In the training field, it is vital to deliver positive, concrete results. Clients must get the most return for the money, time and resources they invest. The demand for a quantifiable, results-oriented approach to training and development is strong. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of chief learning officers use return on investment (ROI) as a tool, according to Patti and Jack Phillips of the ROI Institute, a research, benchmarking and consulting organization. But nearly 80 percent of major learning and development organizations want to use ROI in the future, according to the Corporate Executive Board.
Training must be grounded in the organization’s bottom-line objectives. It must be strategically planned with stakeholders in terms of design, delivery and evaluation. Quality training, such as that based on the Human Performance Improvement Model, can serve as the cornerstone of the growth and development of an organization and help maintain a sharp competitive edge. Conversely, training that lacks this strategic foundation is likely to waste time, energy and resources, despite the best of intentions.
So just how is “strategic planning” accomplished? How do performance improvement specialists and learning executives ensure that training results in measurable changes in performance that strengthen the bottom line? When an opportunity for training or education appears, start the strategic process by asking 10 critical questions. Addressing these questions is part of a systematic approach essential to best tailor education for the organization.
What is the Projected ROI?
Start by picturing the desired state, what the training needs to accomplish. What measurable benefits does the organization want to achieve? Identify the potential ROI that the stakeholders — those who hold a stake in the success of the organization and the training effort — could realize. To do this, it’s essential to have a clear and in-depth understanding of what is important to the stakeholders.
Trainers also need to create a baseline that reflects the current situation. Too often this step is short changed, and then the impact of the training cannot be measured. Don’t let this happen. Trainers must have baseline data to measure against if gains are to be revealed. Often data already exists that can build a snapshot of the organization in its current state. This data, combined with data collected from stakeholders, can paint a vivid picture. The key is to collect data from multiple sources before drawing conclusions.
How Will the Ultimate ROI Be Captured and Shared?
It is generally easy enough to reach consensus that a positive ROI would be well received throughout an organization. The challenge lies in capturing meaningful data at critical points and presenting it so that it demonstrates the positive impact. This requires up-front planning and deep discussions with stakeholders to identify the desired bottom-line impact. Bear in mind that the post-training data needs to be comparable to the baseline data; otherwise, it’s impossible to tell whether the training actually improved performance.
It is also important to create pockets in the training where data can “fall” and be captured periodically without impacting the momentum of the delivery. For example, a business conducting a two-week training program for sales staff may decide to test participant learning after each segment to ensure that the content and delivery are on track.
This data can be used to continually monitor the effectiveness of the training and to indicate when it’s necessary to adjust content, delivery or other variables. If all data is collected after the training is completed, it is too late to take any corrective measures that may have optimized learning.
Once the results are collected and analyzed, present them in a high-impact manner. Consider using graphic displays, before-and-after comparisons and other images that show the positive impact of the training on the organization’s goals, objectives and bottom line.
Who Are the Stakeholders in the Process?
Effective training initiatives gather stakeholder input during the planning phase. And just who are the stakeholders for the initiative? As mentioned earlier, a stakeholder is anyone who holds a stake in the success or failure of the training and the organization. This might include executives, sales staff, marketing personnel, front-line workers or other employees.
How do trainers identify the stakeholders who will accurately represent the needs and concerns of their counterparts? Obviously, it’s both impossible and undesirable to include everyone. Chances are that asking three key members of an organization to identify key stakeholders will produce three different lists. The plain fact is the search for a truly representative panel of stakeholders takes time and energy. It might be necessary to hold discussions with a number of individuals across many levels of the organization. And it might take additional time to reach consensus on who needs to be represented.
This is worth the time and effort. A representative team of stakeholders who are actively involved in the planning and development of an initiative help build buy-in from the entire group. The stakeholders also serve a vital role in crafting educational experiences that zero-in on individual and organizational needs and goals.
It can be surprising to see how often involving stakeholders saves the organization time and trouble. Be forewarned: In some instances, it might become clear that organization doesn’t need training, but management coaching, improved communications systems or different work tools.
How Can Stakeholder Needs and Expectations Be Identified and Integrated into the Development Process?
Once stakeholders are identified, it is time to more closely determine their needs and expectations. For example, a luxury hotel chain seeking to improve customer service would want to solicit input from the front desk, meeting management and other staff. A factory wanting to increase manufacturing speed and decrease errors would seek input from engineering, assemblers and product management, among others. Guided discussions, self-assessments, organizational overviews and other tools can generate ideas that can be compared, clustered and prioritized. These prioritized needs, once aligned with the goals of the organization, will drive the design and delivery of the training event.
