Training isn’t always the answer

The key to enhancing performance lies in a combination of training and strategy

Recent studies have shown that employees only apply 30 per cent of what they learn in a training program; therefore a company loses 70 per cent of its learning investment, says training and performance expert Dana Gaines Robinson.

“Learning by itself rarely changes performance,” says the co-author of Performance Consulting and Strategic Business Partner. “If you put a skill in a work environment that is hostile to it, it will extinguish that skill.”

For the training to be effective, the work environment must contain systems that support the new skills. That’s where the strategic business partner comes into play, says Gaines Robinson.

Last year, the American Society for Training and Development published a study that showed training professionals are spending more time on strategic functions such as facilitating organization change, managing organizational knowledge and career planning.

The study identified four key roles for the training professional: learning strategist, business partner, project manager and professional specialist.

Interest in becoming more strategic has been rising in Canada as well, says Lynn Johnston, executive director of the Canadian Society for Training and Development.

“It’s taking a bigger picture look at their business as opposed to being focused on a particular performance issue,” she says.

In the past, the training and development department has been solely tactical and as a result there has been the desire to jump to training as the solution to all performance problems. Trainers have been guilty of going along with this too often, implicitly endorsing this erroneous belief, says Gaines Robinson.

But not every trainer should be a strategic business partner, she warns. If everyone is being strategic, then nothing gets done. Instead, it’s important to find a balance between being strategic and being tactical.

The strategic partner would become one more role within the training and development department, giving it that much needed balance, says Gaines Robinson.

Performance problems have multiple causes and therefore multiple solutions, she notes. “A strategic role inside the learning profession is what helps prevent (employers from) applying learning when learning will be insufficient or even unnecessary. The role takes a solution-neutral approach and looks to the business need of the client and determines what can we do to support that need through learning and what else might be required.”

The strategic partner links training initiatives with the overall business goals of the company, she adds.

This person will need to have training knowledge but wouldn’t deliver or design the programs. She would become very knowledgeable about the business while developing a partnership with the organization’s executive team, says Gaines Robinson.

Through these relationships, the trainer as strategic business partner would learn the current and future goals of the business. By asking the right questions and thinking through the performance requirements necessary to reach those goals, she would be able to identify areas that might need a training solution.

“The strategic partner would use a performance consulting approach to really determine what those performance needs are and then given those performance needs, what capability requirements exist,” says Gaines Robinson. “They would also look at the work environment or infrastructure and help determine what that needs to be done to support people to move in the right direction so the business needs can be achieved.”

Purolator, one of Canada’s largest courier services, has 13,000 employees and Stephen Gould, senior vice-president of HR, says it’s critical to the success of the business that the company’s trainers understand the business strategy. However, as the head of the HR department, Gould considers himself to be the strategic business partner for the training that comes under HR’s purview.

“I’m responsible for understanding the needs of the company at a high level,” he says, adding that he then examines those needs to determine what kind of training is necessary.

Purolator created an executive development program with Toronto’s York University’s Schulich School of Business after the HR department completed a talent assessment that showed there was no training geared to developing the best staff into future executives.

“It’s the tactical outcome of reflecting on our talent and leadership strategy and connecting it to a training program. It was about seeing a gap in the overall capability of the organization and having it filled using training.”

The strategic partner serves a consultative and analytical role and is a link between the line and the learning function. However, the idea of trainers as strategic partners within an organization isn’t new, says Ajay Pangarkar, a training consultant and president of Central Knowledge, a consulting firm in Sainte-Dorothée, Que., near Montreal.

“The term itself is just another trendy way to describe something that trainers should have been in the first place,” says Pangarkar, who’s also a member of the board of the Canadian Society for Training and Development.

In a competitive market, Pangarkar says that everything needs to be in line with the business goals of the company and that the training department has to prove its worth in supporting those goals.

Learning and growth is a key area where companies need to be strategic; however, it tends to be the one weak link for most organizations, says Pangarkar. This is usually because the senior executives don’t completely understand the value of training.

“Senior management wants to see the results and that’s all they want to see. They don’t care who you train, or how you trained or what you trained,” he says. “It’s up to training to know how to communicate what they are doing and how those results are going to come about… so management better understands and can relate it to the overall strategy.”

Those who design training courses need to understand how they’re going to impact the organization and its goals, says Pangarkar.

Every level of training, from design to delivery has to fall in line with the company’s business goals, he says. “If it’s not, drop it because it’s not serving any use.”

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