Today’s learning and development (L&D) professionals are increasingly called upon to demonstrate the value of the training they provide. That makes sense. Training is, after all, an expensive undertaking both in terms of the potential cost of trainers and training materials and the time that employees spend engaged in training activities. Time is money. Unless that investment can be demonstrably shown to have some tangible impact, leaders are likely to balk at the expenditures.
Simply put, what matters most in corporate training is that it makes a difference. Once the training has been completed, is the employee’s job performance improved in some meaningful way? In training lingo, this is referred to as “transfer of learning” or “transfer of knowledge.” It’s the third step in Kirkpatrick’s training evaluation model.
Data Supports the Efficacy of Pre- and Post-training Activities
Sayeed Islam is an assistant professor at Farmingdale State College and a human capital consultant for Talent Metrics, specializing in selection, compensation, training and organizational development. There’s plenty of data and evidence to support the efficacy of post-training activities for boosting transfer of learning, says Islam. “Goldstein and Ford in their seminal book on training and development talked about follow-up activities that are tied to instructional objectives as being quite effective,” Islam says. “Later textbooks like Blanchard and Thacker have also cited these results.” In addition, he says, a meta-analysis by Arthur, Bennett Jr, Edens and Bell indicated that “in order for change to occur on the job you needed a favorable post-training environment.” Incorporating relevant activities after training has been completed, says Islam, is one way to continue employee skill improvement.
Beyond the academic support for these practices, Islam says he has personally incorporated pre- and post-training activities into his own training efforts, including pre-training videos on presentation skills and post-training improv sessions to boost public speaking skills and executive presence. “I’ve taken similar steps with equity and diversity training and provided employees with reminders of the importance of equity through pre- and post-training activities related to high-quality teamwork and equal treatment,” he says.
To maximize the transfer of learning there are three key areas where L&D pros should focus:
- Tying training to performance expectations
- Personalizing the learning
- Engaging supervisors and managers in the process
Tie Training to Performance Expectations
Phillip Wilson is the founder of Approachable Leadership and president of Labor Relations Institute. Wilson leads a team of 12 employees and dozens of consultants who deliver leadership training. He is, he says, “regularly challenged by clients to show a return on investment and prove learning outcomes.”
It’s critical, he says, for learning professionals to think like business owners. “What business outcome are you and the business hoping to improve? This is a much different question than what learning outcome you are hoping to achieve.” Too often, he says, learning outcomes are not directly transferred to observable business results. In the training he does, he says, the focus is on two specific business outcomes: improved employee retention and increased organizational citizenship behavior. “We measure these two factors before training and then after training,” says Wilson. “Not all clients do this rigorously,” he notes, but, “One client saw an over 50 percent reduction in turnover at a facility after about a year of emphasizing this behavior with leaders.”
What Wilson focuses on is the fourth level of Kirkpatrick’s training evaluation model—results—and the most challenging for organizations to attain. It’s clear, though, that this level of alignment with business goals can help to substantiate the value of training initiatives.
Make it Personal
Any training effort, of course, must also resonate with trainees or employees. They must be engaged with the material in order to produce the on-the-job results desired. The commonly used “one size fits all” approaches to training simply don’t go far enough toward addressing individual employees’ needs.
Pre-assessments can help here. For instance, suppose marketing employees are being trained on using Google Analytics or a similar tool to evaluate website performance. Assuming all employees are operating at the same level of knowledge will result in training that is too basic for some, too advanced for others, and unlikely to yield direct, on-the-job benefits. A pre-assessment based on the type of tasks employees will be performing and outcomes desired can help to ensure that training is targeted to individual learner needs.
Engage Supervisors and Managers
Supervisors and managers should be directly involved in any training initiative because they have much to gain from a successful outcome. They should be involved, up front, to help identify individual learning needs and participate in any pre-assessment activities. They can play an important role after the training as well.
Using the analytics training example above, one obvious role for supervisors would be to assign employees the task of doing an evaluation and then assess whether their skills have improved. Managers can also provide feedback in terms of how effectively training has been transferred back to the actual job being performed. Did the training make a difference in some meaningful and measurable way?
Not all training initiatives will be so directly tied to quantifiable on-the-job performance. In these cases, though, there are other ways of engaging managers in the process of ensuring learning transfer back to the job—and, ultimately, related business benefits.
Marlene Caroselli, Ed.D., is an author, keynoter, and speaker with 25 years of experience working with clients including Lockheed Martin, Allied Signal, Department of the Interior, Navy SEALS, and others. Caroselli says that she has used a variety of activities to ensure that learning is effectively transferred back to the job setting, including engaging managers in the process. For instance, she says: “I divide the class into groups about a half-hour before the end of the program and ask each to prepare a summary of what they learned. I then send the summaries—along with participant names—to the managers who approved the employee’s attendance. The cover letter encourages managers to help attendees apply the new knowledge.”
Employees can be engaged in the process as well, she says, using a simple, inexpensive exercise. “Distribute postcards at the end of class. Participants write what they hope to have attained in the next month as a result of the training program. They address the envelopes to themselves, at their work site. A month later, I mail the cards.”
Does it take more time and effort to incorporate pre- and post-learning activities into training initiatives, and personalize these experiences for individual employees? Yes. But it’s time that is well spent. At the end of the day, L&D professionals must be able to prove the value of the training efforts they provide to employees in meaningful ways.