Save training from the axe

HR needs to align training strategy with the business for maximum impact: T&D experts
By Asha Tomlinson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/13/2002

Training is supposed to be a lifelong investment in people, improving their skills in order to create a more productive workforce, however, when economic times get tough if training can’t be justified it’s the first thing to go.

So HR departments find themselves in a sticky situation, scrambling for ways to measure the value of training and convince senior executives what they’re offering is a worthy investment.

“So often when the ROI on training comes up, it is from the perspective of the HR department trying to justify its existence,” says Norman Trainor, president and CEO of the Covenant Group, a T&D consulting firm. “A lot of training is perceived as nice to do and not need to do. If there is any kind of expense management going on the nice to do gets eliminated.”

Ultimately, as simplistic as the answer may be, T&D experts say what it boils down to is the bottom line. If HR is to measure the ROI of training, they have to learn to speak about it from a business context. That’s the only way to get the attention of the “budget-makers,” says Trainor. HR has to look at the training strategy as it relates to the corporate strategy.

“If you have dialogue that starts at the senior levels and a real buy-in from them as to the importance of human capital, then I think you can begin to have measures that have meaning because they relate to the corporate objectives with regards to people.”

These corporate measures include factors such as revenue growth and expense management. The only meaningful measurements from a corporate perspective, he says.

“Identify the levers from a human capital point of view, the areas of development for people in the organization that can have a direct impact on financial success. When dealing with for-profit organizations it’s got to be directly correlated with financial well-being.”

In most cases though, HR doesn’t focus on what the company is trying to achieve and there is a disconnect between HR’s strategies and goals and the corporation, according to Jim Clemmer, president and CEO of the management consulting company, The Clemmer Group.

“We spend a lot of time with executive teams and focus groups, sometimes we see a strong relationship, but a number of times we see huge disconnect. It’s usually HR pushing the training programs saying, ‘This is what we see and what the organization needs,’ but that’s not strategic HR. They have to figure out how to deliver and facilitate what the executives want,” he explains.

A lot of times they aren’t at the executive table and don’t really understand the business and what senior management is trying to achieve and how HR can help, Clemmer says. HR is not where they need to be strategically.

There are a few ways for HR departments to get a jump-start though. The best approach to get training on the discussion table is by having an advocate in the senior ranks. Prepare a pilot project and find an executive that will support the cause. The result is that HR gets someone on their side who can influence the rest of senior management, Clemmer says.

Having senior management involved in the entire process is even more valuable to the training cause.

“Having a senior manager involved often forces relevance. They won’t stand for soft and fluffy useless training. It forces the training to be relevant to what’s going on in the organization.”

Part of this training ROI philosophy includes treating HR as business partners, says Connie Karlsson, manager of measurement with the HR group at TD Bank Financial Group.

The HR department at TD realized five years ago that in order for them to make a training impact they had to make measurements through the lens of the business.

“We don’t want to be perceived as the minor player...we’ve made great strides to act like a business,” she says. “That’s the only way we’ve gotten success but it’s taken five years. We now have a standard where all businesses talk to us about measures upfront. It’s culturally accepted...(and) we’re more business savvy.”

The HR staff didn’t wait for senior management to come to them, instead they were the ones bringing project proposals to the executive table.

“Getting to that level — at the table — not just to be thought of as a support group but as a key business partner is critical to prove your worth,” says Robert Yee, manager of learning solutions at TD Bank.

The bank is one of few organizations to have a measurement department for training; it’s an extension of the learning and development division, dealing strictly with ROI. Yee says they currently use the Kirkpatrick model of measurement — a popular method dating back to the 1950s, one of the most widely used approaches. There are four levels to this kind of training assessment.

Level One

is a measure of satisfaction. This level is the most common way to assess the initial reaction to training programs. Often they take the form of “smiley sheets” at the end of the program and participants are asked to evaluate the program and what they’ve learned.

Level Two

is a measure of learning. Participants are assessed on the amount of information they retained and if it’s being applied on the job. Trainers may use a criterion-referenced test to make this evaluation.

Level Three

is a measure of behaviour change. This is a more long-term analysis of whether participants are actually using the material learned six weeks to six months after taking the course.

Level Four

is a measure of results, assessing the financial impact of the training course on the bottom line.

Karlsson says TD Bank also uses a Level Five measurement — added on to the list by evaluation expert Jack Phillips — which consists of collecting level four data, translating the results to monetary value and comparing those results with the costs of the training program.

No matter the level, she says, HR always reports back to the business on training initiatives.

“We don’t just have a training event, we do post-implementation reviews, knowledge acquisitions and we use the data to report on the business impact. When a business can look at a report and use that data to see the success of the business, that’s powerful.”

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