Every strategic goal is linked to some set of intellectual resources and capabilities. Simply put, in order for a company to compete successfully, there are things it must know and things it must know how to do well. Consequently, the strategic choices a company makes from the technologies it implements to the products and services it creates and the markets it serves all have a profound influence on the knowledge, skills and competencies required to succeed.
Obviously, then, learning must be linked to corporate goals in order to accomplish business strategy. This takes a watchful eye on the big picture while meeting individual learning needs, along with keen planning, support from top to bottom and a dedication to program management and follow-through.
First Things First
If you don’t know where you’re starting from, how will you measure results? A focus on measuring performance and capabilities before training helps align your learning initiative with overall business strategy. The first step is to identify business needs and goals. Then, compare them to the existing workforce skills you have to reach those goals. From there you can plan a training program to close the gap between the skills you have and those you need.
Have a Plan
The most successful training initiatives are designed with results in mind. Planners must be able to articulate the results they expect from their training initiative in terms of how it supports the business. Ask yourself whether individuals will be able to do what you need them to do when training is complete.
Begin by identifying specific needs which can be turned into goals (desired results) for your training initiative that, when accomplished, directly support the goals of the company. To establish a list of desired results that map directly to business:
Create a situation analysis. Start by holding a team meeting with management from each department. Based on the corporate strategy, goals and objectives, have them answer: What are the needs, preferences and complaints of our customers? Are there any technology, supplier or regulatory concerns? Are there any issues driven by the economy? What are my departments’ strengths and weaknesses? What new opportunities could my department pursue?
Have clear job descriptions and desired competencies for each position within the organization.
Identify the training and development requirements for each position through competency models. From there, you can set specific training objectives for each individual or department for obtaining each goal. Concrete, measurable objectives with deadlines are better for quickly clarifying the desired results, as well as who is accountable.
Rally Support, Leverage Influence
Leadership support accelerates learning indifference undermines it. Once your proposed plan is created, you’ll want to establish and maintain management buy-in for two reasons:
Successful initiatives have the support of the managers employees respect or who are in a position to influence their careers.
Having the management team involved enables you to make changes in direction or course content if a department is not aligned with the company’s strategy.
Studies show the success of any corporate initiative is directly linked to the degree of executive buy-in. Management has tremendous influence on determining the success of your program, so bringing them into the process early will ensure that you receive the support you need. One of the best ways to rally support is by showing how your program supports strategic business objectives.
High visibility and easy access to information will also advance the aims of your initiative. Status reports can manage executive expectations and generate increased confidence. Executives who continually see status have a better grasp of the overall health of the project and its impact on the organization.
Gaining management buy-in is really about finding the right balance between the soft skills (knowing how to listen to and anticipate reactions) and hard skills (good planning and solid facts). By working with management to create a situation analysis during your planning phase, you will give them the opportunity to express their needs and concerns. By doing so, you are equipped with the knowledge of how to present your plan in terms of specific answers to their needs. This will enable you to rally management support.
In presenting the value of your initiative to management, it helps to be succinct. Consider these guidelines:
- Address the executive’s need. Quickly outline the current activities of the organization. Describe the way your learning initiative can support those activities.
Speak to better decision-making and initiative. Outline the way in which your training initiative will enhance the workforce’s ability to make decisions, master skills and apply them for better problem-solving and initiative.
- Give examples of success. Include a few examples of how other organizations are successfully using training.
Track improvements. Show executives that you’re tracking improvements resulting from your training initiative. Periodically provide a summary of improvements and success stories to management and to those participating in your initiative.
- Tie your initiative to business objectives. Describe how learning will help your organization meet company goals. Include specific examples of cost savings, improved ability to meet deadlines or attract new business and increased productivity.
- Practice your elevator pitch. Imagine that you meet your CEO in the elevator and he asks you how your project is going. You can rally greater support, build your credibility and enhance the CEO’s level of comfort by leaving a solid impression and responding with positive details about progress.
Once you have secured the support of key management, the next step is to articulate the vision, goals and expected results to individuals who will be participating in your initiative.
Turn Your Needs Into Their Wants
While it’s perfectly clear to you that your training program is critical to company objectives, at the end of the day the burning question in every employee’s mind is, “What’s in it for me?”
