers and from themselves,” said Doyle. “We tend to be the worst judge of our skills and abilities and what others think about us.”
Allowing the feedback to be anonymous is the best way to get honesty from direct reports. Additionally, each manager should receive feedback from at least three or more direct reports so the results can be grouped together. This helps the direct reports feel more comfortable about providing honest feedback as no one can be singled out for the comments made.
Ultimately, learning that sticks is learning that accomplishes behavior change. “Our clients are successful in getting behavior change to happen after workshops when they handle two key elements,” Fairbairn said. “First, they are consistent across learning content, using an iterative, layered learning process. Participants are required to perform the skills, at higher degrees of complexity, throughout the entire learning process. Second, these organizations hold managers of learners accountable for coaching and giving feedback on the behaviors learned in training. Our clients expect to see a return on investment in training. We’ve learned these two acts differentiate those who will get that return and those who won’t.”