How Could Stakeholder Buy-In Be Optimized?
A successful training effort depends greatly on the buy-in and support of stakeholders. Use simple strategies to help increase buy-in and productivity of the group. For example, trainers can establish agreed-upon norms or rules of conduct for the stakeholder group to follow, such as allowing all members to contribute, setting conduct parameters, determining time frames for deliverables and agreeing that consensus will rule. Framing this under the overall objective of striving toward a meaningful ROI keeps the stakeholder group focused.
What Skills, Tools and Materials Are Essential to Produce, Deliver and Evaluate the Training?
The next step is to develop a comprehensive plan to build a training initiative that meets the organization’s needs and helps improve profitability. Look to the organization’s stakeholders to contribute this critical information. With their input, identify the skills, tools and materials needed to produce, deliver and evaluate the training.
Keep in mind that a realistic analysis of cost and resources is necessary to complete each step, from planning and designing to delivering and evaluating. Get consensus on the results that can reasonably be expected given the available resources and budget.
Remember, the potential ROI serves as an indicator for the project budget. A strong ROI potential might warrant the budget necessary to deliver an optimal educational experience.
What Common Characteristics Do Individuals Expect to Experience in the Training Environment?
Standards of quality and expectations need to be strategically planned to consider employees who will be participating in the learning process. This could include ensuring a training atmosphere built on respect and an expectation that all will have an opportunity to contribute. Confidentiality and an explanation about how performance results during training will be relayed to management also should be reviewed. Trainers may report results in aggregate based on the group’s performance as a whole rather than reporting the performance of individual trainees. Any issue that may impact a trainee’s willingness to fully participate in the training needs to be communicated to all stakeholders.
The organization is not the only entity that needs to reap the benefits of training. Individual employees need to benefit, to realize a “personal return on investment.”
Training should not be viewed as an isolated event. Particularly when busy employees are asked to participate in educational experiences outside of the normal work day, it’s imperative to consistently deliver quality learning experiences.
The vision that stakeholders identify for the training needs to be embraced by the individuals developing, delivering and evaluating the experience. It needs to carry into and become incorporated into workplace performance.
Which Elements Can Be Manipulated to Produce Highly Valued, Customized Training for Targeted Audiences?
Some individual and organizational issues that might affect the training can be more easily addressed than others. Influencing one performance skill, for example, is typically simple. Changing the culture of an organization is a far greater undertaking.
Trainers need to understand the “back story” of an organization, the behind-the-scenes forces that drive performance. Trainers need to realistically determine what can and what cannot be addressed within the parameters of the training.
How Will the Effectiveness of the Educational Experience Be Measured?
Note that the discussion of budgeting in the sixth question included cost for evaluation. Each trainer’s job security depends on his or her abilities and resources to conduct comprehensive evaluations. This requires skill. Elements such as time, budget and stakeholder buy-in affect evaluation. This is why it is important to develop an evaluation plan early in the process or, preferably, to build an organizational culture that sees evaluation as part of the way it does business and not as an optional isolated event. Evaluation should occur during and immediately after the training, as well as after the trainees return to the job.
How Will Trainers Measure the Transfer of Skills Obtained in the Training to the Job?
Hold this discussion during the planning phase. Once bottom-line objectives and gaps are identified, focus the discussion on how changes in performance will be measured across time. This ensures that funds allocated for training are well spent. Learned skills need to transfer to the job and improve job performance and bottom-line results. Make sure that the agreed-upon training plan includes time for a trainer to capture this important data. When the data is available, communicate it clearly and powerfully to show the positive return on the investment of strategic training.
To sum up, ask these 10 critical questions when the next training opportunity appears. Meaningful training needs a solid foundation of strategic planning involving multiple stakeholders, which takes time. And time is money. That’s why it is so critical to evaluate the potential ROI early in the planning process. This facilitates stakeholder buy-in. It also helps frame reasonable budget development.
Training needs to be customized to meet individual needs. The impact of training needs to be measured during and immediately after the event, as well as after the trainees return to work. The impact then needs to be impressively displayed and communicated in terms of return on investment.
Taking a strategic approach to training requires teamwork and all parties stand to gain. A concerted effort from planning through evaluation will help generate a strong return on investment.
Jamie D. Barron, Ed.D., is faculty chair for training and performance improvement in the school of education at Capella University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.