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Making Interactive Training Stick

To be most effective, training and development should be connected to the organization’s strategic goals.

April 5, 2009
Related Topics: Mentoring, Learning and Development
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Organizations use training to build skills and cause behavior change in individuals. But to be most effective, training and development should be connected to the organization’s strategic goals. A March 2007 Harvard Business Review article clarifies the sentiment: “Companies that fail to invest in employees jeopardize their own success and even survival.”

Unfortunately, even for companies that do invest, a lot of training is reactive, not proactive, and is developed and delivered in a vacuum without answering questions such as:

  • Is training the appropriate solution?
  • What competencies are important for success on the job?
  • How will we ensure training is applicable to the audience?
  • How will we design and deliver training to ensure it sticks?

To provide training that builds skills, increases knowledge and changes behavior, talent managers need to remember the characteristics that make training stick and integrate the components of assessment, awareness, skill building, application and implementation into the training strategy. Doing this creates a path to ensure training is interactive and provides participants with a better experience that will increase learner retention and behavior change.

Assessment

Effective training begins with the end in mind. An effective program clearly answers what should be achieved. Answering this important question takes time, which most trainers and organizations today don’t have. But not making the time to assess current and future skills gaps is a liability to creating training with impact.

There are many ways to assess and collect data. A SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis can reveal a number of potential goals. The process also builds organizational awareness about the effect training can have on the bottom line. A training audit can provide a systematic assessment of the organization’s training programs and their effectiveness. When compared with the organization’s priorities and strategies, the identified gaps become goals for new programs.

Time needs to be allotted to analyze which behaviors support the goals identified. Data can be collected in a number of ways, such as Web-based and paper surveys/questionnaires, focus groups or interviews of exemplary employees. No matter what method is used, the data needs to describe the specific behaviors for success. It’s not enough to say that listening, communication, decision making, problem solving or leadership are needed. Those competencies describe many behaviors.

If, for example, an organization wants to build skills in communication, problem solving and leadership, each of those competencies has numerous associated behaviors. For example:

Communication behaviors

  • Reflecting what was heard to ensure understanding.
  • Actively listening by making consistent eye contact.
  • Asking questions to ensure understanding.
  • Separating interests from positions.

Problem-solving behaviors

  • Brainstorming possible solutions before choosing a solution.
  • Using a criteria matrix to evaluate available options.
  • Examining assumptions before selecting a solution.
  • Assessing risks and benefits.

Leadership behaviors

  • Strategically thinking of future opportunities and consequences.
  • Empowering others.
  • Delegating effectively.
  • Creating a shared vision.

This step of the process identifies the specific behaviors needed for success. Competencies are similar across organizations, but behaviors are specific to organizations, units and staff. Training has impact when programs are developed to practice the behaviors needed for success. Behavior changes when participants actively experience using the behaviors in individual and group activities.

From a training participant perspective, assessment provides information on skill levels and the perceptions of colleagues, managers and others. The initial assessment can be done by pre-program 360-degree surveys, manager feedback or in-class activities. Assessment sets the stage for what the participant will experience during the program. When this step is missing, active training feels disjointed. When training activities and experiences are directly related to the outcomes of this step, learner retention and engagement increases.

Awareness

The aforementioned activities, done organization-wide or focused on an individual’s skills, create a level of awareness to help focus future actions and set goals. For an individual, such assessment builds an understanding of strengths to build on and areas to focus on during training. This is particularly important to capture participant interest and attention. Individuals who see no need for improvement or change are far less likely to be engaged or committed to the learning process.

When time is devoted to assessment, awareness is a natural outcome for both the individual and the organization. Awareness provides the opportunity to move into skill building, the next step. However, when assessment is a low priority and little attention is devoted, awareness will be limited and participants will question the need or usefulness for a program. When awareness is low, it is difficult to move from the current skill level to an ideal or new level. This affects training impact. Devoting ample time to assessment and awareness is one of the keys to make training stick.

Skill Building

This is the step many training professionals are taught to focus on. Entire careers of trainers, facilitators and instructional designers are spent trying to create programs that develop and build skills. Unfortunately, many programs do not feature experiential methods to practice and develop them. Rather, they tend to focus primarily on cognitive skills. These are programs replete with quizzes, worksheets, videos and small group discussions. These methods are all typical adult education methods, but they do not ensure training sticks or has impact, since only the cognitive side of participants is engaged.

To ensure training truly sticks and has a high, lasting impact, programs need to have a mix of the traditional methods described above and experiential activities to generate both hands-on and heads-on learning. These methods include simulations, business-based board games, ropes-course activities, video-taped role-plays and improv activities. Such approaches highlight Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. Gardner is an educational psychologist who suggested there are several modalities in which everyone learns, and more than one modality needs to be active during the learning process.

If the goal of training is behavior change, learning must take place. The only way to ensure training has an impact is to have participants experience the content by living it. The aforementioned experiential activities provide the forum for participants to address the content through multiple modalities. A simple example is learning a standard operating procedure (SOP). Reading the SOP can provide awareness, but to have real impact, the training needs to focus on activities in which participants experience when and how to use the SOP, and how to deal with exceptions.

Application

This phase is crucial to ensure training sticks and has impact. Simulations and other experiential exercises can mimic reality and provide practice. The next step in training is to help participants think through how they will use and apply their learning on the job. After an experiential exercise is completed, a discussion, or a debrief, occurs.

Typically, debriefs are either facilitator or trainer afterthoughts, or else they are too structured. Many miss the importance of debriefing the experience and rely on the activity to be sufficient for behavioral change. Training that sticks reverses this paradigm and places higher importance on debriefing the activity rather than on the activity itself.

Being skilled in conducting debriefs that increase learner retention, engagement and behavior change is not easy. One needs proficiency in group facilitation, active listening, conflict management and the skill of connecting in the moment of real-life everyday tasks. To help with this, planning follow-up steps and creating action plans for the facilitator or organization can increase the likelihood learning will be implemented.

Implementation

The outcome of any training should be to implement new knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors on the job. This can either be smooth or challenging. To some extent, this is a function not only of the effectiveness of training but of the organization itself. To what extent does it have and use a strategic plan for training? How closely related are the training and development programs to other organizational processes?

For example, if some individuals attend training but return to work and find their bosses either do not have their same level of knowledge or don’t support the approaches they just learned, the training will neither stick nor have impact. When people are sent to project management training but the organization has no consistent method or approach to manage its projects, it is highly unlikely learning will be applied and implemented consistently.

The impact of training has implications for all organizations. The solution isn’t difficult. Start by assessing what is needed organizationally. Then determine the specific competencies and behaviors desired. Develop training interventions that include simulations and other experiential activities to provide a forum for practice, and end with reinforcement and support on the job.

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