Mandatory or voluntary?

Mandatory training without resentment — a delicate balance for employers

Although statistics show corporate Canada lags behind other countries in terms of money spent on training, there are still many companies who strive to be leading-edge in staff development. And the million-dollar question for most of them when thinking about a strategic plan: Should training be mandatory or voluntary? T&D experts say it’s one of the toughest decisions to make.

“That’s the challenge facing organizations, striking that balance between mandatory and voluntary,” says Scott Gilmore, senior vice-president of CDI/Gilmore, a consulting firm specializing in training and development. “It’s not something a lot of companies do well. Most of them can’t decide where the balance should be.”

The answer seems to vary from year to year. The second annual Learning Outcomes Report, produced by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), stated that mandatory training produced lower learning outcomes than voluntary. Study respondents reported that 40 per cent of staff taking part in voluntary training changed their performance to meet course objectives, compared to 35 per cent of mandatory training participants (see box on page 18). It’s reasonable to think students learn more when they choose to do so voluntarily, the report states.

This makes sense to Kathy Brooks, president of KbHeadWorks, a management consulting company. No one likes to be told what to do, she says.

“I think any time you say to an employee something is mandatory, you get a negative reaction. People don’t like to feel controlled. I think it’s the same with all of us when we have to do something and we don’t understand the context.”

The debate continues with the release of ASTD’s third report. These numbers contrast with the 2000 report showing the learning outcomes of mandatory courses are no better or worse than the outcomes of voluntary courses. Both types seem to offer substantial benefits to learners, the report states.

If a company is not going through any major changes in environment, there is more opportunity to provide optional training, says Brooks.

“Voluntary training is very empowering for employees, they get to choose their own courses. At the same time, their managers need to establish a development plan for the individual.”

Gilmore says both types of programs are needed but he leans more towards making training mandatory because “it’s more strategic in nature and it’s tied to the business objectives of the corporation.

“Organizations are looking more at training and development that’s going to push the business forward. So I think the mandatory route is definitely a favoured route to go,” he says.

Mandatory training has worked for the Bank of Montreal. In fact, its training and development standards are embedded in the very culture of the company and its corporate values. One of the five values says, “We share information, learn and innovate to create consistently superior customer satisfaction.”

Last year, the bank spent more than $500 million on T&D provided by the Institute for Learning (IFL), BMO’s corporate university that opened in 1994.

“We believe training is an investment, not an expense,” says Corey Jack, the executive head for the institute. Jack says the bank wasn’t always as focused on training. In previous years, staff only received around two and a half days of training per year, now they provide about seven days.

Most of the programs are mandatory, says Jack, but employees have the ability to set the time frame in which they want to complete the courses. While the content has to be prescribed, he says, students can break the training into different time segments and they can rearrange the modules to suit their learning preferences.

“Mandatory training tends to be the gateway to a broader set of training when people move from one job to another, it produces a high level of certainty. They get the entry-level job skill requirements to perform the job.”

Since BMO makes training such an integral part of the company’s day-to-day functions, employees fully understand and are prepared to take mandatory courses, Jack says.

BMO frequently conducts employee surveys with questions specific to the training programs in place and Jack says their employee satisfaction rates usually range in the high 80s and low 90s.

The bank does offer voluntary programs but these courses are more geared towards soft skills such as human dynamics, communication and leadership.

The university also plays a large role in motivating BMO employees to excel. Most of the courses offered include a recognized, international designation or certificate once the curriculum is completed, which makes learning more portable, says Jack. For their high-achievers, they have a joint MBA program with Halifax’s Dalhousie University.

“There has to be a compelling value to training. It has to make sense for the company and the individual,” he says.

That’s the only way you can make a program mandatory and accepted by employees, people have to believe it’s of value to them, says Brooks.

“So it’s less of an issue about making it mandatory rather you have to make employees understand why it’s so important,” she says. “If the person understands that and appreciates the elements of the training, there is a real purpose in attending.”

The relationship between manager and employee is so critical, says Brooks. If there is a strong relationship there, then this discussion should not be difficult. Too often employees are sent on training courses and haven’t sat down with their manager beforehand to help them understand the importance of the course.

Brooks says there are two sure ways an employer can assess what program or combination of programs they should use. The first step is to determine what the strategic priorities are. They have to determine what skill sets are necessary in order to be successful. Next, the company must marry the needs of the business to the employee’s development plans. Have the manager talk to them about how training is beneficial to career development, and coach employees through growth. This goes for both voluntary and mandatory programs.

Even though T&D experts have their own notions, they agree the answer to the mandatory versus voluntary question is far from a simple right or wrong, and depends heavily on the state of the company.

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