To answer, reflect again on the goals and priorities of your organization and consider how everything is connected. For instance, individual tasks are connected to group objectives, which in turn are connected to strategic plans, organization outcomes and corporate profits. Consequently, the individual’s contribution to the company good or poor will have a direct impact on his or her career.
Help individuals think about corporate goals in the context of what they do. What does it mean to their job? What does it mean to their department and co-workers on a daily basis? This enables you to highlight the mutual benefits of participation in your initiative. In essence, it presents training as the means by which to improve or enhance individual contribution, which in turn produces desirable, career-building outcomes, such as:
- Visibility: Connect the achievement of your learning programs’ goals to the employee’s desire for recognition and advancement.
- Personal Development: Relate the employee’s interest in learning new skills, receiving greater responsibility or improving performance to your objectives.
Individual Impact on Outcome: Help individuals identify the critical skills and knowledge that drive positive company results by creating strong links between goal achievement and performance outcomes.
- Problem Solving: Present your initiative as a solution to specific employee issues such as poor communication or limited resources.
Set the Standard, Establish Expectations
The most powerful way to extend the reach of training is to establish expectations and actively manage the process. Best results are achieved if the concepts of post-course goals, follow-through and accountability are introduced early in your initiative and if participants are encouraged to set goals and objectives before and during training. If left until the very end, objectives tend to be more superficial and are rarely aligned to business goals.
Managers can establish expectations with employees by discussing objectives before training is undertaken, including:
- Key skills and knowledge to be gained.
- How the training will be applied.
- Job results that should improve.
- Business objectives the training supports.
Introducing follow-through procedures and tools at the beginning of each learning experience is important to support goal planning and implementation. Help participants translate what they learn into goals that will improve their work. These goals become the foundation of the follow-through phase.
Follow Through Keep Them On Track
Without follow-through, individuals may see training as a one-time event with the end of a course as the finish line and its completion as the result. Instead, results should be defined as proof of successful implementation of course content in the ensuing weeks and months.
Implementing a new work habit or using a new skill requires repetition and practice. According to experts, 87 percent of new knowledge and skill is lost without reinforcement within 60 days of the training. Therefore, actively managing the follow-through period significantly increases the application of course content to an individual’s job-related duties, contributing to improved business results. Best results are achieved in organizations that provide reminders, guidance and reinforcement in the weeks immediately following training. Key components for helping individuals keep development goals top-of-mind are:
- Periodic triggers: For example, an automated e-mail that reminds individuals and management to assess their progress toward course objectives and individual goals.
- Group support and accountability: Enables individuals to establish goals and declare them to peers or co-workers, provide updates on progress, share learning experiences and obtain help from mentors or others.
- Management ownership: Managers periodically need to assess the progress of direct reports and recognize when mentoring, reinforcement or other intervention is required. Regular assessment also keeps goals fresh in everyone’s mind and encourages proactive actions toward reaching them.
- Mentoring or coaching during and after training: Studies show that individuals who actively seek mentoring input and guidance make the most progress in training. Mentors can help learners identify the most important intents of training that are directly related to business goals. This provides consistent clarification of key concepts and knowledge transfer, which enables companies to maintain a high standard of quality in their learning initiatives. In addition, the mentor’s ability to provide seasoned insight and guidance, backed by real-world experience and application, helps individuals place new skills within the context of their jobs, as well as the needs of the company. Learners also benefit from the mentor’s experience as they’re guided in developing the skills and methods the mentor has developed over his own career.
- Opportunities for reinforcement and application: Experts say real learning takes place when individuals attempt to apply what they’ve learned. Consequently, the key to increasing the value of your corporate learning initiative is to quickly and effectively parlay what is learned into action. Classroom and online labs are an effective platform for reinforcement since they provide a safe, risk-free place to build skills and confidence. Also, establishing specific action items that will employ the individuals’ new skills when they return to work will help facilitate the conversion of learning to capability and performance to results.
Orchestrating the many components necessary for a quality training program that’s aligned with corporate goals isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires a commitment from top to bottom. It requires accountability at all levels and tireless follow-through in order to effectively support and strategically contribute to the company’s bottom line. It’s a tall order, and the stakes are high but the reward is great!
Wayne Goldstein is an industry veteran and president of Global Mentoring Solutions (www.globalmentoring.com), a leading provider of Web-based learning support solutions, including Real-Time Mentoring and Real-Time Labs. For more information, e-mail Wayne at firstname.lastname@example.org.