Train for a strategic reason
Winslow Wong 
Despite the growing importance of developing learning organisations to drive continuous growth, it’s ironic that training is still treated as a cost without any return on investment. Many consider training as a sheer waste of resources because it hardly improves staff performance. So, when things get financially tight in business, training is often the first to go.

Having been involved in training and personal development for years, I can understand why training is often perceived as a waste of time and money – the key reason is lack of strategic focus. Organisations must not look at training in isolation as a way to fix poor performance or when something unsavoury happens, like low customer satisfaction or poor employee engagement, but neglect the more important aspects, including management roles in the process. It also doesn’t help that those involved in training-related functions also lack clarity.

To illustrate my point, during my first month in one organisation, I noticed that many employees were sent to a particular training course. Perplexed, I asked the HR manager: “Why are we sending so many employees to this course? How did you validate its effectiveness? Did you conduct any training needs analysis (TNA)?” I asked.

“No,” she answered sheepishly, “but we still have not used up our levy contributions to the Human Resources Development Fund.”

I was flabbergasted by her reply as she simply missed the whole point on training. Similarly, some organisations also lack strategic focus and train for all the wrong reasons. They miss the tree for the forest and end up training for training’s sake. For instance, they either don’t train employees in the right skills or send the wrong people for training.

For training to have real value, your organisation must have a clear strategy and execution plan in place. The strategy should clearly articulate a few key core skills, competencies and activities that will make execution possible. Training should then focus on these skills and competencies.

Training programmes must be both interesting and useful. Interesting training enriches employees’ work, energises them and makes them more loyal. Useful training offers practical skills critical to the current development stage of your organisation, and helps employees perform their tasks better in the next few months – not the next three years. Otherwise, the training will soon be forgotten or may even get employees spinning in the wrong direction.

So, before engaging a trainer or signing up your people for a training course, do a TNA to understand the comprehensive needs across your organisation. This will help you make an informed decision on whether training is even needed to meet those needs. Is there a skill gap or do you want to proactively train to groom future leaders? Is productivity low and that’s what you’re trying to address through training? Or do you have a new technology to help raise productivity? TNA helps you figure out the reasons that you wish to cover through training.

Start by establishing your objectives. Set parameters such as training budget and your organisation’s present and future plans in relation to manpower skill requirements. Align training to your organisation’s strategies, vision and mission, corporate values, business plans and objectives. For example, if your organisation plans to ramp up market share by 30% through new products and intensified promotion of existing ones, your training must achieve that objective.

Also review current and past training programmes. Check current training activities for better coordination and to avoid duplication of efforts. Also review the effectiveness of past courses to learn about their strengths and weaknesses to make current initiatives more effective.

Analysing job functions is also critical. Don’t look for something unrelated to an employee’s job description. For example, you won’t consider a lack of accounting skills in a person who is tasked with keeping the office clean. Still, these are points that must be carefully analysed because what is written may not match the employee’s job function. Even tasks in the job description may need to be clarified.

For best results, training should be adapted to the type of training needs. One way is to examine the individual, occupation and organisational level capabilities and needs. For example, technical training may mean just enough concepts to enable management to communicate regarding the matter, but it may also mean teaching in sufficient detail to enable a worker to do his task.

To help you design and implement a good TNA, learn how to go about the process of gathering relevant information. The correct survey questions are critical, as well as the manner of obtaining the data. There are cases that need personal interviews but in others, filling up forms will do. Even for personal interviews, you need to decide if it would be one-on-one or with a group.

Next, analyse the data gathered and make conclusions. The process of interpreting the results of your surveys and interviews entails at least some knowledge of skills to assess if there’s indeed a need for improvement. In many cases, the conclusions must be presented in a simple but proper format for management to grasp the correctness and importance of your suggestions.

Training must be transformational. Employees who have undergone training must show a change in skills, behaviours, attitudes or processes. However, bosses must be realistic as transformation takes time to settle, bed down and continue. Any business that invests in training and thinks that it’s a one-stop fix-all approach is not getting the most out of its training investment. A good training session will result in activities and accountabilities for participants to act on.

Plan a series of sprints, not a marathon

A good practice is to plan for sprints, not a marathon. In other words, training programmes should be a series of sprints: train, implement, train, implement, until what is learned becomes a habit. During the implementation and repetition phase, give employees access to tools they can use to practise what they’ve learned.

While quantitative methods such as questionnaires are usually effective in evaluating a training course, they’re significantly less so when it comes to understanding how the work context can hinder the deployment of new knowledge. Qualitative techniques are better suited to evaluate this aspect as they highlight the place and role of training in changes to be implemented, and indicate how to improve both training and the organisation so that the expected changes can occur. By questioning participants several months after each course, you can identify which aspects of the training were particularly useful to them.

Adapting the lyrics of the evergreen song, Love Me For A Reason, don’t train for fun but train for a reason, and let the reason be strategic and well-thought through. Whether it’s to fill a skill gap, boost productivity, develop process efficiencies or groom future leaders, the reason or reasons must justify organisational resources; otherwise, you’re merely training for training’s sake.

Winslow Wong is a corporate trainer and communications consultant. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 244.